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While the official numbers have yet to be released, “The Money Fight” between Floyd Mayweather and Conor McGregor by all indications lived up to its billing as a blockbuster financial success. It was one of those rare moments that forced the mainstream media and general public to take a peek into our world.
In an ironic twist befitting combat sports, the online pay-per-view demand resulted in an apparent crash of servers that impacted a number of fans who wanted to watch Mayweather-McGregor. Unfortunately, many of the fans didn’t get their wish and were left to vent about it on social media. A class-action lawsuit has been filed to seek damages for disgruntled parties. Showtime has already begun refunding some of their affected consumers, and the Ultimate Fighting Championship appears to be following its lead. Apparently, the same issues did not arise with consumers who purchased the pay-per-view through the traditional landline cable TV services.
Reports indicate that as many as 100 million viewers used illegal streams to watch the event. While the Internet has been a haven for illegal copyright infringement since the days of Napster and there’s definitely a segment of the population that would have pirated the event regardless, one has to wonder how many fans were driven to other means to watch the fight.
In my personal experience, the pay-per-view was purchased twice, crashed repeatedly and only became somewhat reliable -- there was still a noticeable lag at times -- shortly before the delayed main event.
This was among the happier endings for this debacle, but it presents another set of problems that any fight promoter relying on pay-per-view revenue needs to be wary of in the future. Mayweather Promotions used this spectacle to bring attention to some of its other contracted fighters who are supposed to carry the company into a future that doesn’t include its namesake. If you were like me and saw virtually none of the undercard due to these issues, what incentive do you have to buy a future event featuring Gervonte Davis or Badou Jack? Potential buyers of pay-per-views featuring those fighters may not immediately pony up the money considering that they still may have no clue who they are. It isn’t unreasonable to assume that those same potential buyers will want a free sample before committing funds. Whether this free sample will come from a broadcast on Showtime or a pirated Showtime PPV will be a question answered in the near future.
The only way you build stars is to make sure they’re seen. When there’s virtually no spotlight given to the undercard fighters in the buildup -- a consistent problem with the promotional structure of boxing -- watching their fights takes on even bigger significance. The infrastructure should be in place to accommodate demand and the growing amount of cord-cutter consumers. The cord-cutter community has accepted the fact that the nuances of wireless Internet can affect the quality of their entertainment outside of any issues with service providers and content creators. What that community will largely find unacceptable is paying its hard-earned dollars to get the same quality from those service providers and content creators that they can find free of charge in piracy.
Perhaps without realizing it, the promoters themselves have encouraged a fair deal of piracy recently. UFC President Dana White in the past several months has gone on smear campaigns against his own champions. Flyweight champion Demetrious Johnson has been publicly destroyed and had his fighting spirit questioned; and after the extremely short-notice withdrawal of women’s bantamweight champion Amanda Nunes from UFC 213, White shared similar sentiments that were then repeated at length by fans and pundits. UFC 215 on Sept. 9 features both champions in respective headlining and co-headlining roles. White has already mocked the Johnson-Ray Borg main event by sarcastically saying “pay-per-views will be off the charts.”
In the immediate aftermath of UFC 214, ironically the highest-selling event of the year for the promotion at a reported 850,000 buys, White wasted no time in skewering welterweight champion Tyron Woodley following his title defense against Demian Maia. “Who wants to buy a Woodley fight?” echoed from the podium with no sarcasm or hyperbole. However, when it comes time to sell the next welterweight title fight, the general public is expected to answer his rhetorical question. If any fans are on the fence about purchasing UFC 215 and/or Woodley’s next fight, the attitude of the promoter can sway opinions. A promoter going out of his way to diminish the product being sold is simply counterproductive. If sales are lackluster, how much of the blame falls in White’s lap? How many fans who may have considered buying in will decide against doing so? How many will decide that while it’s not worth buying, it is worth streaming? These are questions that the promotion should be doing its best to not have answered.
Other boxing promoters, namely Bob Arum and Oscar De La Hoya, were quite vocal about their disapproval of the Mayweather-McGregor bout. While Arum acknowledged the public thirst for the event, De La Hoya penned an open letter discouraging fans from paying for the fight. The reasoning behind his harsh words -- which later included an expletive-filled tweet close to fight time -- has been linked to the upcoming showdown between Saul “Canelo” Alvarez and Gennady Golovkin under his Golden Boy Promotions banner. However, De La Hoya may want to rethink discouraging the public from buying into a product like Mayweather-McGregor. No matter what he or any other opposition to that matchup might have said, people were going to watch it.
Fans willing to spend disposable income on combat sports pay-per-views should not be discouraged from spending that money when there’s clear interest. With the abundant amount of illegal streaming of live sports shows, interest and willingness to spend money don’t necessarily go hand in hand. The more potential consumers decide to keep their money while staying interested only increases the likelihood they will resort to illegal streaming to watch the next event. Any fight fans who decide to stream one event can very likely do it again. That would include the Sept. 16 Golden Boy Promotions offering. While the buying public has limited resources for which various promoters are competitively vying, such encouragement to hold onto its cash can start a trend among fans that will be very difficult to break.
On the contrary, fans who are satisfied with the product are logically more likely to buy again. Also, the attention and hype generated by Mayweather-McGregor can roll over into financial gains for rival promotions. At the open workout for Alvarez-Golovkin on Monday, De La Hoya even acknowledged the benefit of the extra attention “The Money Fight” brought to boxing. When I asked him about it, here was his response: “Absolutely, I’m excited. We have an opportunity to put boxing back on the map.”
With the average consumers seeing their limited entertainment dollars pulled in many directions, the temptation to keep that money remains strong. The availability of illegal streaming content is unlikely to decrease. In fact, as technology improves and more families opt to be cord-cutters, the opportunities for piracy are only enhanced. Fight promoters who still rely on pay-per-view dollars should be doing their best to maintain that revenue stream instead of finding ways to tear it down.
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