LAS VEGAS -- Sometime next week Floyd Mayweather will cash a check for something in the neighborhood of $32 million. Later, when all the pay-per-view buys are counted, he will deposit another check -- and another, and another -- pushing his total purse for Saturday night's fight against Miguel Cotto (9 p.m. ET, HBO PPV) to well over $35 million. Just another day at the office for Mayweather, the most financially successful athlete in sports.
Mayweather's business model is unusual, but simple: He bets on himself. Mayweather assumes all the up-front risk, guaranteeing the money required for the promotion, which after publicity, advertising, legal fees and insurance reaches around $10 million. In return, Mayweather controls every revenue stream, including foreign sales, site revenue and closed-circuit revenue. The money, minus what goes to the distributors and network, goes to him. Whereas other fighters take guarantees up front, Mayweather cleans up on the back end.
"Floyd is a one-man conglomerate," said Leonard Ellerbe, CEO of Mayweather Promotions and the fighter's longtime advisor. "He will not get enough credit for this model that is in place. To me, where we are in this generation, this is about being smart and having a long-term goal. And Floyd's long-term goal has always been to be the best that he can be and make a ton of money in the sport. His legacy will speak for itself."
There is a genius in Mayweather. When Top Rank discussed promoting Mayweather like they did Oscar De La Hoya, pushing him in some of the Hispanic markets De La Hoya had been successful in, Mayweather refused and ultimately split with the company. Instead, he focused on the urban markets, where, says promoter and longtime HBO executive Lou DiBella, "he has become the most popular fighter since Mike Tyson." Ten years ago, Latino markets exploded, becoming one of boxing's biggest demographics. Today, urban markets are just as vibrant.
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"We had to take control of the urban market," Ellerbe said. "It's a billion-dollar market out there. Every little young guy out there isn't saying they want to be like Canelo Alvarez. They are saying they want to be like Floyd Mayweather. In the hip-hop culture, the things that these artists are rapping about, Floyd is living that life. And he is the only one who is doing it."
The results for Mayweather have been staggering: Mayweather's eight pay-per-view fights have generated more than 8.1 million buys and in excess of $446 million in revenue. The money keeps coming in years later. Recently, Ellerbe said, Mayweather received a check for revenue generated in his 2007 fight against Ricky Hatton.
"Over the last five years, Floyd has single-handedly revitalized the performance of the major urban markets across America," said HBO senior vice president Mark Taffet. "The performance of the major urban markets was a significant factor in the record-setting 2.44 million pay-per-view buys generated for Floyd's 2007 victory over Oscar De La Hoya."
Mayweather's strategy is not without risk. To further appeal to urban markets, Mayweather made, Ellerbe said, "a conscious decision" to create the trash-talking, villainous character we see today. He has submitted his undefeated record as proof of his invincibility. As a result, Mayweather has more pay-per-view buyers than any star in history watching to see him lose.
"Floyd has understood something very effectively," DiBella said. "He doesn't care if you like him or hate him, just as long as you watch him."
Said Ellerbe, "The fans are divided. [Floyd] would accept that. It's entertainment."
But what happens if Mayweather does lose? Would he be able to sustain his fan base? Or would a huge chunk of pay-per-view buyers turn away? Stars like De La Hoya and Tyson were able to sustain their appeal even after defeats because of an entertaining style (Tyson) and broad-based appeal (De La Hoya), along with a willingness to take on the top challenges. Mayweather may not.
"Mayweather's popularity would drop off precipitously, regardless of who he loses to," said former HBO Sports president Seth Abraham. "It doesn't mean [promoter] Golden Boy would not try to go pay-per-view on his next fight or his fight thereafter. But it wouldn't shock me if he fought on regular HBO or Showtime. The single biggest reason people buy a Mayweather fight is because he is the pound-for-pound champ or co-champ."
The possibility of a loss, Abraham says, is a major reason why there may never be a defining showdown with Manny Pacquiao. Mayweather's unblemished record is not only a huge part of his appeal, but for him it is his legacy. Pacquiao represents a sizeable risk to both.
"No one has talked more about his place in boxing history than Floyd Mayweather," Abraham said. "Other great fighters lived in the now. Floyd lives in the future. He really cares where history ranks him and he thinks his place in history will be assured with a perfect record. That zero is everything to him."
For Mayweather, the risks are not real. "We don't even think about losing," Ellerbe said. "It's not part of our makeup." But if Mayweather does lose to Cotto, his popularity will be tested. He has built the most lucrative empire of any athlete in boxing history, a feat that may never be duplicated. How long it can continue depends on how long he keeps winning.