It’s more than a little bit puzzling. How can a fighter tucked deeply behind a subscription paywall open the doorway to mainstream success. Yet, this is the logic behind Oscar De La Hoya’s latest public declaration.
Just about a week after stealing headlines away from the active players in the game by kinda, sorta announcing a comeback, “The Golden Boy” now claims to be waging war on fight fan ambivalence over the sport’s current product. And, according to the former champ and current promoter, his fighter Saul “Canelo” Alvarez is the key.
“If anyone doubted how badly boxing needs Canelo – the sport’s biggest star – back in the ring, look no further than the terrible ratings from boxing on network TV the last few weeks,” De La Hoya wrote via his verified Twitter account. “It’s a f-king embarrassment that sports-starved fans are flocking to baseball and the UFC & largely ignoring the greatest sport in the world. I have been working tirelessly day and night with our partners at DAZN to get a Canelo fight done ASAP and get our sport back on track.”
Since the sport’s return to the airwaves following the Covid-19 shutdown fan interest has been lukewarm. Top Rank shows on ESPN have been averaging in the 330,000-400,000 viewer range. Premier Boxing Champions (PBC) shows on Fox have done better. They’ve doubled and tripled the ESPN ratings since their return, but are still well below their pre-Covid average. PBC on Showtime has delivered ratings below that of the ESPN shows.
Over in the usually boxing-hungry UK, things have been similarly awful. Eddie Hearn’s return to Sky Sports on August 1 drew an average viewership of just 93,000. UK promotional rival Frank Warren’s card the night before, averaged a measly 3,000 viewers. Warren’s July show, topped by unbeaten heavyweight prospect Joe Joyce, averaged just 10,000 viewers.
There are a lot of theories as to why boxing has struggled since its return. The quality of the bouts hasn’t generally been great. Boxing’s biggest stars, for the most part, haven’t returned to active duty. The sterile atmosphere of shows without fans may also contribute to the lack of vibe. It could also be something more devastating for the sport. Fans getting a break from the sport could be realizing that they simply didn’t miss the frustrating stride of a sport handcuffed by business conflicts and hampered by an inability or unwillingness to give them the fights they want.
De La Hoya is correct in saying that fans have NOT shown that ambivalence when it comes to some sports, including boxing’s combat sports cousin, the UFC. A UFC pay-per-view main event featuring Justin Gaethje and Tony Ferguson (neither a top company star) at May’s UFC 249 generated 700,000 buys. July’s UFC 251, with Kamaru Usman vs. Jorge Masvidal atop the bill, generated 1.3 million buys. Even the UFC’s preliminary bouts prior to their secondary UFC on ESPN shows do twice the ratings of Top Rank’s main, primetime cards.
The nonsense part of De La Hoya’s war cry, however, is how he plans to ignite fan interest by ensuring that the sport’s current biggest draw is fighting behind a paywall, away from anyone but the most hardcore fans willing to pay for the privilege of watching.
If Oscar were really willing to fight for the sport’s comeback, he (and his DAZN broadcast partners), would put Canelo’s next fight on free TV. That would mean biting the bullet on the Mexican star’s $365 million dollar deal with DAZN. Something like that would definitely be good for the sport.
But, realistically, De La Hoya is probably just trying to leverage his fighter’s drawing power into a better deal for the fight currently being negotiated. All of this bluster was just about business. And this kind of business may be exactly what’s keeping fans away.