Mayweather v McGregor: why is it happening and what does it tell us about the sports industry? .

Sergey Kovalev

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Mayweather v McGregor: why is it happening and what does it tell us about the sports industry?

Floyd Mayweather Jr and Conor McGregor have now completed a whirlwind, four-city press tour to promote their unlikeliest of encounters.

Arena appearances in Las Vegas on Tuesday, Toronto on Wednesday, New York on Thursday and a Friday evening trip to London’s SSE Arena, in the shadow of Wembley Stadium, have all been opportunities to escalate the trash talk and the braggadocio to controversial, occasionally unpalatable levels.

There are few who would not now be aware of the event to come: 12 rounds under Queensberry rules at light-middleweight between Mayweather, a five-weight world champion who has fought 49 times without defeat, and McGregor, a mixed martial arts superstar with titles in two divisions of the world-leading Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) and veteran of precisely zero professional boxing contests. The challenge for both men in the days and weeks ahead is to convert passing interest into pay-per-view buys.

With Showtime charging US$99 apiece for high-definition access in the US, and unsigned international broadcasters wondering what they might have on their hands, the hard sell has been the order of the day – even if that has sometimes meant bumping up against the limits of credulity, civility, and even acceptable racial and sexual discourse.

As a marketing exercise, there are elements of this that have been prevalent in professional combat sports for decades. Yet beyond the specifics of the fight, there is plenty the promotion can tell us about the state of fight sports and the wider industry.    

Building ‘sports’ events outside a sporting context

It has been said many times but probably bears repeating as the marketing takes hold that the sporting value in this contest is negligible. A handful of pundits have pointed to McGregor's powerful left hand and pugilistic MMA style as evidence he has at least a puncher's chance against Mayweather, but the likelihood of the Irishman getting anywhere near his opponent is vanishingly slim.

For two decades, Mayweather has routinely been the best-prepared, best-conditioned and best-drilled man in boxing. The American is a defensive genius who has nullified the threat of powerful aggressive opponents throughout his career – sometimes, as the likes of Ricky Hatton and Saul Álvarez will attest, with near-humiliating results. McGregor’s concussive hitting, his trump card and the sole variable in the contest, is untested against boxers who have the luxury of setting themselves solely to absorb, evade and counter blows to the head and upper body.

Mayweather would face similar odds if he stepped into the octagon, where he would probably be quickly overwhelmed by a man with more experience with leg sweeps and grappling. Randy Couture's rapid 2010 win over James Toney, a multi-weight boxing champion of no little pedigree, would be a fair indication of what to expect.


Conor McGregor sets the tone at a joint appearance with Floyd Mayweather Jr at London's SSE Arena

Put simply, there is no grand experiment being conducted here; no competitive momentum has thrown these two together, not even of the kind that makes super-fights happen years past their most relevant date in boxing. This is a nine-figure media confection.  

From an industry standpoint, it is no less instructive because of that. If the promoters show that it is possible to build an event this lucrative in this era on the back of the profiles of those involved, rather than the supporting infrastructure that competition is supposed to provide, then others will be minded to take note.

Shifts in the media landscape have rebalanced the scale of sports audiences and fanbases. Star athletes routinely have social media followings that are bigger than those of their teams, while the argument that team brands are more powerful than those of the tournaments they compete in is one that informs debates over the future of events like the Uefa Champions League. Investors circling those discussions, with designs on creating properties of their own, may be watching with interest.

Well-heeled companies have also begun investigating the possibility of creating their own sport-inflected events outside the parameters of traditional organised sport. The most talked-about marathon this year was not one of the major city races - it was Nike’s Breaking2, a heavily controlled, heavily branded assault on breaking the two-hour mark over the most celebrated endurance distance.

Over the weekend in London, some of the biggest names in 90s and early 2000s soccer returned for the Star Sixes, a small-sided indoor tournament that traded entirely on the residual appeal of the talents involved. The O2 did not sell out for the event but a sizeable roster of partners suggests there were those who saw value in the concept.

Legends tournaments and one-off promotional bonanzas are nothing new in the sports industry, but the indications are that they could be becoming more prevalent as the relative influence of different stakeholders changes and sport's capacity to tell easily accessible stories about recognisable people and settings grows in importance. Mayweather-McGregor provides a timely test case for how far they can be pushed in this media landscape.

UFC embraces the power of the athlete brand

Floyd Mayweather has made a career out of being the guy everyone wants to see knocked out, but is too damn good to be caught. It is a trick he has pulled off again and again, with the marketing of his fights stirring up just enough optimism about his opponent’s chances – or just enough irritation at Mayweather’s antics – to get the tills ringing before the man himself masterfully shuts down the contest in the ring.

In boxing, with its model of one-off big-ticket events, personalities have always been used to sell fights and personal brands are everything.

For mixed martial arts’ leading promotion, however, this is relatively new territory. Within the confines of its own audience, UFC has long had its fan favourites and its heels, from Randy Couture to Georges St Pierre to Anderson Silva and Jon Jones. Ronda Rousey is an earlier example of a breakout star with her enhanced media profile and Hollywood cameos. But there has been nothing yet like the McGregor phenomenon.

Part of that has been strategic. Under the guidance of its previous owners - the Fertitta brothers and their Zuffa vehicle - the UFC brand was the lodestar. No fighter was bigger than the series, and contests were scaled according to their sporting merit through a matchmaking system that often put boxing to shame.

Yet the enthusiasm of the UFC leadership for this event is hard to deny. President and long-time figurehead Dana White has been ever-present at press and media events from the outset, lending the impression of a co-promotion even when the championship’s branding has been entirely absent. The gameplan is easily discernible: let McGregor loose to secure his financial future, reap the benefits in many hectares of publicity and take as much as a US$40 million cut of the Irishman’s earnings.

UFC president Dana White (right) has been a visible and enthusiastic backer of the fight

It is somewhat less clear who or what has driven this change in approach. It may be as simple as timing: the opportunity to pair Mayweather now, at 40 and close to two years on from his last appearance in the ring, with a rampant McGregor creating just enough incentive to turn a pipe dream into reality.

Still, the shift in outlook is still palpable. Lorenzo Fertitta, the more media-facing of the former owners and a boxing fan from childhood, tended to avoid direct confrontation between the world’s most lucrative pair of combat sports other than to point to the administrative merits of his own organisation. Nevertheless, McGregor’s manager, Audie Attar, has said that Fertitta was “very instrumental in putting us together to really get everybody to talk and get on the same page when everybody started to see this was a real viable business proposition”.

The financial imperative, however, is one that likely coincides with the Fertittas’ departure. It is now a little over a year to the day since WME | IMG led a takeover of the UFC worth around US$4 billion. According to ESPN’s Darren Rovell, that sale was not only completed thanks to some aggressive growth projections – essentially a guarantee that the series could continue its rapid progress of the last decade, where turnover rose from US$50 million in 2005 to US$600 million in 2015 – but it also includes a salary for White of nine per cent of the company’s annual profits.    

Tellingly, the UFC’s long-term domestic broadcast deal with Fox, signed in 2011, also expires at the end of next year. Both the management and the new owners will be expecting a significant uplift on the reported US$100 million the current agreement is worth. Leveraging their most marketable asset to the hilt at a key point in negotiations may be enough to tip the scales in their favour. The involvement of CBS-owned Showtime in the Mayweather promotion, meanwhile, gives executives at Fox and elsewhere something else to think about.

Showtime’s new flank in premium content battleground

Premium subscription TV giants Showtime and HBO have been vying for supremacy in the US for decades now, with high-end entertainment programming forming the primary battleground and boxing - particularly on pay-per-view – adding a significant source of additional revenues and brand recognition. As new digital subscription platforms like Amazon Video and Netflix begin to make ground producing their own original programming – both rivalled Showtime and HBO in last week’s Emmy nominations for outstanding American television – live sports programming will continue to act as a key differentiator.

HBO has often been in the ascendancy but Showtime’s decision to clap a pair of golden handcuffs on Mayweather four years ago went some way towards redressing the balance. The two shared coverage of the biggest fight of the year outside the US - Anthony Joshua’s world heavyweight title bout with Wladimir Klitschko - with Showtime carrying live action from London’s Wembley Stadium and HBO airing a tape-delay in primetime. That promotion, however, was not on pay-per-view. The two most significant nights of boxing on US soil this year - Andre Ward’s light-heavyweight championship rematch against Sergey Kovalev and the middleweight super-fight between Saul ‘Canelo’ Álvarez and the unbeaten Gennady Golovkin - will both air on HBO’s PPV service.

Showtime Sports executive vice president and general manager Stephen Espinoza is flanked by Mayweather and McGregor

Mayweather-McGregor, then, is something of a bonus for Showtime, with its biggest draw coming out of retirement to deliver what looks likely to be another sizeable payday. There were 4.6 million pay-per-view buys in the US for Mayweather’s long-delayed 2015 encounter with Manny Pacquiao, with Showtime and HBO splitting the proceeds. Speculation that Mayweather-McGregor could threaten those numbers may yet prove overly optimistic but Showtime will be keeping the windfall to itself this time.

Firming up revenue streams is a priority as the marketplace changes. Both HBO and Showtime are transitioning from the age of premium cable - which is a set-up that serves neither well among the emerging demographics of ‘cord-cutters’ and ‘cord-nevers’, as both networks are expensive bolt-ons to traditional packages. Already, both are establishing themselves on digital platforms like Amazon Channels and Apple TV.

Visibility and reputation are as important as ever, even as the method of delivery changes.

“I think as a corporate strategy, our decision has been to try to be virtually everywhere we can be - whether that’s direct-to-consumer, whether that’s through traditional distributors, or even through Hulu, Amazon or now YouTube, all of which were available,” said Showtime Sports executive vice president and general manager Stephen Espinoza, speaking to SportsPro at Wembley Stadium at the end of April. “So the thought is that the content, whether it’s high-level boxing or award-winning series, is what drives the demand. Our job is to make it as accessible as possible, and seamlessly accessible, where and when the consumer wants it. That’s sort of our defence against technology - making sure that you’re meeting the demand where the consumer wants it.”