Moment that mattered: The richest fight in boxing history takes place in Las Vegas
“Three hundred million people watched the 1971 bout between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier on television for a then-record purse of $2.5 million. In comparison there were 4.4 million US pay-per-view purchases of the
Mayweather-Pacquiao fight, yet the purse, a reported $300 million, was over 20 times bigger after adjusting for inflation. The reason for this is the advent of pay-per-view. Before its arrival it would’ve been hard for somebody like Mayweather, the world’s highest-paid athlete, who made a reported $240 million from the fight on 2nd May, to make that kind of money from a fight.
In 1921 boxing became the first sport to be broadcast on radio and by the 1960s it was very popular on television, to a large degree because it was the only thing you could watch on a small screen and understand what was going on. You could see somebody beat somebody else’s brains out, but with cricket, for example, you could barely see the ball. Likewise, baseball was almost impossible to watch.
However, in the past 50 years, boxing has increasingly become a minority interest. It has a very intense appeal to a relatively small number of people. That’s ideally suited to pay-per view, which didn’t exist until quite recently. You can target an audience and extract a lot of money from the fairly small number of people who are extremely interested. The pay-per-view fee for the Mayweather-Pacquiao match in the US was $99 for high definition. In a sport like football there’s almost no match that would sell at that price. The World Cup final, perhaps.
“If boxers’ heads repeatedly receive life-threatening blows they should get 100 percent of the money”
But there’s a trade-off between using pay-per-view and free-to-air – between generating money to invest and sustaining a long-term interest in the sport. For example, the England cricket board took the decision in 2004 to sell the broadcast rights to international test match cricket to Sky rather than Channel 4 [a free-to-air terrestrial broadcaster]. This has been a lasting controversy. On the one hand they get more money from Sky and so they claim they can do more to develop the game. But on the other hand there’s a generation of kids who, unless their parents have Sky, can’t watch international cricket.
On moral grounds, I don’t think children should be encouraged to watch boxing. But there’s a generation of kids who won’t have seen it simply because of the economics: their parents didn’t pay for pay-per-view. In other sports, there’s organisation around development and there’s an argument for sports bodies to use money to promote the sport more broadly. There’s a huge effort to encourage participation in recreational football and tennis. In boxing, the money goes to the boxers and that’s probably as it should be – if their heads are going to repeatedly receive life-threatening blows they should get 100 percent of the money. People like Mayweather and Pacquiao perhaps have limited interest in the development of the game so they’re likely to opt for pay-per-view. In the run-up to the fight, Mayweather even said ‘I’m a pay-per-view fighter’.
And of course boxers can’t box every 72 hours. Unlike football players, who you can see on a regular basis, boxers have physical limits on the number of bouts they can fight, which means that the top boxers command very high prices for individual performances. They have a limited number of belts that they can engage in during their career. When great boxers turn up, you don’t have many opportunities to see them fight.
Not that I actually saw this particular fight myself. I don’t watch any boxing. It’s a barbaric sport that ought to be banned.”
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