Boxing executives love to crow about the pay-per-view revenues a big fight delivers, but if you look at the numbers, it's plain to see that pay-per-view is killing boxing's cultural relevance. For example, the 2007 mega-fight between Oscar De La Hoya and Floyd Mayweather pulled in $136.6 million from pay-per-view. Yes, that's great business for the fighters, promoters, and HBO, which televised the bout. But consider: about 2.44 million households purchased that fight, a pay-per-view record. Know how many households watched WWE wrestling on the USA network a few weeks ago? Over 3.8 million. So, a fake fighting program aired on a ho-hum weekday evening crushed the audience for boxing's biggest, most outrageously hyped pay-per-view event EVER.
Wait, the boxing bigwigs tell you. Look at the total viewership figures. On average, they say, four to five people get together to watch a big pay-per-view fight in someone's living room, lowering the per-person cost for a $50 bout. Fine. Assuming that for every household that purchased De La Hoya-Mayweather, five people saw it, that's 12 million viewers not bad. Yet, even by this optimistic measure, boxing's biggest event this decade still couldn't outdraw the audience for last week's New England Patriots-Buffalo Bills regular season game on ESPN, which reached 14 million viewers.
So in an attempt to reverse the slide, the sport is trying to go back to the future. Saturday night's highly anticipated match-up between the undefeated Mayweather (39-0, 25 KO's), who is returning to boxing after a 21-month hiatus, and Juan Manuel Marquez (50-4-1, 37 KOs), the top fighter in Mexico, will be shown in 170 movie theaters around the country. It will be the first big fight shown in theaters since 1980, when Sugar Ray Leonard beat Roberto Duran. The move harks back to the sport's glory days, when thousands of fans filled theaters to watch Joe Louis, Muhammad Ali and Smokin' Joe Frazier. "The reality is, there are very, very few places left to gather and share an experience," says Dan Diamond, vice president of NCM Fathom, the company delivering the fight to the theater chains. "We want to provide an option for people looking to get out and have a good time, and it's an opportunity to raise the sport to the next level in the eyes of consumers. If it's on the big screen, you know it's an event."
Boxing needs to broaden its audience, and the sport is betting that theater fights will help. "As promoters, we have largely ignored the Saturday night movie crowd," says Richard Schaefer, CEO of Golden Boy Promotions, which is staging the Mayweather-Marquez bout in Las Vegas. "You know, the guy with his wife or girlfriend. Instead of going to watch a film, why not take in the fight?" Plus, some theaters are in urban areas where boxing fans are less likely to have home access to pay-per-view, and more appreciative of the cost to watch the fight: between $12-15 in the theater versus $50 on pay-per-view.
Will this theater strategy pay off? "I give them credit, because boxing needs to try something," says Marc Ganis, president of SportsCorp LLC, a consulting firm. Overall movie theater attendance has actually risen during the recession, so the timing seems right. But Ganis worries that sports consumption has become too personalized in the living room, on the computer, on the cell phone for fans to abruptly change their habits. "The days when a mass audience went to movie theaters to watch a live event have come and gone," he says.
Plus, does Schaefer really believe that men can convince their dates to watch a bloody boxing match? Especially when that romantic comedy is playing two theaters down the hall? "Well, you've accommodated her many times to see the chick flick," says Schaefer. "Maybe it's time that she accommodated you." Good luck with that. If the future of boxing hinges on male control of date night, consider the sport KO'd