During their Sept. 11 event, featuring Evander Holyfield and Vitor Belfort, Triller Fight Club announced its next event, the card headlined by Teofimo Lopez and George Kambosos Jr., will take place on Oct. 4 at the Hulu Theatre at Madison Square Garden. Tickets to the show finally went on sale four days later (and less than three weeks from fight night), when a contract between the broadcaster and venue was ultimately signed.
It is more than reasonable to wonder why a business that would benefit from having a capacity crowd, from both an atmosphere and ROI perspective, would give itself so little runway to sell seats. Remember, Triller overspent on the rights to Lopez-Kambosos Jr., submitting a purse bid in excess of $6 million—$2.5 million higher than any other bidder. But TrillerNet (the parent company for Triller, Triller Fight Club, Verzuz, FITE and Amplify.ai) CEO Mahi de Silva explained his company “tends not to look at [or run the business] on a per event basis” and that their primary focus is on serving those watching in living rooms and on mobile devices around the world. “There are a lot, lot, lot more people who [consume the events] like that, than there are in-venue ticket sales,” he said.
Our Take: If the circumstances surrounding the upcoming lightweight title fight were a one-time occurrence, we probably would have ignored them (though, the size of the purse bid might have forced our hand). But Triller has made a habit of putting tickets to their events on sale late. The company’s Aug. 6, Sept. 11 and Sept. 14 events all had limited purchase windows.
Several industry insiders who requested anonymity because they maintain business relationships with the company believe Triller’s approach to ticketing is less strategy-driven and more a byproduct of the way the company operates. Sources say last-minute planning and a focus on generating buzz (such as Donald Trump’s role in its Sept. 11 PPV) are typical, the implication being that Triller is less concerned with generating profits than it is attracting the next round of investment capital. As one long-time boxing executive said, even if ticket sales were not a priority, a company with a focus on ROI would announce events earlier and give themselves more time to raise awareness amongst potential pay-per-view buyers.
But de Silva vehemently denied boxing was a loss leader for the company. “You will be able to see our income statement and our balance sheet fairly soon, and you [will] be able to compare how we stack up against folks that have been in this space a lot longer, that are also public companies. You’ll see a stark contrast,” he said. “We take our fiduciary responsibility to shareholders very seriously. This [business model] is not about going out and spending all the money we raised. We have a disciplined approach to how we invest in this market.”
While that may be the case (the company’s financials remain private), skeptics point to co-founder Ryan Kavanaugh’s past. His previous venture, Relativity Media, filed for bankruptcy. There is also one federal lawsuit pending against Triller alleging the company failed to pay the debt on a promissory note of $4.3 million as well as past-due balances.
Given all the various stakeholders involved, boxing is undeniably a different beast than other sports, and Triller is undoubtedly attempting to shake up the business. But it is still odd to see a promoter/venue release tickets less than three weeks before a fight. As one fight sports promoter said, “You need lead time for an event. You can’t schedule something [just] weeks before and expect to have success.” Six weeks is considered the minimum runway needed to maximize sales.
Yet de Silva insists his business model (which relies heavily on the company’s in-house digital marketing capabilities) does not require nearly as much time. “We just don’t need three months to promote an event,” he said. And in fact, the CEO says the traditional boxing scheduling calendar does not work when a company is also trying to be flexible to accommodate high-profile music acts.
The late ticket release did not dampen sales of the Aug. 6 TrillerVerz show (headlined by Michael Hunter vs. Mike Wilson and Dipset vs. The Lox). While it was not the “highest-grossing event” in Hulu Theatre history, as Triller touted, it did sell out.
But the two most recent shows did not perform nearly as well. We were told the hip-hop portion of Tuesday night’s event (a battle between Fat Joe and Ja Rule) sold just a fraction of the tickets available. Pricing is believed to have been a factor.
De Silva did not believe the short sales window or lack of boxing programming at the Hulu Theatre was a factor in the underwhelming ticket sales figure (the boxing portion of the Sept. 14 event was held at the Hard Rock LIVE at the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel and Casino in Hollywood, Fla.). He suggested the public “being in a different place” with regards to COVID-19 and the pressure the company is “feeling right now to be careful” as it relates to fans and the virus were the reasons for the smaller crowd at MSG.
For the record, Triller had little choice but to split up the boxing and hip-hop portions of Tuesday night’s TrillerVerz event. MSG was not particularly pleased with how the combined Aug. 6 show was conducted and the companies agreed not to hold two distinctly different events on the same night, at the same venue, again.
Everyone we spoke to appreciates Triller’s goal in mixing genres—if not necessarily the company’s ability to pull it off. “The combination of boxing and hip hop, if properly executed, could be huge,” the fight sports promoter said.
(This column has been updated to correct the spelling of Ryan Kavanaugh’s name.)