Feature | Jan 22 2019

LONG READ The art of boxing promotion

In the 21st century do you even need a promoter? Kenneth Bouhairie investigates the ever-changing role of the promoter in professional boxing
boxing
Matchroom - Anthony Joshua Press Conference  |  Action Images

This feature was originally published in Boxing News magazine

A SILENT revolution is taking place in boxing, a pro-fighter movement that threatens the old guard.

From Tex Rickard at the beginning of the 20th century to Bob Arum today, promoters have always been central to boxing’s revenue streams. They made deals with the principals, paid the fighters and put on the show.

But the accounting from these events were as accessible as Donald Trump’s tax returns. Promoters often used this lack of transparency to keep a disproportionate amount of the income; the image of a destitute fighter is an old chestnut.

One modern great who took aggressive measures to avoid this fate was “Sugar” Ray Leonard. After winning gold in the 1976 Montreal Olympics, Leonard was a hot ticket with some sense of his worth. He received several lucrative long-term offers from promoters. His adviser and attorney, the late Mike Trainer, had other plans.

“We didn’t want Ray to go to the promoters with his hat in his hand like an orphan and wind up on his heels as some greeter at a gambling casino,” said Trainer, who had no background in boxing but proved a quick study.

Leonard eschewed a long-term deal with a promoter in favour of using them on a per fight basis. He enjoyed enormous commercial success in and out of the ring; earning over $120 million and as famous for his 7-Up ads as he was for any of his fights.

This intrepid approach set the stage for others to follow. Roy Jones Jnr and brothers Vitali and Wladimir Klitschko promoted themselves. But they were outliers, not only talent-wise, but in their understanding of what their special gifts may accord them in the marketplace.

The long-held status quo remained until the 2000 Muhammad Ali Boxing Reform Act. Among other things, the federal act gave fighters access to financial arrangements typically reserved for promoters.

Soon after, boxers Oscar De La Hoya and Floyd Mayweather challenged the old paradigm. Both began their careers with Bob Arum’s Top Rank Promotions and broke away, accumulating large fortunes afterward.

Mayweather did so under the guidance of adviser Al Haymon. Floyd bought out his promotional contract with Top Rank for $750,000 and, according to Forbes, earned a reputed $1 billion.

Haymon now advises and/or manages 160 boxers. While the two highest-paid boxers today, Golden Boy Promotions’ Saul “Canelo” Alvarez and Matchroom Boxing’s Anthony Joshua, are flourishing under long-term promotional contracts, most of Haymon’s fighters — which includes many of the sport’s biggest names — are promotional free agents. Others outside of his clientele, such as former middleweight champion Gennady Golovkin and rising contender Devin Haney, are doing the same.

Naturally, there has been some blowback. Some promoters question Haymon’s modus operandi, accusing him of acting as a promoter under a different title to allegedly skirt the law. Mainly, they protest what is essentially a soft coup that minimises their roles and cuts into their earnings.

Boxing News seeks to examine the issues surrounding a particular development within the boxing landscape. Specifically, we ask :

How has the promoter’s role changed?

Is Al Haymon — arguably the most powerful person in boxing for the last decade and counting — a promoter with another title?

Do today’s boxers need to sign long-term promotional contracts to maximise their commercial potential?

THE TRADITIONAL ROLE

“Being a promoter is a dual job,” says Richard Schaefer, former CEO of Golden Boy Promotions and now Founder/CEO of Ringstar Sports. “You promote fighters to fans by building them up. And you’re promoting events, where you try to maximise revenue for the show and for the fighters.”

“I’ve always likened promoting to a circus,” says promoter Gary Shaw. “You roll into town, put up the tent, put on the act, fold the tent and move on to the next.”

But he notes that the job is much more than this.

The promoter bears the primary financial risk of putting on a boxing event. They prepare the budget then negotiate with the managers, who are bargaining agents for boxers.

Once the fighters are secured, they will look to finalise the deal with the network if a long-term agreement isn’t already in place. Networks typically pay the promoter a licensing fee in exchange for rights to the exclusive domestic live broadcast of the event.

The promoter also enters into a site agreement with the host venue. While there are many variables, some venues will charge the promoter for using their space and others remit a site fee.

Promoters can also profit from international TV rights and event sponsors, if applicable. Once a promoter accesses all the sources of revenue and pays out related expenses (including fighter purses), what is left over is usually theirs to keep.

At the lower levels — like a club show where there is usually no TV involved — it is tough for promoters to profit from these events. At the highest levels, these revenue streams are why a Mayweather created his own promotional company, which allowed him to access all the books and deals rather than accepting only a purse for the fight.

Before the Ali Act, promoters weren’t required to disclose all revenue sources and expenses deducted from a boxer’s purse. Today, boxers contracted to a promoter are entitled to know the amounts of any compensation or consideration that a promoter is contracted to receive from a match.

But there are loopholes. Boxing attorney and former Executive Director of the New York State Athletic Commission, David Berlin, believes that there are “…promoters who do not comply at all with the disclosure requirements and others who provide a disclosure but do not update it with more accurate information as they receive the more accurate information.”

A case in point occurred in June 2012, when bantamweight Joseph Agbeko sued promoter Don King for allegedly taking more money than he was owed from his fights. In a motion to dismiss, King’s lawyers argued that the Ali Act requires promoters to “disclose only amounts they are ‘contracted to receive’ from a given boxing match. The Act doesn’t require promoters to disclose the actual dollar revenue they ultimately receive.” Agbeko eventually dropped the lawsuit.

“A larger problem, but one which seems unavoidable, is that a boxer does not receive these disclosures until he is already contracted to fight,” says Berlin. “So, the information regarding the promoter’s revenues does not help the boxer to negotiate his or her purse for the fight in question.”

Other responsibilities that fall under the promoter include promoting the fighters.

“Matchmaking and developing fighters are two underappreciated areas,” says Stephen Espinoza, President of Showtime Sports. “Everyone focuses on becoming a superstar, but there is an art to developing a fighter; getting him the right experience, developing his skills while at the same time, developing the fan base. I’d argue that’s really the chief benefit of a promoter.”

Undefeated four-division world titlist Mikey Garcia agrees: “A young kid needs a promoter to guarantee him certain fights in a year. They help develop and groom him by getting him the experience needed for the big stage.”

(Note: Maybe the operative words in the above is “young kid.” Garcia, a veteran in his prime, is doing just fine as a promotional free agent.)

Top Rank excels in this area. Their 45-year track record of developing fighters includes Garcia, Mayweather, De La Hoya, Manny Pacquiao, Miguel Cotto, Kelly Pavlik, Terence Crawford, Vasyl Lomachenko and more.

“Look at Arum and Don King,” Schaefer says. “These guys have been successful for many years because they know how to build fighters and create big events. You have to develop them, be able to speak on their behalf and keep them relevant, even when they’re not fighting.”

Top Rank boxing promoter

HAYMON’S ROLE

Haymon is a polarising figure in boxing, perhaps not only for the power he wields, but for carving out a new role in the sport on a scale previously unseen. His detractors and competitors label him a “promoter” rather than an adviser/manager, which are his actual titles. One asks, what are they really trying to say and does it matter?

In March 2015, Haymon launched Premier Boxing Champions (PBC), a televised boxing series initially aired on several networks, mainly through the purchase of air time. While he himself never stated his goal, one may presume it was to expand viewership of boxing through free television and demonstrate boxing’s viability to convince a network to buy in.

Two months after PBC’s inaugural show, Golden Boy filed a $300 million lawsuit against Haymon and the investment firm that financed PBC. The suit alleged violations of federal antitrust laws and the Ali Act, which makes it illegal to act as both a manager (who has a fiduciary duty to a boxer) and a promoter (who does not).

Only two months after that, Arum’s Top Rank followed suit, seeking $100 million in damages and an injunction to stop the PBC series.

Top Rank’s initial charges were dismissed. Arum filed two more amendments before settling out of court. Terms of the settlement are confidential.

The Golden Boy case brought several issues to light. Plaintiff lawyers argued that despite their being an experienced and licensed promoter affiliated with each PBC event, Haymon was the true promoter because PBC performed certain traditional promoter functions; contracting with the television networks for airtime; facilitating the selection of the venue; purchasing advertising on television and the internet to stimulate interest for PBC events; receiving revenue from advertising sales and sponsorship sales; paying the boxer’s purse.

PBC plays a unique role. It hires the promoters on a per-event basis, pays them a fee and provides them with direction on some of the revenue streams that go toward the promotion. The promoter may have an interest in a boxer on the card, but their primary interest is in promoting a given show.

PBC typically uses their own matchmakers for the televised portion of the card, unless the promoter of record has a fighter featured on it. The rest of the card is often filled with the hired promoter’s fighters. Their matchmakers handle that assignment.

According to court documents in the Golden Boy suit, Haymon, in his role as manager and/or adviser, takes a significantly smaller percentage (10-15 per cent) than the maximum 33 1/3 per cent management commission. His commissions are generally not payable until the boxer’s purse reaches a negotiated amount, frequently anywhere from $100,000 to 1 million and, in some cases, more. This delayed ROI, well beyond what most managers can afford to do, is certainly an inducement to many fighters.

Haymon’s method of negotiating a fight was different. In the past, a network may offer a $3 million licensing fee for an event. The promoter would cover the fight’s expenses, including fighter purses, and likely keep the rest.

The roles reversed under Haymon’s model. The promoter receives a negotiated fee. The fighter could now earn from available revenue sources.

As a fighter’s share increases, presumably so does Haymon’s. But it was still a smaller sum than what a promoter and manager might take under the traditional model. Also, fighters are making, proportionately and literally, more than they would under that old model.

One benefit to promoting under the PBC banner is that promoters don’t bear the financial risk of an event. The promoter fee is negotiable, often depending on the scale of the event.

But negotiating compensation this way may not be ideal for promoters.

“If you’re a promoter for PBC, you’re marginalised,” says Shaw. “You’re just a local guy who covers a region. You don’t really have any say, except having your name on the licence. Al is pushing every button. He pays them what he wants to pay them and if they say no, he’ll move on to the next promoter. I did some fights for Al early on, but I didn’t want to be manipulated so I broke up the relationship.”

During a deposition, Haymon, famously media-averse, lent rare insight on his philosophy:

“When I began to examine the business relationships then prevalent in boxing, including the long-term promotional contracts being offered to fighters by promoters, I quickly realised that professional boxers were largely at the mercy of a few powerful promoters,” he said. “I therefore began advising the boxers I managed not to sign long-term promotional agreements… Instead, I encouraged my clients to sign single bout agreements with a promoter of their choosing for each fight.”

Haymon introduced this practice while working in the music industry.

In an April 2015 Sports Business Daily article, Bill King wrote, “It was a shift in the economic model brought on by Haymon, who negotiated deals that put the revenue from an event in the hands of the fighters, paying promoters a fee rather than giving them a cut. In the music business, Haymon learned that the leverage belonged to the headliner. He thought the same should be the case in boxing.”

In January 2017, Golden Boy’s lawsuit was dismissed. The court concluded that the conflict of interest provision in the Ali Act was not intended to compensate promoters for lost profits. Haymon’s audacious venture paid off. Last August, Showtime announced a three-year licensing deal with PBC worth over $60 million annually. One week later, FOX announced a four-year licensing deal with them for a similar annual amount.

The debate over his role continues. But what is the moral issue if there is no legal one? The fighters aren’t suffering under this model. Perhaps the only discussion should be whether fans are getting their money’s worth.

NEW SCHOOL MARKETING

The back and forth over whether Haymon is a promoter draws attention away from a more meaningful debate: Do boxers need a long-term promoter?

Former two-division champion Paulie Malignaggi currently works with Showtime as an analyst. Malignaggi believes today’s American promoters are more interested in cashing cheques than they are earning it. “I think US promoters have gotten too used to not having to promote,” he says. “They’ve become booking agents. They take the TV and casino money and that’s it. They don’t try to sell tickets because regardless of attendance, they’re making money anyway.”

Perhaps that’s why an increasing number of fighters are doing it themselves. One way is through social media. A 2015 Navigate Research study showed that sports fans were 67 per cent more likely to use Twitter to enhance their experience compared to non-sports fans.

“What’s changed is the athlete’s ability to self-market,” says Espinoza. “Not everyone is Mayweather, but athletes today across all sports have the ability to connect directly with fans around the world, something that didn’t exist 10 years ago.”

Schaefer believes that’s not enough.

“Look at Lomachenko and Crawford. These aren’t great media guys. But most pound for pound lists have them on top. I believe there are other boxers as good or better than them. Arum works the media and tells them how great his fighters are. That’s what a promoter does.”

Others argue that this part of the promoter’s job could be handled by a competent PR team, plus the network’s expansive marketing machine — and the fighters themselves, if they’re savvy.

As it stands, there are no breakout stars in boxing other than Canelo Alvarez and Anthony Joshua. Several free agent fighters could be next — Deontay Wilder, Errol Spence Jnr, Mikey Garcia, Jermall and Jermell Charlo, Jarrett Hurd, and others. The next few years will determine whether this can be accomplished without a long-term deal with an established promoter.

boxing promoter

THE FIGHTER’S ROLE

“Promoters are used to handling everything so they can cut all kinds of backdoor deals and stuff,” says WBC heavyweight champion Wilder, who is a promotional free agent, advised by Haymon. “We risk our lives in the ring, so why should they get all that?”

Yet Promoter Eddie Hearn has lamented what he perceives to be a lack of promotion that has hindered Wilder’s star power.

“This is a guy who’s a good fighter, a good talker, he looks the part, he’s an American heavyweight world champion, no one knows who he is,” he said during a July 2018 interview with Sporting News. “He is lacking a promoter big time. I’m trying to help him in that respect.”

Wilder believes Hearn underestimates fighter knowledge of the market.

“He wants to sign me so bad,” he said. “Ain’t no top fighters going to sign with him to fight on DAZN [Note: DAZN is a sports streaming platform Hearn is tied to]. They don’t need him. They see how he operates. Ain’t no fighter stupid, man. You want to put me on DAZN. I’m not interested.”

Wilder has been on both sides of the fence. He fought under Golden Boy before becoming world champion. Yet he also believes a nascent prospect generally needs a promoter.

“I understand if you’re a young fighter and need a promoter that can build you up for a few years,” he says. “But when you get to that second term, they should be working alongside you. I work with Lou DiBella and DiBella Entertainment. Lou is not only a good promoter, but a good friend. I don’t need to be signed with him to work with him.”

But is there incentive for promoters to market a boxer without having them under an extended contract?

“Absolutely there is incentive,” Schaefer declares. “I showed that with Floyd Mayweather. He was never signed to Golden Boy, yet we worked together on all his fights from 2007 until I left in 2014. We shattered pay-per-view records. He went from making a few million a fight up to $300 million per. Sometimes relationships without a contract are better than the ones with it.”

There are other issues associated with being tied to one promoter. Shaw, who has receded from the boxing scene as of late, notes, “There are fewer entries for promoters and more barriers. The only way to get TV exposure for your fighters is to make deals with these other promoters and that means giving up control of the fighter.”

Boxers are encountering a similar problem. Welterweight titlist Terence Crawford is signed to Top Rank, which has a television deal with ESPN. Nearly all other top 147lbers — Errol Spence Jnr, Keith Thurman, Shawn Porter, Danny Garcia and Manny Pacquiao — are featured on PBC.

“You align yourself with a certain promoter or network and now you have a problem fighting someone aligned elsewhere,” says Espinoza. “That happened in the past as well, but now more promoters are locked into one network or platform and it adds complexities to making a fight.”

When De La Hoya sought a new platform for Canelo Alvarez, Bob Arum said, “It makes no sense for Canelo to tie himself up with anyone. He should go on a fight by fight basis and see which network would make each PPV more money.”

Of former WBO champion, Isaac Dogboe, who Arum recently signed to a long-term promotional agreement, he said, “There’s a lot of work in building a fighter up. Dogboe, as good a fighter as he is, he doesn’t have the cache or the following of a Canelo Alvarez.”

But not everyone believes a fighter must wait that long. Some follow Leonard’s steps from the outset.

As an amateur standout, Devin Haney was courted by several of the sport’s biggest promoters. His father advised him to start his own promotional company.

Today, Haney is 20-0. Last May, he made his first television appearance, headlining on ShoBox, Showtime’s developmental boxing series. He also became the youngest promoter in boxing history when California granted him a promotional license on August 14.

“I remember when I turned pro I was getting offers with crazy, big numbers,” he recalls. “Now, I feel I did everything right. I don’t need a promoter.”

Devin Haney boxing promoter

THE PRICE OF FREEDOM

Fighters may be independent, but fans do suffer for it. One major issue associated with most of these promotional free agents is their activity, or lack thereof. A dedicated promoter guarantees boxers a certain number of dates.

A commonly held perception about PBC is that their roster is bloated. With only so many TV dates to go around, they cannot keep their name fighters active.

“The fighters have the ability to manage their schedule,” says Tim Smith, VP of communications for Haymon Boxing. “A lot of times, they’re offered multiple fights a year, but if the opponent or money doesn’t suit them, they have the autonomy to reject it. Yordenis Ugas fought five times in a 12-month span. Others, like Gary Russell Jnr, may not fight as often.”

However, fans are understandably frustrated by waiting over six months to see their favorite fighter in the ring again. A once exploited worker now enjoys freedom and wealth but sits out more often than not. One’s sympathies only go so far. It’s a conundrum with no easy answer.

According to Smith, PBC’s new licensing deals with Fox and Showtime guarantees them enough dates to keep boxers busy — if they so desire. Fans have adopted a wait and see approach.

WHAT NEXT?

On December 1, Wilder defended his WBC title versus former IBF, WBA and WBO champion, Tyson Fury. The fight headlined a Showtime PPV, challenging De La Hoya’s assertion that fighters without promoters can’t attain that status.

It ended in a disputed but thrilling draw, drawing 17,698 people to Staples Center, the most at the venue since January 2009.

At the time of this writing, Wilder-Fury is reported to have generated 325,000 PPV buys. By comparison, Floyd Mayweather, in his first PPV, did 340,000 buys versus Arturo Gatti. In short, the numbers exceeded the network’s goal. A rematch would be even bigger.

But not every fighter can do this without a long-term promotional deal. The budding prospect or unknown talent may need one. As is the case in most walks of life, to be elite is to have options.

“One thing we’ve seen in the modern athlete is a greater sense of empowerment and self-determination,” says Espinoza. “Fighters are looking at the value proposition across all relationships. Now that the barriers between the athlete and the public have been removed through tools such as social media, there is evidence to show that in boxing, there is a path to success for a self-promoted fighter.”

***

When Ray Leonard fought Thomas Hearns for the universal welterweight title in 1981, he earned over $10 million; a world record for dollars earned in a single sporting event at that time. His adviser, Mike Trainer, made these deals directly with the principals, cutting the promoter out of their traditional middleman role.

“By keeping the powerful promoters away and refusing to sign their man to any long-term contracts with options,” the New York Times’ Michael Katz wrote, “[Leonard trainer Janks] Morton and Trainer rewrote the rules of the fight game.”

An increasing number of the world’s best fighters are doing likewise, believing the best bet to be made is the one they place on themselves.

This feature was originally published in Boxing News magazine

 

 

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