To understand why the pay-per-view sales of Floyd Mayweather's masterpiece victory over Canelo Alvarez last week in Las Vegas did so well, it requires some understanding of why so many want to throw dirt onto boxing and bury it.
Boxing historically has been one of the most poorly organized, poorly run sports in professional athletics. Even in its heyday, it was a loosely run business where the rules were adjusted on the fly, or ignored altogether, to suit the needs of a given promoter.
There were no business plans written, outlining strategies for success. Anyone who wants to be a promoter, with just a few dollars in the bank, can do so. There is no barrier to entry and so no end of miscreants, naïve dreamers and con artists who have called themselves promoters.
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If boxing were a publicly traded company, it would have been committed to the history books long ago.
For decades, there have been too many titles and too many cheaters and too many mismatches and plenty of ignorance about sound business practices.
In February, shortly after Mayweather shocked the sports world by signing a six-fight, 30-month deal with Showtime, he announced he would fight Robert Guerrero in May. Not long after that, Alvarez opted not to fight on Mayweather's undercard and instead chose to headline a Showtime card in San Antonio in April.
At the time, it seemed like an ill-advised choice by Mayweather to not make certain Alvarez fought on his undercard. I said at the time that putting Alvarez on the Mayweather-Guerrero undercard would have added at least 250,000 sales to the total.
The public never was particularly intrigued by the Mayweather-Guerrero match. Many casual fans had never heard of Guerrero, and the Hispanic fans, particularly the Mexican and Mexican-Americans who are such a large part of boxing's constituency, didn't consider Guerrero "Mexican enough" and opted not to buy the fight.
There was no heat surrounding the bout and little expectation that Guerrero had a chance. The publicity for the fight, which hadn't been good to begin with, really tumbled when Guerrero was arrested for trying to bring a gun onto a plane midway through the promotion and essentially went undercover. He barely spoke to the media again after the arrest until the week of the fight, when the public had long since decided it was not interested.
Golden Boy CEO Richard Schaefer told Yahoo Sports the fight sold 1.02 million pay-per-view units, a massive number for pay-per-view but a disappointment for a Mayweather fight. Sources told Yahoo Sports the figure was actually less than 900,000, but Schaefer and Showtime Sports executive vice president/general manager Stephen Espinoza strongly deny that.
Whatever the truth, there is no arguing the public was less than enthralled with the event.
When it ended, executives from Golden Boy, Showtime and Mayweather Promotions got together and examined their work. They looked at what they did correctly and what didn't work.
The result was perhaps the finest promotion in boxing history, a well-conceived effort that created an incredible demand for the product. Their efforts were a spectacular success, resulting in 2.2 million pay-per-view sales that generated nearly $150 million.
Those executives at HBO who were chortling at Showtime's struggles with the Mayweather-Guerrero fight were laughing no more. More likely, they were physically ill, because Mayweather fought most of his career with HBO, and HBO allowed him to walk to its top competitor.
Mayweather made a savvy choice by agreeing to fight Alvarez. Alvarez had the credibility as an opponent that Guerrero did not. Many believed that the 42-0-1 Alvarez not only had a chance to beat the 44-0 Mayweather, but that he might even knock the smaller man out.
The public must believe the star – Mayweather – can be beaten to make it an over-the-top success, and in this case, it did.
Those seeds were sown in April, when Alvarez met Austin Trout before 40,000 fans at the Alamodome in San Antonio on Showtime. Trout was coming off an impressive victory over the great Miguel Cotto; Cotto had been coming off an impressive effort in a loss to Mayweather. The public understood that Trout was no joke.
Alvarez knocked Trout down en route to a victory by decision, a win that confirmed that he was, indeed, one of boxing's elite. He wasn't just a small guy moving up to take on the top name in the sport, as Guerrero was doing. Alvarez was the bigger man and was not only a big draw in his own right, but was perceived to be nearly as talented.
The narrative that the Mayweather camp had been pushing for so long, that its man was the greatest boxer who ever lived, would be sorely tested by Alvarez, the thinking went.
To showcase its match, promoters took Mayweather on an expensive cross-country tour. It cost $2.5 million, but it generated enormous media coverage that came with a consistent theme: This is a real fight; Alvarez has a chance. It would be no walkover.
The thought of seeing Mayweather lose seemed to energize the Alvarez-leaning media, as well as the young star's burgeoning fan base. The fans chanted and cheered Alvarez's name again and again, while the reporters turned him into a larger-than-life figure that made him appear the equal, on paper, of his legendary countryman, the great Julio Cesar Chavez.
The message was delivered not only via the media, but by the promoters themselves. The support material for the fight – the countdown shows, the tour highlights, the previews – were delivered online like never before. Anywhere boxing fans congregated on the Internet, they could find Mayweather-Alvarez content.
For several years now, boxing promoters have staged what they call "an arrival ceremony" for big fights in Las Vegas. It matters not, for instance, that Mayweather actually lives in Las Vegas. Promoters set up this elaborate ruse that the fighters are just landing in town and urge fans to come out to greet them.
What it really amounts to is a clever move designed to get an extra day of media coverage. Normally, it's attended by Las Vegas-based and West Coast reporters. The bulk of the media covering these fights arrives later in the week.
In this case, though, the arrival ceremony was overrun by major media. They saw an elaborate setup in the MGM Grand that outdid anything previously attempted. There were more than 2,000 people cramming the lobby of the massive hotel, so many that they jammed back into the casino itself.
The fighters arrived and walked down a red-carpeted runway, with cameras flashing and cheers arising. To the side was a large fight merchandising sales area that was constantly busy.
The elaborate set-up helped send the intended message, that this was a major event worthy of purchase. It wasn't missed by either the fans or the media.
It was so good, it rendered meaningless a horrific news conference the next day in which Mayweather was 40 minutes late and amounted to nothing more than a thank you-fest for the sponsors. It was televised live and was a terrible experience for those watching.
But by that point, the bout was long confirmed to be a success and so the poor news conference did little to hurt.
It was the right matchup with the right promotion at the right time.
Fans wanted to see if Mayweather could hold off this strong, tough challenger. They wanted to see if Alvarez would make like Chavez and beat his seemingly invincible foe.
CBS provided support on its NFL and college football broadcasts, repeating the message over and over.
In the end, it was a record pay-per-view revenue day and ultimately might become the No. 1 pay-per-view in terms of buys. That is held now by the 2007 Oscar De La Hoya-Floyd Mayweather fight, which sold 2.525 million. However, the results of that pay-per-view were originally announced at 2.15 million.
Whether it gets the record or not, though, the Mayweather-Alvarez fight showed that when done right, fans will support boxing in large numbers.
The sport's struggles and lack of success over the years is not due to the fighters or flagging fan interest, but to incompetence among the promoters and corruption among its sanctioning bodies.
Showtime, Golden Boy and Mayweather Promotions did virtually everything correctly this time and wound up with one of the great successes in the sport's history.
It's not going to be easily repeatable, but the same formula that worked for Mayweather-Alvarez can and will work again.
It's just up to the promoters to find that magic elixir.