- Todd DuBoef and Top Rank Boxing, the minds behind getting the Paquiao-Horn fight on ESPN, are trying to revolutionize the way viewers watch boxing.
For years, Todd DuBoef and his stepfather, Bob Arum, ran Top Rank Boxing under the traditional business model they helped create. They put their best fights on Pay-Per-View, scheduled their next-best bouts on HBO or Showtime and then they worried about cable television.
This system made Top Rank and other promoters boatloads of money. But it was also fundamentally flawed, because it limited their audience, restricting the top fights to those who were willing to shell out cash to watch them. They targeted boxing purists, as it were, and there seemed to be less of them each year.
In order to grow boxing in the United States, DuBoef sought to broaden a model that is unlike any other business plan in sports—and not in a good way. He couldn’t rely just on HBO, in this time of dwindling budgets, burgeoning entertainment options and shrinking millennial attention spans. He saw the sport grow in international markets (Mexico, the Philippines and Germany, among others) that showed the best events on regular TV. He asked himself: what is it that we’re missing?
A partner, it turns out. The problem, as he saw it, was how boxing had limited itself in the U.S. His own company, he admits, was complicit, a major factor in restricting. That needed to change. He needed a larger platform, continuous build-up and bigger audiences. A 360-perspective, he calls it. “We were just hoping to feed or move the needle within the universe we were in,” DuBoef says. “We said Pay-Per-View is the top of the pyramid. Right below is HBO and Showtime. You guys play below them. In reality, we were offering preseason football games. Of course it’s not selling!”
Which is where ESPN came in. This summer, the network agreed with Top Rank to showcase three bouts: Manny Pacquiao vs. Jeff Horn at welterweight in July, Vasyl Lomachenko vs. Miguel Marriaga at junior lightweight this Saturday and Terence Crawford vs. Julius Indongo at junior welterweight on Aug. 19.
The fact that ESPN is showing these bouts isn’t what’s important; the network has shown boxing for decades. What matters is the quality of boxers on the cards. Pacquiao is near or at the end of a transcendent, Hall of Fame career. Lomachenko and Crawford are the top two fighters under Top Rank’s banner and one could easily make an argument for either or both to be ranked in the top 10 pound-for-pound, if not the top five.
Unlike ESPN’s more typical agreement with Golden Boy Promotions, where young prospects are featured on cards, this deal features three fights that would otherwise have been shown on HBO. DuBoef is quick to emphasize that he doesn’t see the ESPN agreement as one that will replace the PPV model or kill boxing on the premium networks. In fact, he argues that the increased exposure will increase buys when, in the near future, Crawford and Lomachenko enter the Pay-Per-View universe. In the interim, top prospects like featherweight Shakur Stevenson and super bantamweight Michael Conlin can compete on the ESPN cards, with the goal of becoming more familiar to non-boxing addicts.
The Pacquiao-Horn fight, according to two sources with knowledge of negotiations, was more of a throw-in than the centerpiece of the ESPN deal. But the numbers that resulted far exceeded the greatest expectations of anyone involved.
Horn’s controversial unanimous-decision victory peaked at 4.4 million viewers, making it the highest-rated boxing event on ESPN since 1995 and the most-watched boxing event on cable since 2006. The average live audience (TV and streaming), according to Nielsen, averaged 3.1 million viewers. On ESPN alone, the fight averaged a 1.6 household rating and almost 3 million viewers.
It wasn’t just the bout, either. ESPN heavily promoted the event in the weeks before it took place, and the network conducted pre- and post-match programs on SportsCenter. Even the 1 a.m. post show drew an audience of 1.8 million.
More important, the fight did well in the coveted 18–34 demographic, with 875,000 viewers, DuBoef says. “I was told we had an old product,” he continues. “I didn’t believe it. The numbers bore that out.”
The ratings success of Pacquiao-Horn also seemed to confirm what many in boxing have long believed: that if promoters put better fights in front of casual sports fans, they’ll watch them. That was true in March as well. When Keith Thurman topped Danny Garcia in a welterweight unification bout, done by Al Haymon and Premier Boxing Champions, it was witnessed by a peak number of 5.1 million viewers on CBS. By comparison, guess how many cards averaged over 1 million viewers on the premium networks in 2016? Four.
If the ESPN agreement continues to produce for the network and Top Rank, perhaps it will eventually resemble the partnership between the UFC and FOX Sports. The UFC agreement inspired DuBoef as he looked for partners. He was particularly interested in the “shoulder programming,” or all the pre- and post-event coverage. Top Rank even conducted a poll in that regard. In just one-quarter of any one year, the UFC did “three to four” times the amount of shoulder programming boxing did in the last three years.
“We’re not getting the casual sports fan or resonating with the tweeners,” DuBoef said. “We need to take our product there. You have to have everything going. YouTube. Phones. I don’t think you can do it on an island.”
So far, in 2017, boxing has shown signs of resurgence, whether through the excellent Anthony Joshua-Wladimir Klitschko heavyweight fight in April (Anthony won by TKO) or the upcoming (and PPV) blockbuster between middleweight thunder-punchers Gennady “GGG” Golovkin and Saul “Canelo” Alvarez. “A good year to me is when general fans or people on the street are talking about the sport,” DuBoef says. “If that’s the case, then this is a great year. If we can ride that wave a little bit I think it will be good for all of us.”