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The “reality” of modern boxing marketing

12
Apr

Whether you love or hate “reality TV,” we all must admit, nearly two decades after The Real World began and almost 10 years after Survivor redefined water-cooler television, that it is not just a passing fad. The top three shows in the Nielsen ratings last week were Tuesday’s American Idol, Wednesday’s American Idol, and Dancing With The Stars. Reality TV is a very real part of our entertainment culture, like it or not.

And with the premiere this past weekend of the fifth installment of HBO’s 24/7 series, we were reminded that it has become a very real part of the modern boxing culture as well.

There is no way to specifically quantify how many of the 2.4-million pay-per-view buys generated by De La Hoya-Mayweather 24/7, the first in the series, were the direct result of the four-episode reality show that brought the fighters’ lives and training camps into our living rooms. But the fact that the fight shattered the previous non-heavyweight PPV record by a full million buys, and did so with one fighter (Floyd Mayweather) with no previous history of selling power and no mainstream name value until he signed to fight De La Hoya, gives you a sense of how powerful 24/7 was. It’s not unreasonable to suggest that upward of half-a-million homes that otherwise would have passed on the fight were swayed to order it by 24/7.

Subsequent installments in the 24/7 franchise haven’t had quite the same impact on pay-per-view sales, but certainly Mayweather-Ricky Hatton and De La Hoya-Manny Pacquiao reaped some degree of financial benefit. As for Joe Calzaghe vs. Roy Jones, all that we learned was that when you have a mediocre matchup in a horrible economy with relatively uninteresting personalities, 24/7 doesn’t make much of a difference.

Quite possibly, the show’s impact will never be the same as it was for De La Hoya-Mayweather because the originality of the experience can’t be duplicated after it’s already been done once. Still, even if the impact is diminished, there undeniably remains a positive impact.

“It’s revolutionized the industry in relation to fights of that stature,” observed Brad Jacobs, the senior vice president of promotional company Star Boxing and the former director of boxing programming at the USA network, longtime home of Tuesday Night Fights. “The 24/7 shows have been so insightful and exciting that once you watch one or two episodes of it, it’s hard not to want to see the fight.”

Officially, HBO and HBO Pay-Per-View will deny that 24/7 is a marketing vehicle, insisting that it’s purely meant to be the “insightful and exciting” programming to which Jacobs referred. (HBO PPV executives and 24/7 producers were contacted for comment, but declined to speak about the show, in part because of busy schedules preparing the first episode of Pacquiao-Hatton 24/7 for air.) But to deny the show’s marketing function is somewhat absurd, given that Saturday’s episode of 24/7 ended with the voiceover, “And don’t miss the live fight on HBO Pay-Per-View, Saturday, May 2.”

“Is it entertainment or marketing? I would say it’s an entertaining marketing vehicle,” said Jay Larkin, the former head of boxing at Showtime. “I don’t think it’s stand-alone entertainment. It’s obviously, clearly and unabashedly created to promote HBO Pay-Per-View. You don’t see them doing a 24/7 for a Showtime show.

“They’ve recognized the old clich├® in marketing boxing: A good fighter is a fighter that I’ve heard of. They’re making sure that their viewers have heard of these fighters, they’re giving them something personal to relate to them, with the primary intent of selling pay-per-view buys. And I give them a lot of credit for it. They’ve done it well, as they always do. But, to me, it’s a commercial. 24/7 is wonderful, I find it entertaining. But it’s like watching an entertaining Budweiser commercial during the Super Bowl.”

Boxing’s battle to be part of the mainstream, and the relationship between pay-per-view and that battle, is somewhat ironic. Asking fans to pay for fightsÔÇöinitially major ones but eventually some minor ones tooÔÇöhas been a major factor in marginalizing the sport. Now 24/7 is being used to try to lure the mainstream viewers back in ÔǪ so that they can be asked to pay to watch a fight.

On the complete opposite side of the consumer-cost spectrum is The Contender, a reality-TV show that brought boxing back to free television with its Season One run on NBC in early-2005.

If 24/7 toes the line between what you’d categorize as “reality TV” and “documentary,” The Contender was pure reality TV created by the king of the genre, Mark Burnett. As a result, it turned off boxing purists. But they weren’t really the target audience. The idea was to reach the same people who loved Survivor or The Bachelor or American Idol and make them care about 16 middleweight fighters.

The show faced an uphill battle from the start because (a) Fox’s The Next Great Champ was rushed to air first and was a critical and commercial disaster, giving the notion of a boxing reality show a bad name, and (b) NBC monkeyed with The Contender’s time slot, always a mistake when trying to ease an audience into a new show.

The Contender lasted just one season on NBC before being relegated to a smaller audience for two seasons on ESPN and one season (so far) on Versus.

“The networks were not satisfied with the numbers it was delivering and therefore the show died on NBC,” Jacobs recalled, “but from a boxing perspective, the numbers it was reaching were terrific. People who don’t normally have an interest in boxing were able to see it in a packaged environment and get to a point where they have interest and back a fighter and be invested emotionally in those guys.”

The Contender didn’t produce superstars, but it has produced stars, guys like Sergio Mora, Peter Manfredo, Alfonso Gomez, Stevie Forbes, and Cornelius Bundrage, all of whom have received opportunities and paydays exceeding their pure in-ring abilities.

You could say the show has been a failure in comparison to the lofty expectations attached to it when it debuted, but it’s been at least a minor success for the marketing of the sport.

“I saw how effective it can be when we did the Calzaghe-Manfredo fight,” said Larkin, who served as an American adviser to Calzaghe’s promoter, Frank Warren’s Sports Network, at the time. “HBO was very reluctant to buy that fight because of Manfredo, but we promised them an event. We didn’t promise them Hagler-Hearns, we promised them an event. And when we got to the U.K., we were astounded at how popular Peter Manfredo was. People were swarming him for autographs, he was getting mobbed in the street, the show sold very well, and that was entirely due to The Contender’s exposure in the U.K. So to that end, it was effective.

“Is the show good for boxing? Well, it’s not bad for boxing. If they catch lightning in a bottle and they get somebody who’s really dynamic and rises to the top, as Mora kind of did, it’s good for boxing. The problem that boxing has, as we all know very well, is there is no farm team. There is no minor league. Fighters have to come from somewhere, so if they’re coming from The Contender, I applaud that.”

Jacobs feels the same way, as far as applauding The Contender for what it has attempted to do, if not for its execution.

“Truthfully, the sport needs some updating to attract a newer group of fans. And if reality TV does it, I’m all for it. You’ve got to do what you can to update the content, the programming, how it’s delivered, to keep people interested, because although boxing is a great sport and it has a great core following, that core following is getting a little bit older. We as boxing executives need to create and find ways to endear the people who love the sport and capture the imagination of new people.

“There are limits to what you can do. You can’t make boxers like wrestling stars, where they’re larger than life. They either are, or they’re not, and trying to force it and create it isn’t an option. But we’ve got to be able to make the fights, the fighters, the events, everything related to it, more accessible and more realistic to the general public.”

To that end, HBO’s Ring Life is a fine new initiative. The show offers shorts that are available online or On Demand, focusing on the personalities of some of boxing’s non-superstars, such as Paul Williams, Chris Arreola, James Kirkland, and even faded warriors like Omar Sheika.

Again, the line blurs with Ring Life between what can be considered reality TV and what’s just a traditional documentary. But regardless of how you categorize it, it’s an effort to capture a fighter’s story and bring it into people’s homes.

That’s what 24/7 is, and that’s what The Contender is. Question the motives and authenticity of both if you want, but don’t try to deny that we live in a reality-TV world and that boxing’s power brokers would be foolish not to try to make our sport a part of it.

RASKIN’S RANTS

┬À Up for debate: Was Jeff Lacy overrated all along or ruined by the fists of Joe Calzaghe? Not up for debate: If the best you can do against Otis Griffin is squeak out a majority decision, you are not a world-class fighter anymore.

┬À If DeMarcus Corley wants to continue dressing like characters from Arnold Schwarzenegger movies, I’m requesting the three-breasted woman from Total Recall for his next fight.

┬À HBO is trying something fairly radical, cutting down the prefight pomp by having Michael Buffer bypass introductions of the referee, the judges, the timekeeper, and the various sanctioning bodies representatives and commissioners. I must say, I love it. A small change like that can go a long way toward making the sport more appealing to the ADD generation ÔǪ not to mention to the East Coasters with small kids who appreciate the difference between going to bed at 12:05 and going to bed at 12:10.

┬À The documentary Thrilla In Manila is irritatingly one-sided. But it’s nevertheless must-see TV, if for no other reason than to hear a batty, old Ferdie Pacheco utter the words, “It’s not easy to juggle two girls at one time.”

┬À With regard to the Miguel Cotto-Evangelista Cotto feud, as I’ve always said, if you can’t throw a cement brick at your nephew, who can you throw a cement brick at?

Eric Raskin can be reached at [email protected]