By Keith Idec
LOS ANGELES – Seventy-four, ninety-nine.
It’s an unnecessarily sneaky way of trying to sell something for $75, in this case the Deontay Wilder-Tyson Fury fight Saturday night at Staples Center for Wilder’s WBC heavyweight title. It’s also an indication that pay-per-view boxing events will hover near this price point for the foreseeable future in the United States.
Long gone, apparently, are the days of a U.S. boxing pay-per-view show costing $60 or $65 to watch in HD, forget $50 or $55. Satellite and cable companies insist that you can purchase Wilder-Fury for $65, but that’s only to watch it in SD, an obviously outdated form of technology.
At least, though, there are fewer pay-per-view fights these days than in the past. This will be the first such event Showtime will distribute since Mayweather-McGregor generated approximately 4.3 million buys, an astounding success in an age when piracy plagues pay-per-view business.
Even though it cost $100 to view in HD, Mayweather-McGregor became boxing’s second-most lucrative pay-per-view event because boxing’s biggest star and mixed martial arts’ greatest attraction fought each other. Mayweather and McGregor were proven pay-per-view veterans.
That’s obviously not the case with Wilder (40-0, 39 KOs) and Fury (27-0, 19 KOs), which begs the question of how much is too much to charge for this type of fight?
For all their power and personality, as well as their persistence in marketing this intriguing heavyweight title fight during these past couple months, neither Wilder nor Fury has headlined a pay-per-view event in the United States. They’ll test their marketability as much as their boxing ability when the Alabama-based knockout artist and the brash Brit that upset Wladimir Klitschko clash.
“Pay-per-view is the most honest form of judging a boxer’s worth,” Frank Warren, Fury’s promoter, told BoxingScene.com. “You either buy it or you don’t buy it.”
In the United Kingdom, where boxing has become increasingly popular over the past few years, more consumers will purchase Wilder-Fury on pay-per-view than in the United States.
The UK – which includes England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales – consists of about 66 million residents. Roughly 326 million people reside in the United States.
Those aren’t the disproportionate numbers that are most meaningful as it pertains to pay-per-view boxing. No, those would be £19.95 and $74.99.
That first figure, which equates to approximately $25.50, is how much BT Sport Box Office will charge fans in the UK to watch Wilder-Fury at probably sometime between 4:30 and 5:30 a.m. GMT (11:30 p.m. and 12:30 a.m. EST). At essentially a third of the price, it’s no wonder Wilder-Fury will sell better in the UK than in the U.S., where boxing has been relegated to a niche sport.
The consensus among industry insiders is that the floor for Wilder-Fury buys in the U.S. is around 250,000. If it produces just at that rate, Wilder and Fury stand to make eight figures apiece for risking their unblemished records and potentially a shot at heavyweight cash cow Anthony Joshua.
If Wilder-Fury does 350,000 buys in the U.S., it’d be considered very successful because both boxers are making their debuts as pay-per-view headliners.
Based on their inexperience compared to such superstars as Mayweather and McGregor, and more recently Canelo Alvarez and Gennady Golovkin, why, then, not price Wilder-Fury lower than $75 in the U.S. market?
“There are a lot of interesting questions that probably can’t be answered, except by actually experimenting with the market,” Stephen Espinoza, Showtime’s president of sports and event programming, told BoxingScene.com. “Promoters are worried that if they rolled back prices and experimented with a $50 price point, maybe on that particular event you wouldn’t get a greater number of sales and then you would’ve left a lot of money on the table. Maybe that’s easy for all of us to stomach and say, ‘OK, the experiment didn’t work.’
“But if you’re the fighter in that fight, that may be your one opportunity at a big payday. So it’s difficult to experiment when each fighter in each event is sort of a separate entity. And there’s also a concern on the part of promoters that lowering the price point would send the message that this is somehow an inferior event, as opposed to higher-priced events, and therefore a tacit acknowledgment that this isn’t quite as good as the pay-per-view a couple months ago that might’ve been priced 20 bucks higher.”
Mark Taffet is considered perhaps the foremost pay-per-view expert in boxing. The television executive-turned-manager spent 32 years with HBO Sports and was involved in organizing 190 pay-per-view events from 1991-2015.
He helped launch HBO’s pay-per-view business in April 1991, when that premium cable network’s TVKO distributed the Evander Holyfield-George Foreman heavyweight title fight for $35.95, before the advent of HD television. Holyfield-Foreman produced 1.45 million buys, which only convinced promoters Dan Duva and Don King that they should’ve charged more money to watch it on pay-per-view.
There were times during Taffet’s long run at HBO that they lowered the price of pay-per-view boxing events. Slight price deceases never made dramatic differences in buy rates, according to Taffet, because a certain core number of boxing fans will buy pay-per-view fights regardless of the cost.
“Pay-per-view, by definition, is a product where people get together like they do for the Super Bowl,” Taffet told BoxingScene.com. “Six, eight, 10 people per household. Pay-per-view is not something people watch individually. It’s something they watch in groups. It’s a social-gathering experience. And as a result, dividing the cost among the viewers turns into a small figure, usually less than the cost of a movie ticket, on average. The truth is the price of refreshments, the drinks and the food, often exceeds the cost of the fight itself when you have six, eight, 10 people or more watching the fight. And efforts to reduce the price, in my experience, never generated increases in volume that warranted the price reduction.”
Warren was responsible for launching boxing’s pay-per-view industry in the UK when his company distributed the Mike Tyson-Frank Bruno rematch in March 1996. Warren wanted to charge twice what Sky Sports, then his partner, was willing to make customers pay to watch that fight at about 5 a.m. (£12).
These days, most pay-per-view boxing events cost approximately £20 in the UK, still nowhere near what’s charged in the U.S., where U.S.-based main events begin at more reasonable times.
“In the UK, what has become entrenched is their price point of just under £20,” Espinoza said. “And that has become such tradition, there is a lot of reluctance to push that higher.”
While Warren believes pay-per-view boxing in the United States is too expensive for fans, he recognizes that there’s no turning back now.
“If you go back on the price,” Warren said, “then the next generation of boxers would have to take less money or less of a guarantee.”
Espinoza, mindful of consumers’ complaints, would welcome some experimentation with lowering pay-per-view price points.
“But,” Espinoza explained, “no one really wants to be the guinea pig. And we understand a fighter doesn’t wanna train for 12 weeks, do a lot of promotional work and not maximize the revenues that are available. I understand that fans grumble about pay-per-view, but I also understand what the fighters do because it’s the ultimate in entrepreneurship.
“There aren’t many people that would say, ‘I am going to work and train for 12 weeks and not know exactly how much I’m gonna make at the end of it.’ And that’s the risk the fighters are taking on the pay-per-view.”
Ideally, Espinoza would prefer televising even the biggest bouts on Showtime because ultimately the premium cable network’s mission is to increase its subscriber base. Some fights simply are too expensive, however, to be subsidized by even Showtime’s largest license fee and wouldn’t happen if not for pay-per-view.
Distributors such as Showtime earn approximately 10 percent of the 50 percent of pay-per-view revenue that’s left after cable and satellite providers take their 50 percent off the top of those $75 buys. The remaining revenue is divided up among the participants.
Taffet projected that’ll be a substantial figure, despite that Wilder and Fury haven’t headlined a pay-per-view event.
“For boxing fans, price isn’t the issue,” Taffet said. “The issue is the fight itself. Is it worth your money? And in the case of Wilder-Fury, if you’re a boxing fan, that seems like a fight that is very worth your money. I think the fight has the potential not only because of Wilder’s knockout record in the ring, but because of the personalities of both guys outside the ring, to generate a significant amount of business.”
Keith Idec is a senior writer/columnist for BoxingScene.com. He can be reached on Twitter @Idecboxing.