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DAZN’s Joe Markowski wants to see boxing “get out of its own way” more often and allow the best fights to be made

DAZN EVP Joe Markowski goes in-depth on the company’s strategy with boxing, what they’ve learned in four years, PPV coming to the platform, and the frustrations of the sport.

DAZN’s Joe Markowski talks Taylor-Serrano, MMA, and more
Scott Christ is the managing editor of Bad Left Hook and has been covering boxing for SB Nation since 2006.

DAZN have been in the boxing business mainly since late 2018, when the company hit the US market and quickly scooped up some major properties when HBO left the scene, and EVP Joe Markowski has had a lot to learn over that time.

Markowski spoke with Ariel Helwani on The MMA Hour about DAZN’s strategies, the hard lessons learned, boxing’s habit of getting in its own way too often, a conversation with ESPN about this weekend’s dueling cards, PPV coming to the platform, and much more.

It’s definitely “inside baseball” at times, and if you’re interested in that stuff, there’s a lot to take from the interview, which you can watch in full in the video up top. Also, don’t miss Matchroom promoter Eddie Hearn’s appearance on the same show.

On DAZN reputation in the U.S.

“A lot of people, I think, in the States, for obvious reasons, sort of think DAZN is just a boxing business or a fight sports business, but we’re a lot more than that in other parts of the world. In different countries, we have a much broader set of content. In Canada, we’re a leading NFL broadcaster, a bunch of European soccer content, as well. Fight sports is central to our business, but it’s not everything we do.”

On how the pandemic affected DAZN in 2020 in particular

“(I was) pretty worried, because the state of the industry was pretty treacherous there for a while. Many industries around the world obviously got hit pretty significantly by COVID, sport I think more than most. We had to navigate it. We actually, I think, ended up using it to our benefit. We reset a few things, we reworked relationships with people like Eddie, who we had tough but important conversations with.

“For our boxing business, I think we got on our feet pretty quickly. We only had two or three months, I think, without any content. But we were at a point where it could have gone one of two ways for a couple of months, and I’m proud we sort of stepped through it. It’s testament to everyone involved — media, journalists, fighters in particular, commissions, promoters. It was a group effort to get back online, really, and get back to producing content and delivering for fight fans. That’s what we’ve done, I think, pretty consistently at a high level since we got back in the summer of 2020.”

On the state of DAZN and OTT streaming platforms

“Streaming, beyond sport more broadly, has obviously become the preferred consumption method for most people in developed media countries like the US or Canada or the UK, apart from the older generation is still on linear television. If you look at Wall Street stuff, valuations, that’s been flying for a while.

“There’s now a challenge to that, saying, ‘OK, how can you develop your relationships with consumers, how can you find ways to engage them in different ways?’ So we announced a betting partnership last week. That will be a major part of our business going forward. ... It will be in many our major markets, Germany, the UK, Spain, Italy. The US is different, obviously it’s state-by-state regulations, so we need to tread state-by-state. It’s pretty easy to roll out in different parts of the world where betting is more evolved.”

“Even Netflix are looking at advertising. I think those businesses, ourselves being one, are looking for new ways to develop relationships with consumers, and find ways to make our products more ‘sticky,’ how you want to spend more time on them with different services. I think that’s the next phase of OTT, how can we make the experience of watching on a streaming platform significantly better and different to watching on a traditional linear television (service)?

“The criticism I would make of our business and the industry of sports streaming more broadly, is what have we actually done fundamentally to change the consumer experience? 10 years ago, if you were watching any sports broadcast on ESPN or Sky Sports in the UK or BT Sport, you would have done so just leaning back and watching a linear channel. That’s what most people still do now (with our services), there’s not a significant change in terms of user experience.

“What we have the opportunity to do now with new technologies and the reduction of latency is to make that experience significantly better than watching on a linear platform. Betting, communication with friends, alternative broadcast streams ... There’s a number of things we can layer into the broadcast that traditional linear television cannot do. And I think that is where you significantly enhance the quality of the user experience, and that’s where the user, the consumer, the fan, ultimately gets more value out of a product like ours versus a traditional linear television network.”

On what happened with Bellator and DAZN

“We had a great relationship. I think Scott Coker’s one of the best promoters we’ve worked with in any fight sport. We have a great relationship with him personally. Without wanting to go into any, like, specific contractual stuff, it was a consequence of COVID that that came to an end. We are disappointed it did, but it ultimately was agreed between us and Bellator that we’d step away from that.

“We’re playing a very niche game now in the US. Like, I mentioned Japan and Germany and Italy, we’re playing multi-sport broadcast games, we’re buying rights to various sports. Our strategy with good reason in the US is to focus on one significant, carved out niche, which is boxing. That’s what we’ve chosen to do. I think Bellator are in great hands, they’ve obviously got a parent company that could give them a great distribution on broadcast and give them space to grow that maybe we were not going to give them. I think for both sides it was the right deal, we agreed that and sort of shook hands and wished each other well.”

“We’re very happy in the US for the next sort of, medium-term, call it three or four years to focus on boxing. You’re right to say our boxing business is strong. I mean, Eddie wants to do a show a week. It’s almost reining him in, because he’s rabid on that stuff. The UK, our Spanish and Italian deals with Matchroom, our relationship with Golden Boy which gives a lot of sort of West Coast, Mexican-American and Hispanic-focused shows, we’re doing great things. I think we’re serving boxing fans in particular with a very strong, regular output of content, which makes us pretty confident we’re the best value play in fight sports for those fans.”

On whether MMA may return to DAZN

“The door is open, but I think the crossover between MMA fans and boxing fans sometimes gets slightly exaggerated. I think they’re separate audiences. There is, of course, a crossover ... but it gets exaggerated.

“We’ve still got work to do to reach out and make ourselves known to boxing fans in the US, we’re only four or five years old and it takes a long time in this country, it’s a big old country with a lot going on. So we’re going to focus on continuing to do that. The door’s always open for new content opportunities, but we’re gonna put the majority of our resources toward boxing in the medium term because we think there’s a good business opportunity there.”

On why DAZN gives focus to boxing that isn’t on the network when others don’t

“We’re serving consumers, fans, who don’t care about politics about broadcasters and promoters. They’re boxing fans and they want to know what’s going on in boxing. It would be strange for us not talk about it. If our goal is to serve boxing fans with as much content to keep them interested in our social channels, our platform, our subscription prices — why would you not give them what they want to eat? And they want to eat boxing and drink boxing.”

“I get (that’s not the norm). And I’m surprised the opportunity for us to fill that market gap exists. It is strange. It’s definitely not something done elsewhere. For us, it’s great, because we fill a void. Occasionally people ask why we’re promoting this fight, well, we’re doing it indirect reasons. For business reasons, ultimately it’s to maintain a relationship with the consumer, but really we want to be a destination for the sport being covered in any way it can be. We want, under the DAZN banner, a boxing fan to feel like he or she is being served with everything boxing.

“We’re going to continue to invest in it. We’ll be at fight weeks we’re not broadcasting live. We’ll carry content internationally that we don’t have in the US, if we can and it makes business sense. Our journalists, we have a DAZN news outlet, they’ll be covering everything. It’s a full service offer for boxing fans. It’s a similar thing for soccer fans in Germany or Japan, we’re covering soccer for those guys. It’s a business-wide strategy.

“I’m surprised that people are surprised by it in the US on boxing, because it makes common sense to me. I don’t know why others don’t do it.”

On whether he regrets The Great Wait (Canelo vs Kovalev)

“That was a stressful couple of hours for me personally. ... I think we’re pretty honest about, you know — we’ve learned. Boxing’s a very different proposition to other content. We’re sports broadcast media people. Five years ago, we didn’t have many major opportunities in boxing. ... We’ve made some mistakes. I think we’ve owned them. We’ve held our hands up.

“I think fight sports as a whole gets in its own way a little bit. Should a Canelo fight clash with a major UFC card? No, because there is a crossover. Not as big as perhaps it’s made out to be, and maybe that’s one of the things we learned in that process; we pissed off more people than we pleased, I think, in doing that, and we apologized for it pretty immediately. I just chalk it up to one of the things we learned. I don’t think we’d do it again. We try and avoid clashing.”

On DAZN speaking with ESPN about Taylor-Serrano and Valdez-Stevenson

I saw Eddie trying to take credit for it, but it was a DAZN conversation with ESPN to avoid the clash. And shout-out to our friends at ESPN. When we became aware there was going to be a clash — obviously, they’re West Coast, they’re in Vegas, we’re on the East Coast. We had a very simple conversation that resulted in us agreeing.”

“These are people who speak the same language as us, run a very similar business to us. ... It wasn’t even a conversation about who’s got more leverage, it was more, like, this is sensible to serve both our audiences. And we’re doing our bit — not that we’re as big as ESPN in driving audiences — but we’re doing a good job to push our audience to watch that if they want to after our broadcast, and our social channels will promote it, as will our journalistic output.

“It’s another thing that makes sense to me. I just want clearly, wherever we can, to help boxing get out of its own way, and I think that’s a small way we can do it, avoid clashes wherever possible.”

On how involved DAZN are with matchmaking

“We’re pretty involved. Obviously (the promoters are) the experts in matchmaking, and they lead the relationships with fighters, but there’s an ongoing dialogue about who we’d want to see fight. There’s a game of chess being played about making sure we’re lining people up for the fights that matter. There’s a sequencing — what makes sense from a DAZN perspective, where are we gonna draw value from?

“We’re increasingly sophisticated at understanding how boxing drives our business and what not to do and what to do, and we’re educating our promotional partners about that as we go.

“A lot of that is listening to fans. You’ll see us regularly on social media — as will Eddie, to be fair — proactively asking for feedback. We do that particularly with the UK; I’m sure you’ve noticed UK fight fans are particularly vocal, and they’re not shy of an opinion on Twitter. We’ll go out looking at that because we’ll literally screenshot those Tweets or those Instagram comments, and the ones that have 150 likes, or get Retweeted, or are consistent, we will go and drive a conversation about that. We use that data to educate Eddie, to educate Golden Boy, about what we want to see and what we need to do better and different. It’s a proactive listening exercise for us that we use pretty regularly and pretty consistently to help educate us and our partners.”

On whether he’s surprised at how big Taylor-Serrano is

“No, I’m not, because I think it represents more than a boxing fight. I think it’s reflective of broader and growing interest in women’s sport more generally. ... When you give women’s sport the platform this fight has got ... when you give it that PR and marketing polish, people are just made aware of it in a way they weren’t before, and that brings eyeballs. And when you bring eyeballs, people realize, ‘Bloody hell, these girls can fight,’ and they want to come back and watch more of it.

“It’s literally an awareness problem and a visibility problem. So if we can use our growing platform and that of our partners to elevate and put light on women’s boxing, we’re confident that business-wise, it makes sense.

“I think we get accused a lot of, ‘Oh, it’s the right thing to do, you’re trying to look woke or whatever’ — it isn’t that. ... We’re in the business of growing our business, and this will help grow our business. It will get a different group of fans, it will bring a difference audience to a Canelo event, but will also attract the same audience that will watch Canelo next week. ... They’ll come and watch. It’s not just the parents of young girls looking for role models. It’s a way, a bit like celebrity or crossover fighting, to bring more eyeballs. But it also gives these women a platform to show that they are high-quality athletes in their own right who deserve the same treatment as their male counterparts.”

On whether DAZN may bring Jake Paul back as a fighter

“We love being in the Jake Paul business. ... We’ve had some success in crossover boxing, celebrity fighting if you want to call it that. ... They’re beyond (celebrity), he’s a legitimate athlete in his own right.”

“I think we are interested in getting back in that business. Obviously you have to make deals that make sense. But we’re looking at any type of boxing that will drive audience and keep our users engaged, so why not?”

On doing pay-per-view after claiming it was dead

“It’s pretty simple. We believe we are the best value offer in boxing, and we’ve clearly given significant cost reduction for major, pay-per-view level events in the US and the UK more recently. We want to continue being the best value play in boxing. Canelo’s star and his associated commercial, deal-making sort of ability, has risen in the last four years. So the costs of doing business with Canelo have gone up. The costs of doing business in boxing with the top, top guys have gone up. There’s more competition, there’s more broadcasters playing in that space.

“For us to make a deal work that allows us to continue including Canelo in that value offer, we needed to charge a higher price point. We are, of course, always wanting to give as consumer-friendly an offer as possible, it’s better for our business to do that. We think we are doing that despite the addition of pay-per-view.”

“We knew it was coming. One of the things I think we learned is we were a bit too brash with the original ‘pay-per-view is dead’ campaign. Looking back, do I regret that? Probably. But ultimately, I’m confident looking at how we’re engaged with fans, the number of fans that are sticking around. The general sentiment around (Canelo-Bivol) is, ‘What a great fight.’ There’s a few vocal opponents to it, but I am confident that they’ll come in their numbers and stick around because of that value offer that we bring.”

“I think we’ll do more, but we’ll use it sparingly. I think we’ll pick and choose when we use it. What I ask is patience. Give us a year, and compare a year from May 7th through to 2023, and see, comparing us to other broadcasters, who delivered the best value in boxing. I assure our consumers, I promise them it will be DAZN.

“We’re not going to gouge (fans) on pay-per-view every two or three weeks. Won’t name names, but some broadcasters do that because they don’t want to take financial risks. We’re willing to take financial risk where it makes sense. We’re sophisticated understanding what fights cut through. We’ll use our finds to do that, and we’ll serve as many fights as possible, the vast, vast majority will be subscription fights. The occasional, when we need to fight will be on pay-per-view, and we’ll always try to manage the cost of those as best we can.”

On Usyk vs Joshua 2 winding up on DAZN in the UK

“We’re not quite at that stage of the conversation yet. ... When it’s all sorted they’ll come back to the broadcast market, to us and Sky Sports and the rest of the UK market. We’ll be involved in that conversation, I like to think we’ll be competitive. We’re obviously going to do our homework and plan for that. But AJ, a bit like Canelo, is a transcendent star. He’s a guy who my parents would want to watch, and they’re not traditional fight fans. He has that appeal, Canelo has that, there are very few who do. Katie Taylor has it in Ireland. We want to be in business with those kinds of people, obviously.”

On doing business in boxing

“Boxing as a whole is a soap opera. There are very few sports where the deal-making is as relevant to the fan base as it is in boxing. Boxing fans are really smart as to how the business of their sport works. ... They understand it. They understand what moves the needle for broadcasters, they care about how many pay-per-view buys we do next weekend versus what Showtime have done previously. They love that and it’s part of the drama of all of it, which makes it very unique.

“I think MMA is the only other sport that has that. Soccer fans care about the ownership of their clubs and NFL fans are similar, but that they’re not that involved in the details of trade contact points and all that stuff. ... No one’s having a go at the owner of an NFL team because ESPN or FOX did a bad number. It’s part of boxing, it’s unique, and one of the things we’ve learned in the past four or five years.”

On what he might want to take from MMA or UFC in boxing

“I think MMA does a better job, particularly the UFC, in matchmaking. We have to cut through a lot of politics to even get into conversations. We’re part of the problem, we’re also trying to be part of the solution. Fighters and promoters having exclusive network deals means that extricating fighters from those to go and fight other guys they should be fighting, that fans want to see them fight, is very, very difficult.

“UFC, for obvious reasons, does not have that problem, and I think that helps the fans see the fight they want to see. Dana and his team can say, ‘You’re fighting him,’ or, ‘She’s fighting her’ — get on with it. It gets scheduled and it allows them to plan their schedule better, it allows them to invest more confidently, all of that makes the sport better.

“I would love to see boxing get out of its own way, cut through its own BS at times, frankly, and make that happen. We are trying to be very open door. The situation with Devin Haney is a good example. We’ve had a long-term relationship with him, we could have locked him into longer-term relationships, we chose not to do that, in part because we think there’s a flexibility and a freedom to allowing him to fight off-platform.

“I think boxing is very hard — the perfect solution doesn’t exist, there’s not a silver bullet to do it. But to have the foliage of fight-making and matchmaking cleared, so the best fights can happen more quickly would be fantastic. There’s not many pound-for-pound, top fights that would get made as easily as Taylor-Serrano. Men’s boxing is harder than women’s boxing, and I think that is the fundamental problem in boxing today.”

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