WHEN Eddie Hearn went to America in 2018 and returned as ‘The Billion Dollar Man’ after inking a ginormous international broadcast deal with streaming service DAZN, it seemed like the writing was on the wall for his long-term relationship with UK broadcast partner, Sky Sports.
With two years of their marriage left to run, Hearn tried to play the role of a good husband. But juggling relationships is never easy. After Adam Smith, then Sky’s Head of Boxing, had a word in his ear following a below-par offering on the channel in early 2019, Hearn treated Sky to several money-spinning pay-per-views and orchestrated a series of events throughout the very difficult nationwide lockdown of 2020 to keep his partner content.
Ultimately, something had to give. On June 3 the worst-kept secret in boxing was made official: Matchroom Boxing have signed an exclusive five-year deal with DAZN that means the long relationship with Sky Sports is over. And the divorce, with Sky Sports Boxing also plotting their own new direction, looks like good news for fight fans.
“Initially things worked really well,” Hearn tells Boxing News about the first hook-up with DAZN in 2018. “We were airing our American DAZN shows on Sky Sports. We knew over time, because of the success of the sport and DAZN as a business, that the UK launch, in whatever sport, was inevitable. The bigger problem came when DAZN started their UK boxing service as part of their global service and wanted to air our fight nights as part of that service.
“A big problem for me over the last year or so has been the need to wear different hats: ‘You can watch this on Sky, you can watch this on DAZN.’ ‘Hold on, is this on DAZN or Sky?’ That pressure has now been taken off my shoulders because now I only have one hat. That is something that has never been done before and will probably never happen again, whereby a global promoter, of which there are none apart from Matchroom, has the ability to give clear messaging to fight fans in any country that there is only one place where you can watch our shows.
“The biggest difficulty was the personal relationship with Sky Sports and the success we had built together. That was very difficult for us [to end that relationship]. The opportunity was too big for us as a business, for the fighters and for the entire sport [to turn down]. We have an opportunity to do something really special here.”
As with all divorces, there are loose ends aplenty. The issue of sharing custody of their prized possession, Anthony Joshua, is the most obvious. As things stand, Joshua has one fight left with both Matchroom Boxing and Sky Sports. It remains to be seen, however, if Joshua can be persuaded to switch his loyalty from the channel that made him a worldwide superstar to hook up with DAZN after that.
“AJ is a big part of our business,” Hearn explains when asked about the heavyweight’s reaction to the switch. “He’s a big part of our lives, he’s like family to us. Our relationship runs much deeper than people realise, not emotionally, but across our businesses. He was very happy for us as a business to secure a deal like this.
“This deal has nothing to do with Anthony Joshua. They [DAZN] do air his fights globally and will continue to do so. But I’m sure if the UK rights for Anthony Joshua became available they would certainly be an interested player in those rights, as would every broadcaster in the country.
“[As things stand] he has one more fight with Sky Sports and we know how good their pay-per-view model is. His focus is lock the next fight in. I don’t think he’ll be looking to sign any new broadcast deals before that. He will take that fight, assess the situation, then we’ll sit down with 258 [MGT] and decide what is the best move for his career.”
One of Hearn’s greatest achievements in his 11 years as a major boxing promoter has been to build interest in the sport through social media engagement and the art of storytelling. This was very much a joint venture with Sky Sports who provided the perfect platform(s) to shout from the rooftops about every fight they staged and build narratives around the key stars. But the promoter wanted even more control, from inception to delivery, to tell the stories he wanted to tell. Enter Matchroom Media, Hearn’s own production company that makes programming exactly as Hearn wants it made.
He accepts that Sky Sport’s multiple stations, the dedicated and knowledgeable boxing editorial team, rolling news channels and massive subscriber base were vital in growing his own business but is undaunted by now essentially starting again with a broadcaster that cannot currently match his former partner for crossover appeal and overall engagement. The key, Hearn believes, is cross-pollination whereby Matchroom Media produce top quality promotional programming that will be shown on channels like BBC and ITV in the build-up to big fights. In its simplest form it is old school advertising.
“Is the DAZN platform as big as Sky Sports? At the moment, no,” Hearn admits.
“The good news about a broadcaster like DAZN is their smartness and their ability to form those relationships with other broadcast partners that traditional or institutionalised broadcasters might not be able to do. If you look at the Canelo-Billy Joe Saunders fight that did incredible numbers, then the Canelo documentary that was on BBC [in the build-up] is the perfect example of the kind of stuff that we need to be doing, either in partnership with DAZN or as event promoters ourselves. Absolutely you will see more of our content, of our fight week build-up and the whole fight week experience – which may or may not include fight highlights after the event – with another broadcaster.
“It is so good to be working with a broadcaster like DAZN who see that as an opportunity. Certain broadcasters will say, ‘We’re not giving another broadcaster any of our content!’ But DAZN appreciate that we need to drive awareness of the sport, and not just drive subscribers. They have that vision to make sure that the sport continues to thrive and those partnerships with outlets and broadcasters for additional content are key.”
That all makes sense but there has to be a concern, by presenting events from start to finish solely as they want to present them, that Matchroom are not only controlling the narrative, they’re controlling the knowledge given to consumers and therefore could be accused of manipulating the truth.
“No, no, no,” Hearn responds. “When you see who we have in the lead commentator role and lead analyst role you will realise that’s not the case. They would rather tell me to jog on than be told what they can and can’t say.
“Controlling the narrative is not about telling people what to say. Controlling the narrative is about the storytelling process and the delivery of the live event. We will build the narrative in a particular way and we need to deliver the live event that will match that. That is something that I feel has been missing. It’s not about being in control of what people say and listen, Boxing News will be at every show. I’ve been trying to tell you what to write for years and you’ve never listened to me once. It’s not about that. The talent that we’ll use are good boxing people.
“I don’t want them to shy away from the truth. If it’s a bad fight, don’t muck around, grill me afterwards. I don’t want, ‘Eddie, you’re great but that didn’t work.’ I want to hear, ‘Eddie, that was bad matchmaking.’ There should be no excuses for bad matchmaking in this deal and I don’t mind putting myself on the sword by saying that now.
“Everyone will have their own minds and their own opinions. We know how important that is. We listen to fight fans and to them, they care as much about the commentary and the presenting team as they do about the fights! I think we’ve got it absolutely spot on in terms of the talent.”
But if he was to tell us who that talent was he’d have to kill us, at least for now. Boxing News has heard some exciting whispers about who will get the top jobs at DAZN.
“What I can tell you is that we’ve got a mixture, of what I’d call industry legends, and I think you know who I’m getting at with that one, future Hall of Famers and a lot of fresh faces,” Hearn reveals.
“I think the Sky Sports team is fantastic but one thing we didn’t want to do here, and DAZN didn’t want to do, was just swap them over. Matchroom Media are behind the production here and DAZN wanted fresh faces and the very best.
“I really feel that from presenters to particularly commentators and analysts, you have the absolute cream of the crop. I want this to be the home for fight fans, I want people to enjoy this as a destination, as an experience. I have seen with my own eyes the comments over the years and years about, ‘we want this’, ‘we want that’. Here is a chance for us to build something on the basis of that feedback.”
One of the most common grumbles with DAZN is difficulty of access. Unlike Netflix and Amazon Prime, for example, it does not yet have its own channel that can be accessed via the consumer’s television contractor (like Sky or Virgin). It is reliant on subscribers watching on devices like tablets and phones; it is not a simple process – particularly for those not versed in Smart TVs, Fire Sticks and the like – to kick back and watch DAZN on your big screen of choice.
“We have learnt in every territory we have been to the importance of educating the consumer,” Joseph Markowski of DAZN tells BN. “It’s not just the older generations but the people who might not be as familiar with streaming and the benefits of it.
“It’s far more accessible than traditional paid TV and linear channels. You can still watch it on a big screen – with Apps imbedded in the TV, with Smart TVs or Fire Sticks or whatever – but if you want to you can take it with you and watch on a tablet, laptop or your phone. That is part of our commitment to what we call democratised sport; to make it more affordable, flexible and accessible.
“Yes, we are aware [that not everyone will know how to access DAZN], we are committed to it and you will see some quite entertaining marketing content around it.”
With gaining rights to Premier League Football a goal for DAZN, the station insist that securing Matchroom’s boxing output is just the start of their British sport invasion. Markowski states that the current introductory monthly cost of £1.99 per month will remain for the foreseeable future but it is “being assessed.” Both Markowski and Hearn agree that that low cost is not sustainable in the long-term.
“I am across some of those discussions regarding price points and all of those discussions are incredible value for fight fans,” Hearn explains. “I want to make that clear.
“It was a genius move to open with the £1.99 price point. Already the subscriber numbers are, after a standing start, where we hoped they’d be after six months. It was very smart on their behalf.
“I have spent the last eight years or so arm-wrestling with fans over the issue of pay-per-view. Although I stand by the fact that we have always delivered value for money with our [Sky] pay-per-views, those kind of pay-per-views where we inevitably have that debate with the fight fans, will now be part of the DAZN schedule.”
A reduction in pay-per-view costs has to be good news. Hearn explained that ensuring he could put together big bills without the burden of PPV was a key assurance he needed to receive from DAZN during negotiations. Sceptics, as boxing fans have conditioned to become, will naturally fear the worst about dramatic price rises in the future.
Markowski admits that the PPV model is something they will develop in the future but only for the right fights. So, as an example, fights like Oleksandr Usyk-Derek Chisora will be part of the subscription package but true humdingers like Anthony Joshua-Tyson Fury will come at an extra cost.
“There are sceptics about our pricing,” Markowski explained. “I urge those people to look at what we’ve done in areas like Japan, Italy and Germany where we are amongst, if not the leading sports broadcaster in those countries. Yet we are still investing in content to maintain a commitment to fan-friendly pricing. In every single market we are making watching premium sport dramatically more affordable. We look at fight fans in the UK and that philosophy and commitment remains because it’s core to what we are.”