- Darren Rovell, ESPN.com Sports Business reporter
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It has been a public relations battle that boxing has been fighting for years -- commentators and columnists looping the sport in with the decline of horse racing, a sport that, with boxing, was once top of mind. Disappointing bouts, too many belts to give out, and not enough content outside of pay-per-view events to grow its casual fan base were all part of the narrative.
But it's becoming harder to make a sound case that the sport is anywhere close to the graveyard.
"People who think boxing is dead or is dying are either ignorant or lazy," said Stephen Espinoza, executive vice president of Showtime Sports and Event Programming, which signed a six-fight deal with Floyd Mayweather Jr. in February. "It's a mindset that says, just because it doesn't hit their own radar or they are not aware of it, it must not be important. But if you do the research, you can see the boxing market is thriving."
Critics of the sport's health like to point to the big bouts as anomalies that stand out against a background of generic names, with trunks and gloves on, that the general public knows nothing about. But it's hard to deny that those in charge of sports programming have committed to boxing more than ever before.
Forget Saturday night's main fight, in which Mayweather, the highest-paid American athlete, will earn a guaranteed $41.5 million. This year, Showtime will broadcast two times the number of hours of boxing it had last year. The thirst for content, as the cable sports landscape grows more competitive, has been kind to boxing.
The CBS Sports Network, which owns Showtime, has expanded its coverage, as has NBC Sports, which added a Main Events series in January. New entrant Fox Sports 1 debuted a Monday night series last month to join mainstay ESPN and its "Friday Night Fights" franchise.
As sports rights fees have skyrocketed, boxing has delivered from both a revenue and time-filling standpoint.
"Boxing is cost-efficient and has a lower barrier of entry," Espinoza said. "Plus, you can pick and choose a la carte at different price points. In 2013, there will be more boxing on television than there was in any of the last 20 years."
While boxing insiders take offense to those who constantly challenge the sport's place in the world, the truth is that the constant talk has pushed them to deliver. And while so many have looked to the Ultimate Fighting Championship to replace boxing, the reality is the model created by UFC has actually changed how promoters and boxers look at their own sport.
Unable to control quick takedowns and tapouts, UFC champions frequently lose, and the audience doesn't seem to mind. That's in stark contrast to the boxing world's agenda in past decades, which included giving its biggest stars easy fights to inflate their record.
"The boxing world has finally understood that their job is to create the best fights," said Richard Schaefer, CEO of Oscar De La Hoya's outfit, Golden Boy Promotions. "In that sense, I think everyone has taken something from the UFC playbook. They've realized that you can have champions who are 8-4 and people don't care that much."
Schaefer says the boxers have gotten the message, too.
"They know that it doesn't matter if you are undefeated or close to undefeated," Schaefer said. "If you aren't cautious and you don't dance around the ring like you are scared to lose, you will be rewarded."
Schaefer points to a boxer such as Marcos Maidana, who started his career 25-0, but has lost three times in his past 12 bouts.
"Marcos is a big puncher who is going to lose when he makes mistakes, but he's a joy to watch," Schaefer said. "Networks are going to pay him because he's fun to watch."
Saturday's main event between Mayweather and Canelo Alvarez, two undefeated fighters, likely will break all financial records, but it's what is happening at the lower levels that makes those involved in the sport so excited.
"Millions of people in this country watch one fight a year," Espinoza said. "But if they have a really good experience, we believe they'll watch two or three."
Saturday is that chance, as Showtime's budget for the undercard alone is record-breaking. Driven by the appeal of Alvarez, who is extremely popular in Mexico, Corona has come back to the American boxing scene. Why is that so important? Because Mexican beer brand Tecate, which had pumped so much into the sport in the past couple of years, isn't widely distributed in the U.S. Compare that to Corona Extra, which is the second-best selling non-light beer in the country, trailing only Budweiser.
The numbers for Saturday are eye-popping. All indications are pointing to the pay-per-view record of 2.44 million home buys from the 2007 bout between Mayweather and De La Hoya falling. Then add in all of the bars paying $2,000 to $5,000, depending on capacity, the 26,000 closed-circuit tickets being sold in Vegas and the more than 550 theaters across the country charging $100 a head.
People like to repeat what other people say. But I'd argue that, in the last 12 to 18 months, the sport has never been healthier.
"-- Richard Schaefer, Golden Boy Promotions CEO
The live gate revenue will top $20 million, which likely will be second all-time when factoring for inflation (Lennox Lewis-Evander Holyfield II in 1999 is No. 1). Although prices might have seemed high when they were announced in late June -- the lowest price being $350, the highest being $2,000 -- tickets sold out in less than 24 hours. And that doesn't include the resale market, where the get-in price for the worst seat has hovered at about $1,700. Brokers say that number could come closer to $3,000 as the fight gets closer and as Mexican fans, historically cash buyers, start showing up in droves.
Only 20 percent of the tickets went to the casinos, many of which give the tickets away to bring their high rollers into town. As Vegas competes with Macau for the world's biggest whales, this fight is important.
"Only one fighter brings the huge high rollers from the Far East, Russia and the Ukraine, and that's Floyd Mayweather," Espinoza said. If projections pan out, Mayweather's total take could top $100 million on the night.
No matter how this fight turns out, it seems like talk will immediately steer back to who will replace a character like Mayweather, whose flash has brought the urban market to the game like never before. This is despite Mayweather still having four fights left on his Showtime contract after Saturday night.
"When Oscar retired, everyone said, 'Who will replace him?' " Schaefer said. 'Now people are saying, 'When Floyd retires, who will replace him?' Floyd might be the best boxer of all time, but he's definitely the best boxer-marketer of all time. It's easy to say boxing will die. People like to repeat what other people say. But I'd argue that, in the last 12 to 18 months, the sport has never been healthier."
5dMalik Smith, ESPN Stats & Information