ADAM SMITH has been employed by Sky Sports for 25 years. He’s gone from the backup boxing commentator to the channel’s Head of Boxing and he’s overseen some of the biggest productions the sport has ever delivered. Yet there’s still this idea, among a section of boxing’s hardcore fans, that he doesn’t know what he’s doing.
Smith admits the criticism Sky Sports gets, predominantly on social media, is a source of frustration. He reads some of it. He takes on board the opinions from those he respects. Yet Smith, a man so entrenched in Sky Sports it’s difficult to steer conversation away from the company he represents, is visibly annoyed when his ability to do his job is called into question by people who have no idea what his job entails.
That he doubles his role as Head of Boxing with being the station’s lead commentator means he’s very much in the firing line before he put his head above ground and the microphone to his mouth. It’s not easy to keep boxing fans happy, even in recent months when the sport has produced several exceptional battles, of which most were broadcast by Sky Sports.
It’s a period that followed a slower start to the year for the network. Following the February O2 bill topped by Sergio Garcia’s win over Ted Cheeseman, in a rare public outburst against Matchroom’s Eddie Hearn, Smith spoke out about what he deemed to be falling standards from the UK promoter with whom Sky Sports have long had an exclusive deal.
Hearn, of course, has seen his reputation among the hardcore in Britain plummet in recent years. Once hailed as something of a saviour, the development of the Sky Sports Box Office platform with Hearn at the helm, and his involvement in the USA with DAZN, has led to accusations from some that the promoter is filling his pockets at the expense of the sport and its fans.
The station has seriously upped its game since June. Anthony Joshua’s US showcase with Andy Ruiz Jnr, a late substitute for Jarrell Miller, had been met with lukewarm previews. But the reviews, after Ruiz went from doughboy to destroyer in a little over 20 minutes, were significantly better. The unexpected thriller, which saw Joshua surrender his WBA, WBO and IBF heavyweight titles in seven rounds laced with knockdowns and drama, is used by Smith when addressing the most common gripe aimed at Sky Sports: That issue of bias.
“It irks me when people say we’re biased,” Smith tells Boxing News. “We’re not biased at all. Listen back to the Anthony Joshua-Andy Ruiz commentary. “Were we biased towards AJ that night because he’s our ambassador? Were we biased because he’s carried the flag for so many years? No. When Matt [Macklin] and I, Paulie [Malignaggi], Paul Smith, Carl Froch or whoever is commentating pick up the mic, we’re totally unbiased and we call it as we see it. We might get it right and we might get wrong, it’s all very subjective, but there is not one iota of bias when we pick up that microphone.
“As a company, do we want Joshua to be successful? Does British boxing want him to be successful? Of course. You look at it like that… but as far as when we pick up the mic, [the perception of bias] upsets me.”
That notion of ‘Matchroom bias’. Don’t get Smith started.
“I believe I’ve got the most passionate and hard-working team anywhere in Sky Sports,” he continues. “It’s a small team. We drive huge amounts of content on digital, we had to lose Ringside and we replaced it with daily digital content. We have great access and we’re ensconced in the sport and have been long before I got here. Bias doesn’t even come into it.”
Smith makes the candid point that while the likes of ITV Box Office and others continue to dip their toes into the market, largely because they’ve witnessed the audiences boasted by Sky Sports, his employers are in it for the long haul.
“People have said you shouldn’t ‘play’ at boxing therefore the YouTubers [KSI and Logan Paul] shouldn’t get in and do it. I say, some TV companies have played in boxing. We haven’t. We’ve been loyal and supportive and I believe we’ve given a lot back to the sport. We don’t always get it right, we make mistakes and we learn and we move forwards,” Smith says before naming one broadcasting rival he has the utmost respect for.
“We want to do everything, but we can’t. We realise that Frank Warren has got a great stable at BT Sport with Daniel Dubois, the Young British Boxer of the Year, Josh Warrington, Anthony Yarde and lots of others. They have a great stable over there.
“That’s another thing that irks me. People think we don’t give support to anyone outside of Matchroom. I always watch their shows. I love them and I support them.
“In my opinion, Tyson Fury is the best heavyweight in the world but we’re covering Wilder and Joshua and everyone else. I’m not afraid to say that about Tyson. I do believe we produce a great deal on Sky. Sometimes we get lucky and the fights go above and beyond expectation. We got [Naoya] Inoue-[Nonito] Donaire late, we got Canelo[-Kovalev] late.”
Five days before Sky announced they would be showing Canelo-Kovalev, Smith told Boxing News it was unlikely they’d be able to. The budget had been used on fights like Errol Spence Jnr-Shawn Porter and the impending Wilder-Luis Ortiz return. But Smith was keen to get Alvarez’s jump to light-heavyweight for Sky Sports customers.
“It’s important to us to show the important fights but sometimes I go to the tin and there’s no money in it, literally,” Smith explains about the problems faced by anyone managing a budget. “So I have to get creative, maybe that’s robbing Peter to pay Paul a little bit on domestic productions or finding a way to do something slightly cheaper but also it can go into other sports. My best friends at Sky Sports are the Head of Football and the Head of Cricket, and I go to them and I say, ‘Is there a way if you didn’t do one of your outside broadcasts, is there a way we can, maybe, help each other?’
“We work together in unison. They have their budgets and it’s hard. I’ll only do that if my back is up against the wall and I really feel I need to.”
The most recent attack from fans came from the issue of pay-per-view. It was announced a little over a week after Sky staged the rich contest between YouTuber debutants KSI and Logan Paul on Box Office – a bout that sent many of the hardcore round the twist – with a price tag of £9.95, that December 7’s highly desirable rematch between Joshua and Ruiz would be priced at £24.95; a five-pound rise on the first fight and yet more outlay on top of Sky’s monthly subscription fees. A quick calculation will tell you that even if the event attracts just 500,000 buys, that’s a hefty £2.5million in extra profits from the £5 price rise alone. Not bad returns at a time when companies all over the world are producing their end-of-year accounts.
Smith, with his manager’s hat firmly in place and highly unlikely to be orchestrator of the price hike, does his best to explain the increase.
“We don’t take choices around price lightly and always consider our customers in any decision,” he says. “But we’ve shown in recent months that Sky Sports Box Office has tiers of events and is flexible on our pricing. The recent event from Los Angeles involving KSI and Logan Paul saw huge interest and was available for £9.95, we feel that Ruiz v Joshua II is significantly bigger and is priced accordingly.”
It’s an explanation that won’t ease the frustration felt by some paying customers. There is an admission that fights deemed worthy of Box Office will be viewed on a case-by-case basis. Some events will cost more than others. Battles between YouTubers are yours for a tenner but if you want the cream of the crop, expect to pay more. It’s not a completely satisfactory response, but in a UK economy where even the big companies are under pressure, it’s understandable purely from a business point of view.
Smith and the issue of business, the Sky Sports business, remains a priority for a man who continues to juggle the affections of both boxing fans and his employers. Eddie Hearn’s aforementioned deal with DAZN grabbed the headlines last year, and almost immediately raised questions about the promoter’s long-term relationship with Sky Sports. For now, DAZN and Sky Sports work together as broadcasting partners, but speculation is mounting that they could soon become rivals if, and more likely when, the streaming giants make their play in the UK.
“They’re putting a lot of money into it and they’ve got a huge amount of people, good people, working for them,” Smith says about DAZN. “Whether it works in the long run we wait and see. The US is a difficult market to crack. Showtime and HBO have had their pay-per-view models for a long time. You look at DAZN’s other sports, they’ve got a few bits and pieces but they haven’t got an anchor US sport – an NFL, a baseball or a basketball. They might need that. Or maybe they won’t.
“The big question, the elephant in the room, is when are they going to launch in the UK? Because at the moment we work side-by-side with them. I’m enjoying that.
“Eddie’s got a contract with us which he has long had and it’s got a couple of years to run. After that we’ll have to hope that he remains here, which I think he will, but a lot of people are saying he’ll go off to DAZN. That is something that will work itself out in the coming months. I’m confident that he knows what we have as a business partnership, not only the boxing, but also the darts and a lot of other stuff that Matchroom have had for many, many years.
“We’re not stupid. There’s a lot of money flying round. If they dangle a huge carrot in front of him then maybe he’ll do something different.”
No doubt Sky Sports Boxing will continue to be a major player in the sport, with or without Eddie Hearn. Already the network have invited the burgeoning promotional outfit, MTK Global, into the fray with their Golden Contract competition to ensure all British broadcasting dates are filled.
Adam Smith has no intention of going anywhere, either. But whether his long-term future is sitting at ringside with a microphone in his hand is another matter.
“I love being the leader of Sky Sports Boxing and one of the best things about my job is having better people around me. The team is filled with great people. But my greatest passion is being six feet away from the ring and calling the action.
“People can say what they want out there and they can form their own opinions. I have no ego. I’m not interested in that. I don’t care if people say I’m the best or the worst or whatever.
“I do the best I can and my team does the best they can. And, you know, we must be doing something right to have done loads of successful box office events and keeping Sky really, really, current in the boxing world.
“Boxing is my business, it keeps me gripped. It’s wildly exciting. But I never, ever, think I have earned the right to keep calling the biggest fights. I work very, very hard every day and I work hard to improve and make sure we all improve.
“A big role for me now is to encourage the young to come through and to make sure we’ve got the next generation coming through. I’ve done what I’ve always dreamed of, and that’s to become a boxing commentator. Now I just want the best for the team, for Sky and, above all, our customers.”