Back on Nov. 28, a fight card headlined by 54-year-old Mike Tyson and 51-year-old Roy Jones Jr. became one of the top 10 bestselling boxing PPV events in history (social media influencer Jake Paul and three-time NBA dunk champion Nate Robinson fought on the undercard; the Triller-presented event also included music performances by YG, Ne-Yo, Wiz Khalifa and French Montana).
The success of that event has seemingly spawned a greater celebrity-boxing ecosystem. Over the last three weeks, Triller and Snoop Dogg (who was a commentator and performer at the video platform’s Nov. 28 event) announced plans to start a new boxing league, while Floyd Mayweather agreed to take on internet celebrity Logan Paul (Jake Paul’s brother) in an exhibition bout on celebrity video platform Fanmio, and rumors of a Tyson-Evander Holyfield rematch have begun to circulate. Professional fighters Gervonta Davis (boxing), Henry Cejudo (MMA) and Ben Askren (MMA) have all called out Jake Paul to get in the ring with them. And pop star Aaron Carter signed with a celebrity-boxing promoter.
While some have suggested the sideshow has overtaken the main attraction, DAZN’s Joe Markowski, executive vice president of Global Platform & Revenue Innovation at the streaming service, insisted the rise of celebrity boxing is actually the byproduct of the greater problem with the main attraction—consumer demand is not being fulfilled. “The more consumer disgruntlement or consumer apathy [a sport has], the more it is going to need [non-traditional events] to generate interest,” he said. “[These events] wouldn’t be happening if there was an 18 fights-per-year schedule of high-quality fights that satisfied consumer demand.”
Our Take: The internal politicking and lack of centralization within boxing that prevents stars from being developed and marquee fights from being organized with any semblance of regularity helps to explain why celebrity boxing has risen in popularity among fans. But for the distribution platforms, promoters and fighters, the appeal is in the prospect of merging the traditional boxing audience with a younger, completely different demographic to create a larger PPV buy figure—and the corresponding revenues. BAVAFA Companies CEO Nakisa Bidarian, who served as an executive producer of Triller’s Tyson vs. Jones event, said recent history has shown “there is a real business case to be made” for live entertainment at the intersection of combat sports and pop culture. DAZN was among the first distributors to provide proof of concept with its 2019 carriage of KSI vs. Logan Paul II, the ballyhooed rematch between two top YouTubers.
Money aside, there is brand awareness and notoriety to be gained by staging celebrity boxing matches. “If you do a Google search for Conor McGregor, you get about 50 million hits. If you do a search for Floyd Mayweather, about the same,” said Bidarian, who also is an adviser to Jake Paul. “You do a search on one of the Paul brothers and [you get] between 150 million and 180 million results. That’s an awareness level and a [customer] funnel that can’t be ignored no matter what part of the ecosystem you fall in.”
Boxing—like many other sports—is seeking ways to engage new and younger fans, so tying social media influencers into fight cards sounds like a logical enough solution. The problem is “it’s apples and oranges. You’re not going to grow your audience [with celebrity fights],” said DiBella Entertainment CEO Lou DiBella. “This isn’t boxing. It’s fighting between celebrities, internet influencers and old legends. It’s sports entertainment. If you think anyone is going to watch Bud Crawford or Errol Spence because Jake Paul is fighting Mayweather, you are wrong. It’s not happening.”
Markowski added the most effective way to grow boxing fandom is to put on quality fights: “You’d like to see the sport’s traditionalists take this celebrity trend as a challenge—and respond with an unforgettable slate of matchups in ’21.”
As long as fans continue to tune in, celebrity-headlined cards will occur. But purists don’t have to worry about these “spectacles” becoming too frequent an occurrence. “[The top promoters] don’t want to alienate their core audience,” Markowski said. There also aren’t enough social media influencers that both want to fight professionally and can sell enough PPVs to make it a regularity. In fact, Bidarian called it “a very short list,” although he added, “There is a long list of verified celebrities that can fight each other and fans would pay to see.”
For the record, DiBella doesn’t understand why the purists are so upset about these exhibitions taking place. “Who cares if people want to watch? It’s their perception of entertainment value,” he said. “Maybe boxing should take a good look at [its core product] and try to figure out why the [fights] being put out aren’t resonating sufficiently, and why there are openings for this kind of content.”
While Bidarian could not confirm how much Logan Paul will earn to step into the ring with Mayweather, he said social media influencers are commanding paychecks “in the millions of dollars to participate in these events” between the guaranteed purse and any backend points received. Which brings up the obvious question: How is there enough money for an exhibition between Mayweather—who has a net worth north of $500 million—and Paul to get them in the ring together, but not to stage boxing’s biggest fights? “It goes back to the contractual relationships that exist between fighters and promoters,” explained Bidarian, who was formerly Fertitta Capital CEO and UFC CFO. In other words, because Mayweather and Paul are free of promoters (and by proxy the internal politicking associated with negotiations between them and the promoter’s distributors), the fights people want to see can come together.