Forget the skill of boxing’s legends. Internet celebrities are the ones putting on gloves now, and they’re attracting big crowds. Could this new interest put the sport back on its feet?
Muhammad Ali, Sugar Ray Robinson, Mike Tyson, Floyd Mayweather Jr… world-renowned athletes like these have been the faces of boxing for decades. But lately, names better known for social media shenanigans than any fighting prowess – like brothers Jake and Logan Paul, KSI and Austin McBroom – have upped their popularity by getting in the ring.
It’s moving big money: in only three fights, Jake Paul reportedly made over US$40m. This caught the attention of major boxing associations. Four of the biggest – the WBC, WBA, IBF and WBO – have a combined annual revenue of just over US$7.3m, so they could certainly use a cash injection from some influencers throwing punches. No wonder these entities started giving the trend some legitimacy by handing titles to celebrity fighters.
Of course, it doesn’t compare to the sums paid to top professional boxers. Mayweather, for one, earned over US$500m from just two fights: US$275m for facing UFC superstar Conor McGregor in 2017 and US$250m for fighting Manny Pacquiao in 2015. Such bouts are extremely profitable, even after those payouts. With 4.4m pay-per-view spectators and 16,000 tickets sold, Mayweather vs Pacquiao supposedly grossed over US$500m. It also generated over US$100m for the Las Vegas economy, showing it’s not just the fighters and promoters that make millions.
For comparison, the 10th Misfits Boxing event held last October, featuring KSI vs Tommy Fury, reportedly gathered 1.3m pay-per-view spectators. At £19.90 per subscription, it raked in over £25m. Still a way to go, but there’s enough money to get streaming services interested. Netflix ($NFLX) has already considered showing a Jake Paul boxing fight, seeing the success of his previous events on YouTube.
Amazon’s ($AMZN) Prime Video is focusing on the professional side of the sport, signing a partnership agreement with Premier Boxing Champions after Paramount ($PARA) decided to shut down its Showtime Sports brand. UFC ($TKO) founder and CEO Dana White isn’t jumping on the influencer bandwagon either, having publicly expressed his disbelief that 1.3m people paid to watch KSI vs Fury.
But it’s not that White’s a purist. After all, he’s behind a new combat sport named Power Slap. Two opponents stand still and take turns hitting each other’s face open-handed, until one is knocked out or they reach the fifth turn (at which point referees choose the winner). Criticised for unsporting rules, as competitors aren’t allowed to block or dodge blows, Power Slap seems to also be taking a beating on viewership, failing to get more than 300,000 spectators per event. Yet its creator remains bullish on the sport.
Even if Power Slap grows, it can’t capitalise on one of boxing’s biggest revenue sources: the equipment. That industry has an estimated market value of US$1.6b and is expected to reach US$2b by 2028. Boxing gear giant Everlast is owned by Fraser’s Group, with the sport’s equipment likely playing a huge part in the firm’s profits (it doesn’t disclose specifics on each of its brands). Boxing is also relevant in Adidas’ ($ADDYY) product mix.
Growth isn’t something boxing has seen in a while. Interest has been dwindling since 2004, putting boxers and promoters in a tight spot. This new wave of web celebrity fights might lack clean uppercuts and powerful hooks, but the entertainment value and youthful audience they bring could be just what the sport needs to get off the ropes.