Is Ward part of a reemergence of regional attractions?
Andre Ward waves an American flag to a crowd of 8,000 fans at Oracle Arena in Oakland, Calif., before his title-winning fight with Mikkel Kessler last November. Ward, one of a small group of regional attractions in the U.S., is expected to draw around 10,000 for his fight with Allan Green next Saturday. Photo / Alexis Cuarezma-Top Rank
There was a time, many decades ago, when regional attractions — fighters who were strong draws in their hometowns or adopted cities — were the life blood of boxing in the United States.
Professional boxers who could sell tickets in their local areas were sought after and cultivated by managers and promoters for the simple fact that everyone involved in putting on the shows were paid from the money generated by the live gates.
In recent decades, casinos and cable television have become more of a driving force in the sport. The result of this trend is fighters who put butts in the seats have become less integral to boxing's new revenue model — major U.S. promoters relying on site and licensing fees instead of ticket sales.
However, regional attractions are not a thing of the past. There aren’t many fighters who can bring in thousands of hometown fans on a regular basis but they still exist in the sport.
Andre Ward, who defends his super middleweight belt against Allan Green on June 19 in Oakland, is an example.
Ward, who grew up in Oakland and nearby Hayward, Calif., has drawn very well at Oracle Arena in Oakland, where his Showtime-televised bout with Green will take place.
Other fighters who are known for drawing well in a particular region of the U.S. include Miguel Cotto, the Puerto Rican star who has become the undisputed king of New York City; Tomasz Adamek, the hero of the Polish community in and around Newark, N.J.; Cory Spinks, the former welterweight champ who packs them in his native St. Louis; and Juan Diaz, the former unified lightweight beltholder who attracts large crowds in his native Houston. All four world-class veterans have drawn 10,000 or more to U.S. arenas in recent years.
Regional fighters who often attract between 2,000 and 5,000 fans to their fights include Peter Manfredo Jr. in Providence, R.I., and other parts of the New England area; Manfredo’s fellow alums of The Contender reality series, Jesse Brinkley and Joey Gilbert, in Reno, Nev.; Antonio Escalante in El Paso, Texas; Fernando Guerrero in Salisbury, Md.; and Holly Holm in Albuquerque, N.M.
Are these ticket sellers part of a refreshingly healthy trend in the sport? Kathy Duva, the CEO of Main Events, which promotes Adamek, believes regional attractions are fast becoming a necessity for some promotional companies to stay in business.
“The support from television is not what it used to be,” Duva told RingTV.com. “There are fewer and fewer TV dates available, so companies that are reliant on them are not going to bring in enough money or be able to keep their fighters busy and developing.”
The “TV dates” to which Duva refers are the number of boxing shows that HBO and Showtime buy each year. The two major premium cable networks in the U.S. have annual budgets that enable them to spend millions of dollars for the right to broadcast live boxing events.
Basic cable sports networks such as ESPN, Fox Sports Net, Telefutura and Telemundo are committed to the sport but aren’t able to spend as much money as the subscription networks.
“Basic cable is good exposure but the money available isn’t going to support an entire card,” Duva said. “Unless a promoter has strong revenue from ticket sales, basic cable license fees are not enough to make a profit or break even.”
Thomas Lane of Let’s Get It On Promotions, which promotes Brinkley, concurs with Duva. Brinkley’s last fight, a unanimous decision over Curtis Stevens in January, was televised on ESPN2.
“It was great for Jesse to be seen live in so many homes,” Lane said, “but the licensing fee barely covered the main event of the show.”
Luckily for Lane, Brinkley sells tickets in Reno, where the promotional company founded by his father, legendary referee Mills Lane, is based. Since mid-2007, when Brinkley signed with Let’s Get It On, seven of the super middleweight’s last eight fights have been in Reno.
Brinkley’s showdown with Gilbert at the Reno Events Center, which was co-promoted by TKO Promotions, sold 8,000 tickets and produced a $450,000 gate.
The revenue generated from Brinkley’s ticket sales have enabled his promotional company to keep him busy and climbing up the super middleweight rankings without the support of television. The Stevens fight earned Brinkley a future shot at 168-pound titleholder Lucian Bute.
Brinkley is not the only regional attraction to thrive without the backing of major TV license fees. Adamek has evolved from cruiserweight champion to a Top-10 heavyweight contender in THE RING ratings and in three of the four major sanctioning bodies even though he has fought only once on HBO and once on Showtime in his last 10 bouts.
“Tomasz has the ambition to become the heavyweight champion of the world and we’ve been able to support that goal because we keep him busy and in developmental fights,” Duva said. “We couldn’t do that if we needed HBO or Showtime in order to promote one of his fights. For a fighter to go up in weight and take on quality fighters, his trainers need time to develop him in terms of his body, his skills and his strategy, and that’s done with stay-busy fights that the networks aren’t buying anymore.
“Tomasz fought Jason Estrada in February. It wasn’t televised, but it was an important fight, one where Tomasz got used to fighting 12 rounds at a heavier weight against a bigger opponent. The Estrada fight prepared him for Chris Arreola. Tomasz’s dream is to fight one of the Klitschko brothers for the heavyweight title, so his next fight will be against Michael Grant, who is 6-foot-7. We went to HBO and Showtime to see if they were interested in televising the fight and they said they liked Tomasz but weren’t interested in Grant as an opponent, and that’s OK. Because of the fans Tomasz brings in, we can do the fight anyway. We’re going to do what’s best for our fighter’s career, not what’s best for the network.”
Duva expects Adamek-Grant, which is scheduled for Aug. 21 at the Prudential Center in Newark, to draw more than 10,000 fans.
“We always expect more fans than Tomasz’s last fight,” Duva said. “That’s the pattern of his fights at the Prudential Center.”
Adamek’s first fight at the state-of-the-art venue, his RING title-winning effort against Steve Cunningham in December of 2008, drew around 3,000 fans. His second fight at the Prudential Center, his title defense against Johnathan Banks last February, attracted around 5,000. His third fight at the arena, a four-round stoppage of Bobby Gunn, brought in close to 7,000. The Estrada fight drew 10,000.
“We get 2,000 more fans with each of his fights at the Prudential Center,” Duva said. “It’s like everyone brought a friend to the next show. And the fans are great. They’ve come out in the worst weather. There was a sleet storm during the Cunningham fight. It was freezing cold during the Banks fight. It rained the day of the Gunn fight. And there was a snow storm during the Estrada fight.
“But they come out anyway for Tomasz. They show up early and they party all night.”
Duva believes the Arreola fight, an HBO-televised bout that took place in Southern California, would have drawn at least 15,000 and produced a million-dollar gate had it been held at the Prudential Center.
She’s probably right. So why is Adamek so popular in Newark?
Similar to the other top ticket sellers in the sport, like Manny Pacquiao, who might be the only active fighter who can draw anywhere in the U.S., Adamek has a strong ethnic following.
“He came to us as the darling of the Polish community and fortunately for Main Events we had Polish media and marketing sources in New Jersey from our days with Andrew Golota that we were able to go back to,” Duva said. “We were able to drum up a lot of interest and get a decent group for his first fight with us, which we’ve built on ever since.”
Adding to Adamek’s appeal is a fan-friendly style and a willingness to face the best fighters in his division, traits he shares with fellow regional attractions, Cotto and Diaz.
Cotto and Diaz are among the handful of promoters and fighters who receive the bulk of their income from the premium cable network’s license fees. However, they also draw many loyal fans when they fight at home.
Cotto, a staple of HBO’s boxing programming over the past six years, drew 20,272 to his fight with Yuri Foreman at Yankee Stadium on June 5. His showdown with Zab Judah in June of 2007 packed Madison Square Garden with 20,658 fans.
Diaz, who was developed on Showtime and fought most of his major bouts on HBO, attracted 14,000 for his fights with Michael Katsidis and Juan Manuel Marquez at the Toyota Center in Houston.
Ward, whose last four bouts were televised on Showtime, averaged 9,000 tickets sold for his two fights at Oracle Arena — his unanimous decision over Edison Miranda last May and his title-winning effort against Mikkel Kessler last November.
Both Cotto, a native of Puerto Rico, and Diaz, who is of Mexican descent, benefit from strong ethnic followings.
However, sometimes a regional attraction is born because he is the only game in town.
“Jesse is one of the more popular figures in Reno, period,” Lane said. “He’s transcended boxing out here. He’s from Yerington, which is a tiny town of 1,500 people about 90 miles south of Reno. But when somebody makes a name for himself outside of northern Nevada as Jesse has, the folks of Reno, Carson City and all of the small towns of the area take him as their own.
“That’s what happened with Jesse, especially after he beat Gilbert. That fight wasn’t big at all outside of Reno but here it was an event that people talked about for weeks. The Reno Gazette-Journal did an article listing the Top 10 sports stories of the decade last year and Brinkley-Gilbert was on the list.”
In much the same way that Reno has adopted Brinkley, the fans of Oakland have accepted Ward, who was born in San Francisco, as one of their own.
Goossen expects more than 10,000 fans to show up for Ward’s title defense against Green.
“Andre’s presence has certainly risen in Oakland,” Goossen told RingTV.com, “and I’m happy about the fan turnouts at his two previous fights at Oracle Arena, but as the promoter of the fighter as talented as Andre, I want sellouts.”
Goossen believes that if Ward had a rival, as Brinkley had with Gilbert, he could have attracted more fans in Oakland.
“In this era of the sport a promoter is always faced with the problem of having to find a dance partner for his star,” Goossen said. “Kessler was a well-respected champion in boxing circles but he wasn’t someone who had grown up in front of the American public.
“Miranda was almost as unknown as Kessler and Green is in the same category. The days of better-known contenders in boxing’s key divisions are over.”
Still, one has to wonder how big the crowd would be next Saturday had Ward been developed in his hometown. The closest Ward had come to fighting in Oakland prior to last year were four appearances at the HP Pavilion in San Jose, Calif., which is about a 40-mile drive south of the Bay Area.
“I don’t think it would have made much of a difference,” Goossen said. “I believe that when you go out to hometown fans with an up-and-comer from their area they don’t want to spend their money to watch the kid fight guys he’s expected to get through easily. The fights Andre had in San Jose and other areas were his development fights. He was still learning his craft at the time. When the time came to fight a good fighter, a guy who was expected to give him a tough time, as Miranda was, that was the day he fought in front of his fans, his hometown people. It had to be a fight of significance, a moment of truth for the fans. It had to be a fight that let them know they have a future star.
“But creating or building a star is not something you do overnight. It takes time. It takes years. Manny Pacquiao did not become the draw he is now overnight. There were many years when he didn’t sell tickets.”
What Goossen says about Pacquiao is true. The Filipino icon is arguably the biggest draw in the U.S. but that wasn’t always the case. Pacquiao won a 122-pound title in his U.S. debut back in 2001. He defended it in San Francisco, Memphis, and L.A. over the next two years, but he did not attract a significant number of fans to the arenas where he fought.
It wasn’t until Pacquiao beat Mexican legend Marco Antonio Barrera in 2003 that he captured the loyalty of Filipino fans. It took rivalries with Erik Morales and Juan Manuel Marquez for him to evolve into the bona fide star he is today.
In Goossen’s words, Pacquiao needed “dance partners” before he could fight anyone and still draw eye-popping crowds, as he did in his last fight against Joshua Clottey in Dallas, Texas.
“Andre Ward will eventually fight people who don’t have a name and still be able to draw big crowds, but for now he needs a dance partner to get to the next level,” Goossen said.
Perhaps suitable rivals for Ward will emerge during the course of Showtime’s Super Six Boxing Classic, the round-robin 168-pound tournament of which the Ward-Green fight is part.
Until then, Ward is grateful for the attention he currently receives from fans in his hometown.
“The fan base is growing, the media attention is growing and this is what I signed up for,” Ward said after a media workout Wednesday in Oakland. “I’m embracing it, learning how to deal with it and just thankful to be on a platform and a stage like this.
“I want to just give a big thank you to the fans. I just appreciate the support I get and I want to be worthy of it. I want them to know that I see you; I’m speaking of the fans. I want to continue to do my part to put on great performances and also represent myself outside the ring in a respectable way.”