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German boxing scene strong — for now

17
Jun

GELSENKIRCHEN, Germany – Sixty thousand people are expected to pack the Veltins-Arena soccer stadium Saturday for the Wladimir Klitschko-Ruslan Chagaev fight, the biggest crowd for an indoor boxing match in German history. An estimated two fight cards per month are televised on free German TV and get good ratings. And many competent fighters call this area home.

Yes, boxing in Germany is in a healthy state – for now. The experts aren’t certain it will remain that way.

The majority of the best boxers in Germany come from Eastern Europe, including the Ukrainian Klitschko brothers, Wladimir and Vitali, popular celebrities who drive the sport here but are somewhat limited by their ancestry. The powers that be in German boxing yearn to build a homegrown star.

And the Klitschkos are closing in on the end of their careers. When they retire, they’ll leave a vacuum behind that could radically alter boxing in this country.

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The boxing business in Germany evolved from stagnant to thriving shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, when East German-trained Henry Maske and Axel Schulz turned pro and ultimately emerged as title contenders.

Maske, a handsome light heavyweight with considerable talent, and Schulz, a heavyweight contender, captured the imagination of German sports fans to an extent perhaps not seen since the days of Max Schmeling. The Schulz-Francois Botha title fight in 1995 had 18 million TV viewers in a country of about 80 million, still a record for the private RTL television network and about twice the numbers the Klitschkos generate.

From there, when it was clear that boxing had a sizeable audience, the sport took hold. Now, each of the three big promoters in Germany have a contract with a specific network – the Klitschkos’ K2 Promotions with RTL, Universum Box-Promotion with publicly financed ZDF and Sauerland Event with ARD, also a public station – and turn a handsome profit.

For example, the Klitschkos earn more money fighting on RTL than they would if they were under contract with U.S.-based HBO, according to Tom Loeffler of K2 Promotions, the fighters’ company. Make no mistake: The college-educated Ukrainian giants are very popular among Germans, who appreciate their success and the way they carry themselves.

Titleholders like Arthur Abraham (from Armenia) and Felix Sturm (the German-born son of Bosnian immigrants) don’t enjoy the same success as the Klitschkos but also do well, drawing about half the television audience of the heavyweights.

Thus far, pay-per-view and even subscription television – like HBO and Showtime — has been rejected by Germans, who apparently refuse to pay for something that has always been free. Still, the free networks – both private and public – can broadcast boxing and generate income for everyone involved.

“Boxing does well, very well, at the moment,” said Ulrich Grubbe, the lead producer at RTL. “Only soccer and Formula 1 racing have the same ratings.”

However, there are challenges.

Like commercial networks in the U.S., RTL relies on advertising to finance its programming. Grubbe said it’s very difficult to recoup the vast sums of money it spends on Klitschko fights.

The publicly financed networks have sizeable budgets. For example, Universum reportedly receives about $28 million for 12 shows per year, or about $2.3 million per show. A promoter can stage a first-class show for that kind of money.

However, Grubbe said ZDF has informed Universum that it wants to renegotiate their contract, meaning it wants to pay the promotional less for the coming year. Obviously, that would shrink the profits of the promoters and fighters.

Grubbe suggested that one possible reason for any downturn might be that Germans are losing interest in Eastern European fighters, to whom they find it difficult to relate. For example, Chagev, from Ukbekistan, lives in Hamburg but speaks little German.

“I think the (rating) numbers are going down a little bit. I think Germans are waiting for a world-class German fighter to come along,” Grubbe said.

Germany is producing very few native-born fighters because of a weak amateur program, which provides its developing fighters with little support. Only three Germans competed in the 2008 Olympics and only one won a match. That’s a far cry from the days of Maske and Schulz, products of the strong East German amateur program.

And, because of the lure of big money, German-born fighters tend to turn pro before they’re fully developed and usually fail as a result.

“We just don’t have a good foundation for boxers right now,” said Gianni Costa, who covers boxing for the Rheinische Post newspaper.

The Klitschkos certainly aren’t hurting for money. However, if they were German, they might be idols. Grubbe believes they could surpass the 18 million viewers Schulz-Botha attracted against the right opponent.

Still, the 10 million viewers the Klitschkos attract is an acceptable number to RTL. What happens when they leave the scene, though?

The other networks will continue to televise boxing even without major stars and do decent numbers, at least in the short term. On RTL, though, the sport might not survive.

“I can imagine that boxing would end on RTL,” Grubbe said. “Without the Klitschkos, we’d have no heroes. And without heroes, you can’t continue with boxing.

Costa agrees.

“When the Klitschkos leave, I think we’ll have a real problem,” he said. “Ratings are very important with RTL. Without the Klistchkos, I can see only second- or third-class shows. I could see it being something like the 1980s in Germany, when boxing was more or less a freak show.”

Michael Rosenthal can be reached at [email protected]