Todd duBoef aims to keep the lights on
For much of 2017, the boxing scuttlebutt centered around just what direction Top Rank would be going, in terms of with whom they would align to televise their major cards. For years, it had been the main content provider for HBO but it was clear that this particular relationship had become…shall we say strained?
That was evident as Top Rank put its April 22 card featuring WBO featherweight titlist Oscar Valdez from the StubHub Center, in Carson, California, on pay-per-view.
For months, CEO Bob Arum had hinted at a new platform, which would be available to them, and there was much speculation on just what his company was up to.
It was formally revealed back in mid-June that, starting with the July 1 fight in Brisbane, Australia, between Manny Pacquiao and Jeff Horn, ESPN would be its new television partner. This week, they televise WBO junior lightweight titlist Vasyl Lomachenko’s bout against Miguel Marriaga from the Microsoft Theater at L.A. Live (10 p.m. ET) and then, on August 19, they will broadcast the junior welterweight championship unification showdown between Terence Crawford and Julius Indongo, from Lincoln, Nebraska.
The news came as a surprise to many observers. The bigger surprise was Top Rank was able to keep this under wraps as long as it did until the official announcement.
When asked how they were able keep this a secret, Todd duBoef, the president of Top Rank, who was the architect of this deal, explained to UCNLive.com, back in June, “A lot of it has been the behavior of people in the industry where they tend to get out there and like to brag about what they’re doing to create, like, this momentum and, in our situation, it wasn’t really about bragging. It was really about trying to come up with something that is a different strategy, different opportunity.”
And for duBoef, that meant busting out of the traditional paradigm in which boxing had been stuck over the past quarter century. “Basically,” he continued, “if you just stay status quo, it’s not necessarily good for you and we’ve been evaluating this for awhile. We want to get boxing back into the general sports fan’s home. This has been an initiative we’ve been obsessed about and I think this is step one of it.”
For years, boxing has relied on the large license fees of the premium cable networks (namely HBO and Showtime) which provided multi-million-dollar budgets and the opportunity to build pay-per-view attractions. But the reality is they played to a much smaller audience and, over time, had eroded the fan-base. DuBoef believed that it came time to bust out of this relatively small universe and back into a much larger one.
“I think, at some point, we were successful in a model – and all of us were successful in a model – that was kind of working for us, that had boxing on these different channels and everywhere you could get it and you could build up the awareness to the fighters and then you got the guy aware and, all of a sudden, when there’s enough awareness, you threw him on pay-per-view,” said duBoef, detailing the past business plan. “That was the template everyone was working with and obviously we had a great deal of success with that.”
But what was successful in 2007 isn’t necessarily optimal in 2017.
DuBoef added, “But I think, really, a lot of it is technology and people’s behavior, socially, primarily have changed everything. There’s a lot of headwind in content, right now. And I don’t believe that the existing platforms – and it’s been very difficult to get through that headwind – into the general sports fan is very difficult. I think that’s where we’re struggling today as a sport.”
In his view, HBO and Showtime are not where general sports fans and casual followers of boxing reside on a consistent basis. And after years of not being on the major over-the-air networks and ESPN, the sport had long ago stopped being a regular topic of discussion at the water cooler. DuBoef states, “We’re not in the lexicon of all the radio shows, the talk shows, everything in general. Yeah, we’ll occasionally get a big fight that will get in there but we need a big fight in the ears and eyes of the general sports fan. Over time, I think we slowly slipped away from that.”
For the past decade when a Pacquiao or Floyd Mayweather Jr. fought (each about twice a year), those events would get more expansive coverage but, for the most part, over the other 48 weeks of the year, boxing would become an afterthought to ESPN. But the industry faced a bit of uncertainty, as these two headed into the twilight’s of their Hall-of-Fame careers.
There had to be a way to re-open the avenues to the public for the sport of boxing. While Premier Boxing Champions thrust its product on various networks, through a series of time-buys, it was really nothing more than an effort to flood the market and eventually monopolize the sport. ESPN was one of the networks that was originally associated with the PBC but that relationship has since ended. Now, ESPN has separate output deals with Top Rank and Golden Boy Promotions.
Many are surprised the network would delve back into boxing but yet there it is.
“We were trying to clean up what was disruption and my biggest frustration was people telling me, ‘Hey, you know what? I like boxing but I don’t know these guys,’ or ‘Who are they?’ Because the truth is that all these fighters from Oscar Valdez to Gabe Flores to even Gennady Golovkin, ‘Triple G,’ people know who he is. They know the name but they don’t know enough about him,” stated duBoef, who uses Golovkin as an example of what he believes is a shifting marketplace with lowered standards.
“The biggest thing that resonated with me was people consider Golovkin a success in today’s world and I kept going back to the fact he just did 170,000 (pay-per-view buys) – that’s a failure to me,” said duBoef, of the March 18 show Golovkin headlined against Daniel Jacobs. “I mean, we were doing with Erik Morales significantly more with just a regional fight hitting the Hispanic crowd. So I felt like, ‘Hey, if success is Triple G, we’re in trouble here,’ and, as an industry, because those type of pay-per-view buys are not where the sport needs to be.
“And that just means we’re playing on a small field right now and we’re just trying to move that small field a little bit and we’re not really hitting the general market.”
And to him, this goes far beyond the fact that, while ESPN is in 90 million homes (compared to the 25 million or so that HBO is), ESPN is a sports network in the business of sports. HBO is in the subscriber business, meaning that, for the time being, they care much more about “Game of Thrones” than boxing or sports in general. And when HBO broadcasts a fight, it doesn’t come attached with all the shoulder programming that ESPN can provide throughout the week and beyond.
During the week of Horn-Pacquiao, this fight was the focus of segments on “SportsCenter,” “First Take” and, the night before the event, a countdown clock ran on ESPN2. The weigh-in was covered live and there was consistent attention on this promotion on their various platforms. The plan moving forward is all the Top Rank events will have this type of coverage and boxing is now much more of a priority to ESPN, which, for years shunned the “Sweet Science,” treating it like a niche sport.
But this shift was noticeable, months ago, as ESPN was in Las Vegas the whole week for the Saul Alvarez-Julio Cesar Chavez Jr. fight and it’s expected that the same treatment will be afforded Floyd Mayweather-Conor McGregor, in a few weeks, and the September 16 event with Alvarez versus Golovkin. Throughout this week, ESPN is showing past fights from the Top Rank archives and will provide other hits on Lomachenko-Marriaga, leading into the fight.
The Pacquiao-Horn fight played to strong ratings and, in the immediate aftermath, this controversial bout was given prime real estate on SportsCenter. (Being on ESPN also means being inside most hotel rooms and, more importantly, bars and pubs across the country – something HBO or Showtime isn’t.) The increased boxing presence on ESPN is noticeable even on non-fight weeks. DuBoef calls this “keeping the lights on.” In other words, like the NFL, which is still newsworthy in the off-season with the NFL Combine, the draft, free agency and training camp/pre-season, this is the type of consistent 24/7/365 coverage boxing had been missing for decades.
DuBoef calls is a “360-degree” approach to the sport – which has indeed been missing in the past.
Could a sport in America be considered “major” if it was not a priority of this ubiquitous four-letter monolith? DuBoef felt strongly that it never fully invested into the sport because it was never afforded the opportunity to attain the sports marquee events or most lucrative attractions on its airwaves. The hope is that, now partnered with Top Rank, it will with its next wave of boxers.
Years ago, this scribe had dinner with the late Jay Larkin, who, at the time, was running Showtime Sports. Larkin told me, “Stevie (he always called me that), HBO isn’t worried about us. It’s ESPN. If they ever decided to get serious about boxing and really get into it at the top level – they could put us both out of business.” In years past, while it aired boxing with such franchises as “Friday Night Fights” and the long-running series it did with Top Rank in the 1980s and ’90s, it was never truly invested into the sport as it was with the NFL, NBA and college football. The question is now how will it navigate and manage the fractured nature of the boxing industry? But make no doubt about it; ESPN is now in the boxing space like it has never been before.
For years, DuBoef had said he wasn’t “in the business of dates” believing it was a lazy and short-sighted business plan that left him, and everyone else, at the mercy of those cutting the checks at the networks.
Now, he’s in business with ESPN.
Here’s Episode One of “Camp Life” (produced by Top Rank) on Lomachenko:
Throughout the week on ESPN2, it will be showing some past fights. On Monday night, it aired, among other bouts, Aaron Pryor-Alexis Arguello I from the Orange Bowl in Miami…Jorge Linares-Luke Campbell tickets for September 23, at the Forum in Inglewood, California, go on sale today at 10 p.m. PT and are priced at $25, $50, $75 and $125…Yeah, it’s World Series or bust for the Dodgers now…OK, so the paint is drying on the Hall-of-Fame Game field, right?…Fall camp has started for the Miami Hurricanes – destination, ACC Coastal Division title…So far “Insecure” has had a much better season than “Ballers”…When does “Ray Donovan” return on Showtime?…I can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and I tweet (a lot) at twitter.com/steveucnlive. I also share photos of stuff at instagram.com/steveucnlive and can also be found at tsu.co/steveucnlive.