- Dan Rafael, ESPN Senior Writer
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Roc Nation Sports, the agency founded by music superstar Jay Z in April 2013, quickly made its mark in athlete representation and now plans to bring its muscle to boxing as a promoter.
"There's no question the sport of boxing needs a new player, someone who can do something different," Michael Yormark, the president and chief of branding and strategy for parent company Roc Nation, told ESPN.com on Sunday night. "We're energized, and we're going to make a difference. This is a huge priority to us. This is a highly serious business to us."
Roc Nation Sports made a splash when it powered its way into the rough business of representing athletes, making headlines by signing stars such as Kevin Durant of the Oklahoma City Thunder, Seattle Mariners star Robinson Cano, New York Yankees pitcher CC Sabathia, New York Jets quarterback Geno Smith, New York Giants wide receiver Victor Cruz and Indianapolis Colts receiver Hakeem Nicks, among others, and negotiated contracts worth hundreds of millions of dollars.
While Roc Nation Sports has yet to sign any boxers, the company made a big move by hiring David Itskowitch to serve as the chief operating officer of its boxing division.
Itskowitch, who said Roc Nation Sports has already secured a promoters license in New York and Washington, D.C., is a highly respected and experienced executive with 18 years in the boxing business.
"This is a serious business for us moving forward, and Dave has one of the great reputations in the boxing industry," Yormark said, adding that Jay Z and Roc Nation Sports president Juan Perez are big boxing fans. "Hiring him should be a loud and clear statement this is serious for us and that we will do this the right way. We have one of the most respected individuals in the sport leading the charge for us.
"We didn't wake up yesterday and decide we wanted to get into the boxing business, but our first significant move was to bring Dave into the organization. This is an opportunity for us to change the game. It's been in the works for the last six or eight months, and now we are making our move. Jay Z has an incredible passion for boxing. We want to take the platform we've created and bring that to the boxing industry. We want to bring more money and visibility to the sport and give the boxers opportunities outside the ring."
From 1996 to 2000, Itskowitch, 39, of New York, worked for former HBO Sports senior vice president Lou DiBella, who was responsible for programming the network's fights. When DiBella left HBO to found his own promotional company, Itskowitch went with him and worked as his right-hand man from 2000 to 2006.
Itskowitch then joined powerhouse Golden Boy Promotions as its chief operating officer, working for Oscar De La Hoya's company from 2007 until resigning last summer to take some time off. During his time there, Itskowitch got to know Yormark, the former president and CEO of the NHL's Florida Panthers (before leaving the team to join Jay Z's company), when Golden Boy had a deal to promote several cards at the BB&T Center, the Panthers' home arena.
"We're going to promote our first event by the end of the year, and we're currently strategizing on which fighters we will seek to sign," Itskowitch told ESPN.com.
"We're looking to make an immediate and dramatic impact on the sport. We feel we can do that, and we plan to build Roc Nation Sports into a boxing brand by leveraging Roc Nation's current marketing, public relations and branding infrastructure. We're going to brand Roc Nation Sports fighters, and we're confident that branding will lead to financial opportunities both in and out of the ring that will be available nowhere else."
Itskowitch said Roc Nation Sports is willing to work with any promoter, manager or television network, something uncommon in boxing.
"We're starting with a clean slate," he said. "One of boxing's biggest problems is that the audience is getting older, but we have an infrastructure that can reach younger fans. We believe that is something we can do based on what we already have in place."
Yormark said the goal is not only to put on quality boxing events but also to do for the fighters it will eventually sign what it tries to do with the other athletes it represents.
"There's no question Roc Nation Sports can create celebrity status for boxers and align them with corporate America," Yormark said. "Look at the success we've had with our athletes and [recording] artists [represented by parent company Roc Nation]. That is what we do, and we do that better than anyone. We will be able to build brands for these boxers and build their careers outside of the ring. That's the difference that Roc Nation will bring to this sport."
Said Itskowitch, "We will be a promoter, but our job won't end once a guy fights on a particular Saturday night. We will promote him 365 days a year."
2dMalik Smith, ESPN Stats & Information