This writing appeared on the boxing website ucnlive.com as part of a monthly column series. The published version can be seen here: http://ucnlive.com/top-rank-goes-second/
Top Rank Goes Second
Sometimes it’s better to go second if you’ve paid attention to who went first.
This was a lesson I first learned around the age of twelve or thirteen. A friend and I had decided to race our bicycles in a hilly and wooded section of a local park. The dirt path we would use for our competition was no more than 4 feet wide, and wound its way up, down, and through various obstacles created by mother nature. This seemed plenty dangerous to me; but my friend insisted that we build a makeshift ramp at the top of a steep downturn in order to enhance the thrill factor of our run. To make a long story short, I had zero desire to be the first one to test our construction made of thin plywood propped up by rocks and throwaway objects. I quickly made up my mind that winning the race was not as important as letting my friend go first.
As we sped equally towards the launching point, I gently squeezed the brakes on my bike to adjust my position. From about ten feet back I watched as my friends bike snapped the plywood in two and jackknifed over rocks and debri. Head over handlebars he went; arms and legs flailing as he landed in a heap at the bottom of the hill. Without a helmet he was lucky to walk away with just a broken arm. As I pulled up beside his unfortunate landing spot, I was glad I had decided to go second.
Top Rank didn't really have a choice to go second in the boxing time buy business. Yet, it's fatefully determined position should afford it the benefit of avoiding the hazards that caused problems for Al Haymon and Premier Boxing Champions. Scattershot scheduling, inconsistent promotion, bizarre production theatrics, poor matchmaking, and outsized paydays are all practical business and production issues that Top Rank should be able to improve upon - simply because they’ve now seen what works and what doesn't. However, while these issues will ultimately be determined in a manner of Top Rank’s choosing; there are two other problems that Haymon and the PBC had which Top Rank will have no choice but to avoid. One was Haymon’s desire to take over the sport of boxing and eliminate all other competition. While the other was his knowing (or unknowing) undermining of the very essence of the sport he wished to dominate.
As I wrote a while back, Haymon had two choices when he secured the financial resources to launch his venture. He could have taken after famed crime boss Charles ‘Lucky’ Luciano; or he could have taken after a more recent Don in John Gotti. One formed the mafia ‘commission’, while the other sought to eliminate those that stood in his way. Haymon choose the Gotti route; which is his prerogative of course. But I always felt this kind of mentality led to decisions being made that were about domination, and not about what was best for business - let alone what was best for the sport. Top Rank can’t have this problem, at least not from the outset. It has neither enough fighters, nor enough resources to even contemplate a takeover. This is not to say that they are patron saints and wouldn't jump at the opportunity for domination. It is simply to say that circumstances (for now) have not afforded them the option.
The other issue of undermining the essence of the sport is a trickier one. This was the reason I was a strong detractor of the PBC before it even began. Though I will admit it is a hard case to make because it is not as concrete as ratings, ticket sales, or fight scheduling. I will not rehash all of the arguments I've made in the past here; but the basic idea is this: large amounts of money and corporate culture very often ignore, change, and exploit the very essence of the things they touch. You can see examples of this when a neighborhood in a large metropolis is gentrified. You saw it when Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes took over The New Republic magazine. And you saw it with Al Haymon and Premier Boxing Champions.
You saw it in the slight changes to ring walks and pre fight ceremonies. You saw it in the pushing of style and flash over substance. And you saw it in the disregard for engaged crowds and the awkward attempts to sanitize a sport where men fight for a living. All of these led to the feeling that Haymon had decided that because he had secured hedge fund money, the PBC needed to be run from a Wall Street boardroom and not a promoter's office. On this one issue, even after you consider all of their faults, I don't believe Bob Arum, Todd DuBoef, or Top Rank would succumb to this. Top Rank’s been around too long, promoted too many big fights (and fighters) to become separated from what makes boxing, ‘boxing’. Top Rank is like a restaurant that's been in the same neighborhood for forty years; to be around for that long they must have done something right.
Another intriguing difference between the PBC and Top Rank’s new venture is focus. Haymon’s initial ‘blitzkrieg’ consisted of multiple programs on multiple networks. While Top Rank’s venture is pretty much singularly focused on ESPN. Again, this decision might be as much about necessity as it is choice. Top Rank simply might not have the resources to launch on multiple networks simultaneously. Whatever the case may be, if you were starting a new boxing venture and had to pick one network to work with; ESPN might be the best choice.
In Derek Thompson’s recent book ‘Hit Makers: The Science of Popularity in an Age of Distraction’ he spends some time discussing the intricacies of ESPN and it’s quest for viewership. About ESPN’s importance to the Walt Disney Company (ESPN’s parent company) Thompson would write:
‘For the last decade and more the most valuable brand in media had been ESPN. For many years the sports network has accounted for half of the Walt Disney Company’s annual profit and more than its entire movie division.’
And on the subject of live sports and their importance to ESPN (and cable networks in general) Thompson would write:
‘Between 2010 and 2015 the amount of time 18 to 34 year olds spent watching traditional cable declined by 30%. To get people to sit down in front of a live show (and be present for live advertising) executives have doubled down on entertainment that must be seen now. That includes live musicals, live variety shows, live game shows, live singing shows, and most important, live sports. Sports are the keystone of the cable TV arch. Without them, the whole thing collapses.’
So it would seem that bringing a valued product to a network that is an important part of a 50 billion dollar company is a wise decision. It does raise the question about what might have been had Al Haymon focused all of his resources on ESPN. The current boxing landscape might be very different had he done so.
There have been some questions bouncing around social media about just how invested ESPN / Disney is in Top Rank's venture. Are they simply taking money to allow fights to be broadcast? Or are they a willing and active participant who will even support this outing financially. These are indeed important questions. However, I don't think they really matter in the grand scheme of things. Top Rank's venture will either succeed or fail on its own merits. And by the looks of things, its first salvo in this campaign was a successful one.
Former WBO welterweight champion Manny Pacquiao taking on little known challenger Jeff Horn was not a salivating matchup on paper. Yet in hindsight putting a fighter as famous as Pacquiao to star on opening night was a brilliant stroke by Top Rank. The ratings for the broadcast suggested that the headline of 'Pacquiao fighting on ESPN' was enough to draw interest from the sporting public. The buzz around the event was helped by that fact that the bout (a perceived mismatch) turned out to be competitive and controversial. Tweets by various athletes and celebrities flooded Twitter timelines with angst and dismay about the crooked nature of boxing. Their perception of the sport is indeed a problem. Yet on this night, simply getting them to watch could probably be seen as a victory.
As Top Rank moves forward with it’s ESPN enterprise it will not be able to rely on the name of Pacquiao, or mismatches that take a turn for the competitive. The next bout in Top Rank’s series features WBO Jr. Lightweight champion Vasyl Lomachenko in a seeming mismatch against Miguel Marriaga on August 5th. The only hope for Top Rank with this PBC-like bout is that Lomachenko entertains to the point where casual fans could care less about the shortcomings of his opponent. I wrote recently how Lomachenko has been brought up to me unprompted by casual boxing fans. One has to believe that a couple of hours of hype by ESPN’s Stephen A. Smith would only help enhance his notoriety. And yes, we all know how uninformed ‘Stephen A.’ is about the sweet science. Yet high profile media coverage by an idiot is still high profile media coverage.
For now, Top Rank seems to be in the star making business; not the takeover business. And with WBC and WBO super lightweight champion Terence Crawford seeking to unify the division against IBO, WBA, and IBF super lightweight champion Julius Indongo on ESPN on August 19th; it’s plain to see what their strategy is. Getting all those eyes that watch ESPN (including those tweeting athletes and celebrities) to witness (and hype) stellar performances by their best fighters. If Vasyl Lomachenko and Terence Crawford get the kind of attention that surrounded the Pacquiao-Horn fight; then Top Rank’s money will be well spent.
Yet attention alone will not be enough to maintain Top Rank’s venture in the long run. We would do well to remember that a big reason Top Rank was forced to pay ESPN to show boxing was because HBO decided not to pay them for dreadful mismatches. Yet, innovation often arises when there are few other options available. And no matter how Top Rank gained this opportunity, they are here now. There have been rumblings that the ultimate goal for Top Rank would be an over the top streaming service. Ironically, this was also rumored to be Al Haymon’s goal.
If Top Rank does begin to succeed and grow it’s stable, it could ultimately face the same temptations as Haymon did. A succeeding ESPN platform that provided the opportunity to corner more and more of the boxing market would be hard to share generously and tempting to monopolize. Yet a rising ESPN tide could most certainly be used to lift many of boxing’s boats.
Top Rank might find itself in a similar position as the most powerful NFL owners did many years ago when presented with the chance to secure a TV deal for their growing league. The owners of the most valuable teams didn’t have to share revenue with their less valuable counterparts. Yet they understood that what benefited the entire sport would ultimately benefit them.
If this is the one pragmatic business lesson that Top Rank has learned by going second down the time buy path; then boxing fans should all hope that their journey is a successful one.