Q&A: Roc Nation Sports’ David Itskowitch
In mid-2014, Roc Nation Sports announced they would be entering the boxing business. The entertainment company owned by rap mogul Jay Z already represented sports stars such as NBA basketball superstar Kevin Durant and MLB all-star pitcher CC Sabathia of the New York Yankees.
They approached David Itskowitch, formerly of DiBella Entertainment and, more recently, Golden Boy Promotions. Itskowitch, a New Yorker, was interested in the venture and, after speaking to officials, became the company’s COO last August. Since then, Roc Nation has grown exponentially as a company.
Initially they tried to make a splash, bidding a whopping $1,904,840 at the purse bid for the Peter Quillin-Matt Korobov bout for the WBO middleweight title. Though the fight eventually didn’t come to pass, Itskowitch explains the rational behind the aggressive move, while not expecting to make similar overtures in the immediate future.
“We wanted to have it; we knew we were overbidding,” Itskowitch told RingTV.com. “It’s not like we thought the fight was actually worth that; we just wanted to have the fight.”
On the day of Roc Nation’s maiden show, in New York at Madison Square Garden, the company announced its first significant signing in WBA super middleweight champion Andre Ward. Since then, RING middleweight champion Miguel Cotto has been added to Roc Nation’s client list.
This Friday night, Roc Nation will promote its second show at the Foxwoods Resort Casino in Mashantucket, Conn. Headlining the event will be unbeaten Russian Murat Gassiev against Texan Felix Cora Jr. at cruiserweight.
Itskowitch took time out from his hectic schedule to speak to RingTV.com on behalf of Roc Nation, about what the company is striving to achieve, future plans and upcoming shows.
Anson Wainwright – The first Roc Nation promotion took place Jan. 9 in New York. Did it seem to go very well?
David Itskowitch – We were very pleased with it, from the turn-out at [Madison Square] Garden to the way the production turned out on television to fights to the reviews we got from fans and from media. We were very pleased.
AW – Friday marks the second promotion. Would you tell us about that?
DI – We’re excited to present our second event on April 17, live on FOX Sports 1 from Foxwoods Resort Casino in Connecticut. We have a great main event featuring a rising star in Murat Gassiev and a tough veteran in Felix Cora fighting for Gassiev’s IBF Intercontinental cruiserweight championship. Our co-feature, which pits world-rated NABO welterweight champion Ray Robinson of Philadelphia against Washington DC’s Sherzodbek Alimjanov is also an intriguing match-up. The undercard will feature some of our young fighters including Dusty Hernandez-Harrison, Wellington Romero, Sonny Fredrickson and Tyler McCreary. We’ll also have a musical act between the co-feature and main event and a DJ spinning throughout the night.
AW – What TV deals do you have in place?
DI – We’re currently in the middle of a three-fight deal with FOX Sports 1 and are in discussions regarding other deals.
AW – Jay Z obviously carries a lot of respect in the music industry. He has several big-named sports stars under his Roc Nation unbrella. What is his focus on boxing? What is he looking to achieve?
DI – I think one of the reasons Jay decided he wanted to get into boxing was he saw boxing as an underserviced sport and he saw fighters as underserviced athletes. He thinks that there’s a lot of room for improvement in terms the exposure that fighters get, the exposure that events are getting. For instance, he doesn’t see any reason why fighters can’t be on the Wheaties box, can’t have a mainstream endorsement deal with, like, a car company like Ford. The same way athletes in other sports can have those types of things.
That was one thing that pushed him to want to be in it. Obviously, he’s also a big fan of it. He’s always been a big boxing fan but the fact he saw fighters and boxing as an underserved sport. We see no reason why it should only be two fighters that are widely recognized by the majority of the general public. When you say to someone off the street, “Name two fighters,” they’re probably going to say “Floyd Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao.” There’s no reason they shouldn’t be able to name 10 fighters and have 10 fighters being mainstream stars. He feels we have the infrastructure at our company to help increase the profile of fighters and boxing events. That’s a big goal of ours.
AW – How hands-on is Jay Z?
DI – He’s involved but he’s got a lot of things going on in his business world. He made sure he was at the first fight and he gives input in what he would like to see and what he doesn’t want to see and looks at things and approves things.
AW – You previously worked with Lou DiBella before moving to Golden Boy Promotions. What excited you about the opportunity to work with Roc Nation?
DI – Yeah, when I left Golden Boy, I kind of said to myself, if i’m going to get back into boxing, it’s going to have to be something pretty unique and when I got the call about Roc Nation Sports, it was pretty unique. I don’t view Roc Nation as a standard run-of-the-mill promoter; it’s a special company. It was unique in that, yeah, it was a boxing start-up, so to speak, but it’s a start-up within a company that is already well-established, so it was a great opportunity for me at a very unique company.
AW – How did it come about?
DI – Roc Nation, our boxing division, has a consultant that has been working for them for awhile who I have known for a very long time and recommended me for the position. I wasn’t told a lot about it at first. I was told it was boxing and it was in New York and so that obviously interested me and then when I heard what it was, obviously I was very interested.
AW – Your most significant move to date would appear to be the flagship signing of Andre Ward. Tell us about that.
DI – It’s huge. I think everybody was kind of waiting for who the first fighter that we announced we were signing and Andre’s one of the best fighters on the planet. Obviously he hasn’t been as active as he’d like to be, to be able to show everyone that he is one of the best fighters on the planet and he’s going to be able to do that now. In fact, we have the opportunity to do that with him and also try to elevate his ability outside the ring outside with endorsement deals and branding him. That’s very exciting for us too. In boxing, a lot of times, boxers are looked at as problems. Corporate America sees them as problem children. They’re always in trouble; they’re not squeaky-clean, Andre’s squeaky-clean. He’s a role model. He’s not only a great fighter in the ring; he’s got a great reputation outside the ring.
AW – What is the current situation with Andre Ward?
DI – Andre will be returning to the ring on June 20 at Oracle Arena in Oakland. He’s extremely excited to be fighting again, especially in front of his hometown fans in the Bay Area. We’ll be making additional announcements regarding the fight in the coming weeks.
AW – Last month, you made another significant move signing Miguel Cotto to a promotional pact?
DI – We entered into an alliance with Miguel and his promotional company, which is multi-faceted but does include the co-promotion of Miguel’s fights with Miguel Cotto Promotions. We’re obviously thrilled to be working with an athlete of Miguel’s caliber and his team, Gaby Pe├▒agaricano, Bryan Perez and Hector Soto, who are great partners.
AW – You initially bought out Gary Shaw’s promotional company. That union didn’t last very long. What happened?
DI – It just wasn’t the right fit for Roc Nation Sports or for Gary and the split was mutual and amicable. We consider Gary a friend and look forward to working with him in the future.
AW – Since last summer, you’ve been aggressively looking to sign fighters. You made moves to sign Keith Thurman, Deontay Wilder, Guillermo Rigondeaux and Adrien Broner.
DI – I really don’t have anything to say on that.
AW – You made a very strong purse bid of nearly $2 million for Peter Quillin vs. Matt Korobov and many believed you would have been similarly aggressive had Deontay Wilder-Bermane Stiverne gone to purse bids. What was the reasoning behind that?
DI – We wanted it. We knew we were overbidding. We just wanted to make sure we got it. We had conversations on what we thought would be the winning bid amount and what I thought was going to be the winning bid amount was exactly what it would have been had we decided to not really put the insurance on it and make sure we got it.
One of the things we were looking at was when we do things, we’re coming out the gate doing more like a marketing ploy than anything else. Like a launch party and that’s basically what we were looking at with that fight: Our launch into boxing and what a way to go in! We knew exactly what we were doing, what the reaction would be, but, in our mind, it was throwing that big event. That’s where our head was.
AW – Might you look to be as bold in future purse bids?
DI – I’m never going to say never that we wouldn’t get involved in a purse bid. Clearly it was more important to us in August than it is now but I won’t say we wouldn’t do it if the right opportunity arose. Remember, with us, nothing’s off the table. We look at all options when it comes to anything in the company whether it’s Roc Nation, Roc Nation Sport, boxing. I think that’s important for people to understand.
AW – Are Roc Nation open to working with the other promoters and also different TV networks?
DI – Absolutely, we’ll work with anyone. We have a deal with FOX Sports 1; we have a three fight deal. We did the first fight. It’s not an exclusive deal, so we’re again, same way we’re willing to work with any promoter, we’re willing to work with any network. Hopefully we will be working with all the television networks. Andre’s obviously a premium cable fighter; he’ll warrant premium cable dates when he does fight.
AW – What about Al Haymon fighters? Previously there was a beef involving Jay Z and Rihanna. Does that make working with them difficult for now?
DI – We would absolutely work with Al. Based on everything you’ve seen and heard, we’re willing to work with Al. We haven’t said were not willing to work with anybody.
AW – Is there anything you’d like to say in closing?
DI – We’re excited in the progress we’ve made in a short period of time. To start the vision in August and to have the first show and first major signing four months later, it’s good progress. We’re looking to make an immediate and dramatic impact on the sport. That still remains the case and I think we’re on the way to doing that.