SO accustomed are we to seeing Anthony Joshua fight announcements followed by a press release minutes later proudly stating “JOSHUA VS. B-SIDE SELLS OUT IN RECORD TIME” that when this doesn’t happen the tendency is to panic, or criticise, or simply question everything we thought we knew about British boxing’s so-called biggest star.
You can’t win them all, though, nor, as it happens, sell out every time you fight.
This became apparent the moment tickets for Joshua’s latest fight at The O2 in London were released and the press release never came. It then shifted more into focus when troublemakers on social media began screenshotting Ticketmaster seating plans and highlighting the fact that for Joshua vs. Jermaine Franklin on April 1 there were many blocks of the arena in which tickets could still be purchased. This, they argued, was a sign that the event was not selling the way Joshua and his promoter, Matchroom Boxing, would have wanted. This, they said, was an indication that his pulling power was starting to wane.
“Social media is quite amazing in terms of what can be created on there – the storylines, etcetera. But I’m not concerned at all,” said Matchroom Boxing CEO Frank Smith. “We announced the fight during the first week of payday after Christmas and that’s always a tough time to sell. But I’m not concerned at all about the AJ ticket sales. I think we’re in a good place and I don’t believe there will be an empty seat in The O2 come April 1st.”
That Joshua vs. Franklin hasn’t sold the same way as previous Joshua fights should come as no surprise to anyone with an awareness of both what the fight means and the current financial climate in the UK. These two things, after all, are hardly conducive to a record-breaking sell-out.
“I think the big change now is the current climate,” said Smith. “We’re going to see, I believe, a later sales cycle with tickets moving forward. People are more stretched with money and they’re going to be waiting until the very last minute to spend their money to see whether they have the finances to do it.”
As for Jermaine Franklin, though it is the job of the promoter to sell every fight as if it is the most compelling and meaningful of their headline fighter’s career, you can only do so much with a fight like Joshua vs. Franklin. What’s more, when dealing with a powerful figure like Joshua, a heavyweight who has become synonymous with mega fights and linked recently to even bigger ones, it becomes difficult to serve up a dish like Joshua vs. Franklin and expect the same excitement reserved for other meals that were on the menu but nobody in the kitchen knew how to cook.
“It’s a different type of fight,” Smith said. “AJ has been in back-to-back massive fights. I’m not saying this isn’t a massive fight – it’s an important fight. But some people have the perception it’s not the type of fight it is. We know what Jermaine Franklin brings and it’s going to be a tough night for AJ.
“We also know the reality here: this fight isn’t an 80,000-seater stadium sell-out. And not every fight is. That’s the truth. There are fights that have gone to stadiums that haven’t done the numbers they need to in order to warrant taking place at a stadium. But we’ve got a fighter in Anthony Joshua here who has sort of changed the dynamics of selling out stadiums back-to-back-to-back – whether it was Wembley, whether it was the Principality, whether it was Tottenham, or whether it was going to Madison Square Garden and selling out the arena there.”
Another thing that may have deterred potential ticket-buyers when it comes to Joshua vs. Franklin is this: the actual price of a ticket. Because, as of March 16, anyone looking to attend this heavyweight fight on April 1 would have to part with at least £95 for a ticket in the upper tiers, with the best seats on the floor going for around £439. That’s a hefty outlay for a fight even Joshua and his promoter would concede is far from the biggest of his career. It also speaks to how expensive it is these days to both run an event in the UK – without, that is, the input of Middle East sugar daddies – and keep a big-name heavyweight boxer financially satisfied.
“Looking at our numbers and the costs, I’d say that expenses have probably gone up by about 25%, which is quite significant,” said Smith. “We try to look at what we do and ensure we don’t reduce the quality of our events. A lot of people would look at what is happening and go, ‘Actually, we’re not spending that, let’s cut out X, Y or Z.’ But for us it’s about maintaining a certain quality.
“The cost of venues is going up. We all know the cost of energy is going up, so the venues are putting their prices up significantly as a result. But we still try to maintain the ticket prices as much as we can.
“His last few fights have been in stadiums and you have different ways to monetise those. Obviously here we’re limited on the number of tickets, so we have to set certain prices to make the event make sense financially. We’re led heavily by data now: information about how tickets sell, when they sell, what price they should be set at.
“If an event sells out in seconds, it’s great, don’t get me wrong, but at the same time some of the best events are those that sell out over a longer period of time. In that case, it means you have priced it perfectly for the market.”
Something else to note when looking to buy tickets for Joshua vs. Franklin is that before even getting the opportunity to check availability and select your seat, you will be greeted with a notice which states: “Resale will not be available for this event.” That, it must be said, is a refreshing change from the norm and a restriction previously not in place for many of the previous big Joshua nights in the UK. As for what it means for sales this time around, it could mean nothing, or it could mean everything. Regardless, though, it’s a step in the right direction in terms of giving fans – proper fans – the opportunity to get hands on tickets for events of interest to them.
“A big thing for us now is looking at the secondary ticket market and how we can remove as much risk for ticket-buyers moving forward,” Smith explained. “We’ve made a big push to remove the secondary ticket sales from this show. That was something we pushed heavily and is something we’ve come under a lot of fire for, historically. It’s not something we profit from – we never have.
“It has always been a difficult one. Essentially, it’s not illegal to resell tickets unless you’re doing so in football. In any other sport, or music event, there’s no illegality around it. But we wanted to ensure that for this event there was no secondary on the system. That’s what we pushed for and that’s why you don’t see it on the main ticketing system.”
Likewise, one could argue Anthony Joshua, 24-3 (22), is no longer as visible today as in years gone by, particularly with him now training in America and being told on a regular basis that by merely existing he is the most marketable boxer on the planet. However, his management team, 258, say they are confused by any narrative built around the idea that Joshua hasn’t “sold” this upcoming fight against Franklin. As far as they are concerned, everything appears to be on track, no different than normal.
Even if that’s true, though, there is a distance now between the 2012 Olympic champion and his core fanbase. There is a physical distance, what with him spending the bulk of training camp in the US, and there is also a distance created by virtue of there being other heroes and others fights to distract these fans from the ongoing Joshua journey.
“I think it makes a little bit of a difference when they’re not in situ,” said Smith. “But in some ways, that’s good: he’s focusing on the most important part.
“We all know the natural cycle of boxing. You have your announcement, everyone does a lot of talking, and then it all goes a bit quiet while the guys are in camp. AJ landed back in the UK today (March 16) and he has got significant media obligations next week. Then fight week is obviously going to be as standard for a huge event. It’s something we’re used to now. You very rarely get a storyline for a fight that will carry for eight or nine weeks.
“Also, there’s always a lot of other noise in boxing; whether that’s (Tyson) Fury and (Oleksandr) Usyk, or (Ryan) Garcia and (Gervonta) ‘Tank’ (Davis), or (Katie) Taylor and (Chantelle) Cameron, or ‘Canelo’ (Alvarez) and (John) Ryder. There are always things you have to work around. But we understand the cycle and we understand the scale of what AJ brings.”
Chances are, just as Matchroom predict, every seat in The O2 will be occupied on April 1 and the image that greets Anthony Joshua as he makes his way to the ring – thousands of phones held aloft to record what is also being shown on DAZN – will be no different than what he expects and no different than what he has experienced before. Yet the path to reaching that point, both for Joshua and his promoter, could well be described as unchartered territory; on the one hand welcome as a challenge, but, on the other hand, a jolting reminder that big fights will always, and should always, trump big-name fighters.