This writing appeared on the boxing website ucnlive.com. The published version can be seen here: http://ucnlive.com/boxing-brand-awareness/
Boxing Brand Awareness
For the foreseeable future it seems the boxing world will be an entrenched collection of competing interests. The sport of boxing has always been this way in one form or another, but Top Rank Boxing’s defection from HBO to ESPN has seemed to mark a new era in balkanization. The boxing world now looks to have more in common with the warring families on the early seasons of ‘Game of Thrones’ than it does a semi-cohesive sporting enterprise. With this in mind, it seems apt to explore the nature of some of boxing’s competing ‘brands’. For one of the consequences of boxing’s balkanization is a marketplace that resembles those where companies like Nike, Reebok, Apple, or Microsoft battle for the hearts of consumers. The late Apple CEO Steve Jobs believed branding was about how a company connected with people on an emotional level. Keeping in mind the thrilling and dramatic appeal of boxing, Job’s insight would seem to be an appropriate measure for the companies that make up the sport.
As one of the oldest and most recognizable brands in boxing, HBO Boxing would seem to be a good place to start. Since 1973 HBO’s ‘World Championship Boxing’ has been the platform for countless big fights and memorable moments. From the television production to the announcing, HBO Boxing became a brand that elicited feelings associated with boxing at its highest level. Commenting on the brand success of Nike, Steve Jobs once remarked that despite selling a simple commodity like shoes, when you thought of ‘Nike’ you thought of more than just a shoe company. He would add that Nike never told you how much better their footwear was than Reebok or Adidas; they did their advertising by ‘celebrating great athletes and great athletics’. Well for many years there was nobody better at celebrating great boxers and great boxing than HBO. Sadly, in recent times, the brand of HBO Boxing has lost much of its past luster.
If there was one image that summed up the current feelings that surround the brand of HBO Boxing it would probably be a still shot of HBO Boxing commentator Max Kellerman. Preferably his mouth would be agape, his eyes wide with emptiness, and his hand strangling a microphone as it seemingly tried to escape the black hole of boxing platitudes that threatened to suffocate its very existence. HBO commentators of the past like Larry Merchant and Emanuel Steward celebrated the sport of boxing with their very being. Kellerman, on the other hand, seems to celebrate whatever agenda is deemed necessary on any given night. This expression of the ‘agenda of the day’ might be an unfortunate side effect of HBO Boxing’s lack of budget and content; for limited resources can sometimes breed irrational and desperate behavior.
Irregardless of whatever resources it does or doesn’t have, the brand of HBO Boxing feels like just another platform for the sport rather than a place that feels essential to the sports’ fabric. It’s a place that will still showcase the talents of world championship fighters like Gennady Golovkin, Canelo Alvarez, Sergey Kovalev, Daniel Jacobs, Srisaket Sor Rungvisai, and Dmitry Bivol. Yet it’s also the place where ‘Boxing After Dark’ disappeared from relevance, ‘The Fight Game’ serves as an unfortunate cure for insomnia, and the HBO GO app is about as useful to boxing fans as a Walkman is to a modern teenager. This all seems to conjure up a rather stale feeling when thinking of HBO Boxing. Fights will come, fights will go. Some will be big and exciting, and some won’t. Not completely rudderless, but far from vision driven, HBO Boxing exists kind of like a familiar restaurant chain down the street from your house. You don’t go there for the food or the brand, you usually go simply because it’s there.
One of the recent setbacks that HBO Boxing faced was the departure of long term content provider Top Rank Boxing. For various reasons Top Rank decided to take its stable of fighters over to ESPN in order to build its own brand instead of relying on HBO Boxing to elevate its fighters. As far as I’ve seen, a unique logo or name was never brought into play to brand Top Rank’s ESPN venture. The logo for Top Rank’s fights on ESPN consists of the Top Rank logo literally placed above the ESPN logo. This basically symbolizes the coming together of two brands, not the creation of a new one.
At this early point in Top Rank’s association with ESPN the logo is an apt metaphor. The fights are simply Top Rank fighters being showcased on ESPN. The brand creation seems more geared toward individual fighters like WBO welterweight champion Terence Crawford, WBO super featherweight champion Vasyl Lomachenko, and WBC super lightweight champion Jose Ramirez. There is nothing wrong with this of course, though it does seem a bit odd that with ESPN’s past experience with ‘Friday Night Fights’ that there was not an attempt to capture the casual consumer with a new branding concept. In my conversations with general sports fans, Lomachenko’s name has been brought up unprompted. This would seem to indicate Top Rank’s efforts are bearing some fruit. Yet it does raise the interesting question of which is more valuable, a couple of successful products or an overall brand that connects with consumers.
The idea of an ‘overall brand’ for the sport of boxing was always something that seemed to vacillate between a hopeful dream or a dreaded nightmare. The idea of one boxing league that could be branded like the UFC, NFL, or NBA was seen by some as a cure all for the sports ills. While others saw it as a road to mediocrity and overbearing corporate ownership. Today, the notion that the sport of boxing could fall under one branded umbrella seems like a fantasy at best. However, it was just a couple of years ago that the rare doorway to boxing consolidation seemed a bit open if certain events fell into place.
When Premier Boxing Champions debuted in 2015 it was all about branding. In fact, it was branding on steroids. Logos, slogans of ‘free boxing’, graphics, music, entrances, and staging - it was all supposed to be a rebranding of boxing as a whole. It was like Philip Morris trying to shed the stain of the tobacco industry by rebranding as the ‘Altria Group’. Premier Boxing Champions tried to create a brand that would allow the sport of boxing to capture the minds of the masses like it had done in decades past. Unfortunately, this goal would prove to be spectacularly unsuccessful. In fact, the Premier Boxing Champions brand became the punchline of jokes, alongside failed brands like Zune, Betamax, and Crystal Pepsi. However, there was one thing that Premier Boxing Champions did succeed at, and that was becoming the content provider to what probably is (pound for pound) the most successful brand in the sport of boxing at the moment.
As a brand, Showtime Boxing was always seen as the Reebok to HBO Boxing’s Nike. Good and successful, but always a little bit behind. Yet today it seems that Showtime Boxing is like the latest version of an Apple iMac, while HBO Boxing is stuck trying to figure out how to upgrade from Windows 98. Drawing from the Premier Boxing Champions roster of youthful talent, Showtime Boxing has been able to build a consistent schedule of entertaining fights that enable a sense of narrative around its programming. The Showtime Boxing brand conveys a sense of youthful coolness, embodied by fighters like former world champion Jermall Charlo, WBC super welterweight champion Jermell Charlo, IBF welterweight champion Errol Spence, and IBF super welterweight champion Jarrett Hurd.
In addition, Showtime Boxing’s nexus with the Barclays Center ‘Brooklyn Boxing’ brand has done well to enhance its brand identity. The borough of Brooklyn is almost a brand in itself, and the Barclays Center was wise to use the borough as inspiration for branding its boxing entertainment. I was skeptical at first, but it seems by consistently putting shows at the Barclays Center, Showtime Boxing has been able to connect some of its hip, young African American fighters with the ‘hipness’ of Brooklyn. Fighters like WBC heavyweight champion Deontay Wilder have the ability to connect with Brooklyn’s deeply rooted African American population as well as the gentrifying ‘hipsters’ who settle in the borough. The identity that the Showtime Boxing brand has carved out for itself might not be every boxing fan’s cup of tea. But it cannot be denied that it is more defined and modern than its counterpart at HBO.
Finally, there was one new brand that was introduced to the boxing world recently that has proved to be both defined and modern in its conception. The World Boxing Super Series in a rather short period of time has begun to establish itself as a place where fighters can make their name, and fans can get the in ring excitement they crave. The WBSS was branded to be a platform where the best fighters in the world could compete for divisional supremacy and financial reward - in other words, prize fighting at its highest level. And by licensing the name of one of the most famous fighters of all time (Muhammad Ali) to adorn their winner take all trophy; the WBSS instantly associated themselves with boxing royalty.
By projecting an aura of ‘international greatness’ the WBSS seems eager to connect with fans in ways that resemble the appeal of international tournaments like the World Cup, or Olympics. Out of the two divisions (cruiserweight and super middleweight) the WBSS chose for its inaugural tournament, the cruiserweights have been the most successful in realizing the WBSS’ dramatic vision. The cruiserweight tournament has featured the best fighters in the division engaging in captivating fights, all the while moving towards a unified and undisputed division champion. The reactions fans have had to the tournament seem to be the exact type of feelings that the WBSS creators had intended to cultivate with their branding: the celebration of great sporting competition and the celebration of the drama intrinsic within the sport of boxing.
Time will tell if the WBSS can build on its first year success. The cruiserweight division was mostly free of the promotional issues that might keep the best fighters from other weight classes from entering future tournaments under the WBSS banner. And a tournament that brands itself as the highest in world class competition will have difficulties maintaining that brand if it cannot enlist world class fighters on a consistent basis. In other words, you can have all the sizzle in world; but it matters little if you don’t have the steak.
This notion of substance is really the most important point in all of this. If Apple’s products were mediocre and cheaply made, it wouldn't matter how great their branding was. If Nike’s shoes were uncomfortable and flimsy, it wouldn't matter how many athletes they celebrated. At the end of the day a brand is only as good as the products it represents. HBO Boxing, Top Rank on ESPN, Showtime Boxing, and the WBSS each have an idea about how they would like to connect with sports fans. But if the fights, fighters, and narratives they put forward fail to represent boxing at its very best; then they will be in danger of trying to convince sports fans of believing something that is ultimately untrue.
This is what left Premier Boxing Champions looking up from the trash bin of failed brands. For there is one thing every smart company knows: consumers are wiser than you think, and you can only lie to them for so long before they figure out the truth. And for boxing’s competing brands, the truth about what they are selling matters now more than it ever has before. Because in a free, competitive market, the brands that connect with consumers will thrive and survive. While the brands that fail to connect might fade into irrelevance; or even worse, they might be forced to take the proverbial ‘knee’ after being bludgeoned into submission by the heavy right hand of consumer apathy.