High-profile promoters and leading executives from the broadcast and sports agency world gathered in New York in March to unveil a product that would “change the world of boxing.” Six frenetic months later, the World Boxing Super Series made its debut in Berlin, complete with spectacular lighting and a Champions League-style pre-match anthem.
The venture, launched by Comosa AG, a Swiss company founded in early 2015, was years in the making, and brings together industry heavyweights such as Modern Times Group, boxing promoters Kalle Sauerland and Richard Schaefer, former MP & Silva chief commercial officer Roberto Dalmiglio and Highlight Event and Entertainment, the company spun off from Team Marketing.
The simple (yet radical) format for the series has sparked criticism from some of boxing’s diehards, while some in the sports business industry have questioned whether there will be a commercial return on investment on the $50 million in prize money (and other costs) as fighters seek to land the Muhammad Ali Trophy.
Recent news of the departure of chief commercial officer Roger Lodewick after just five months in the role brought into sharp focus the commercial challenges facing the WBSS.
While the stakeholders signed up to commercialise the venture look better placed than the doomed ‘Super Six’ series, held between 2009 and 2011 but plagued by the withdrawal of several participants, sponsorship sales remain slow as the nascent venture builds up its broadcast footprint.
Fighters in the classes of cruiserweight and super middleweight classes are taking part in the inaugural edition, comprising two concurrent elimination tournaments, the draws for which were made at Monaco’s Grimaldi Forum in July.
The tight turnaround left Comosa and MP & Silva, the agency hired to sell international broadcast rights, with challenges going to market, but key deals were signed in the likes of Germany and the UK, and MTG, as a backer of the series, is committing to handling the broadcast production and showing the fights in the Nordic and Baltic territories.
The likes of Dalmiglio and Peter Nørrelund, MTG’s sports chief, have helped to sculpt the commercial offering, and the close involvement of experienced promoters like Kalle Sauerland has been key in providing sporting nous and working through boxing’s matrix to sign up 16 fighters across nine promoters (plus reserves).
Sauerland, the son of renowned promoter Wilfried, is well versed in hyping up a fight and adopts the same approach when discussing the World Boxing Super Series, a project he says has been met with cynicism among his peers as to whether it will reach a second season.
He stressed last month: “The broadcaster response has been unbelievable. They have all been waiting for a format. A broadcaster can’t [normally] rely on boxing [for scheduled programming], on output deals and on getting that regular consistency in its programming because boxing by its nature is an opportunistic sport…
“…[but] Forget Super Bowl, forget the FA Cup final, the Champions League final. In terms of revenues, nothing touches boxing when it works. There’s no product in the media world – on the entertainment or sporting side – that touches boxing.”
A revenue share on pay-per-view sales in key markets will drive much of the series’ commercial income, but the ticketing sales also promise to provide sizeable returns
A revenue share on pay-per-view sales in key markets will drive much of the series’ commercial income, but the ticketing sales also promise to provide sizeable returns as and when the property takes off. “You tell me something else that gets you $75-million gate receipts from 16,000 people,” notes Sauerland in clear a nod to recent money-spinning bouts fought by Floyd Mayweather.
He points to “the biggest boxing deal” he has ever seen in Turkey (with Tivibu, Türk Telekom’s digital pay-TV platform) as evidence that broadcasters grasp the World Boxing Super Series concept.
Like the competition format, the broadcast ethos behind the series is clear. Deliver slick appointment to view TV throughout the year to ease scheduling headaches in a fragmented sport (encouraging long-term deals in the process). The walkout time for headline fights remains the same (11pm CET for European fights and 11pm EST for US fights), the associated shoulder programming is delivered to broadcasters throughout the week and weigh-ins adhere to strict schedules.
Nonetheless, the weight classes currently offered have not enticed certain markets, with rights in some notable territories remaining unsold as the series began and a free internet stream offered by organisers instead (in USA, Japan, France, Italy and Spain).
Consideration is being given to a lower weight class in season two to attract Asian broadcasters, while the Latin American market is another target (currently only Cuba is represented among the fighters).
Streaming of the Berlin opener was also available in the UK after ITV released the digital rights, and attracted more than 40,000 viewers despite just a few hours’ notice. Impressive figures that led the website to crash despite extra bandwidth being bought. TV viewing figures were not as remarkable – Sat.1 pulled in an audience of 1.3 million (and 7.2-per-cent share) in Germany – but with such a short lead-in time that comes as no surprise and ratings are sure to improve.
The Marco Huck-Oleksandr Usyk opener in Berlin attracted 5,890 fans, while the Callum Smith-Erik Skoglund fight in Liverpool was far from a sell-out, but the presence of local Latvian favourite Mairis Briedis has ensured a bumper crowd at the Riga Arena. With a lowest ticket price of £35 for the Smith-Skoglund fight, organisers have food for thought over the necessary price point to fill its venues.
Attending a World Boxing Super Series highlights some of the ground-breaking changes implemented.
A rousing pre-fight video and anthem, unmistakably evoking aspects of the Champions League, pre-empts the entry of the boxers
A rousing pre-fight video and anthem, unmistakably evoking aspects of the Champions League, pre-empts the entry of the boxers. A circle of lights surrounds the ring and seats are set back to leave space for the gladiatorial entries and podiums on which both boxers stand. The set and grandiose lighting is de-rigged after each fight and moved on to the next venue.
It’s a ‘big global concert tour’ or ‘Game of Thrones meets boxing’, according to Sauerland.
A radical shake-up of how boxing has been presented, but will it lead to commercial success? And just when is it fair to judge the measure of success (or failure) given free-to-air broadcast exposure key to any hefty sponsorship is still being built up?
Adding a third weight class in season two will be a clear sign of the commercial model taking off, the stakeholders feel.
Dalmiglio is bullish when asked about when the $50-million prize fund and costs can be recouped, saying: “We have very strict rules respecting the budget. We have a three-year plan that is very clear. In all honesty, we believe that from the second season you could see good business results, meaning that if we go to the books, there is a positive Ebita.
“If you look at the development of the media product and how it is embraced within the media environment and how we can expand the brand then I think year one will already be a good one.”
The challenge will be persuading broadcasters and sponsors alike to sign long-term deals to commit to the series, especially with TV networks accustomed to signing up only for individual bouts featuring fighters of local interest.
Dalmiglio reveals that, in certain situations, Comosa has recommended just one-year deals so as to protect the true value of the property.
He says: “There is a total trust in the quality of the product and we strongly believe from a business perspective that there is a lot to do around boxing. We are delivering a media product but we want to be careful in the way in which we monetise and not really rush. We have a very strong shareholding structure and they totally trust the job that has been put on the table. We don’t run behind easy money.”
The venture is certainly not alone in launching without sponsorship inventory sold (look no further than the European Rugby Champions Cup’s search for partners) – and, in fairness, the sponsorship sales can only be evaluated after the broadcast platform is properly established.
Three tiers of centralised sponsorships have been devised, but only StubHub, which is paying a rights fee and providing ticketing services, had been signed up (at the third tier) as the competition began. Two local sponsors – a German holiday booking website and a Ukrainian betting operator – were signed up for the Berlin premiere only, but organisers opted against such local deals for the second fight in Liverpool. Gazi, the Turkish dairy products manufacturer, was a local sponsor of this month’s clash featuring Turkish fighter Avni Yildirim.
Expect a mix of local and centralised agreements in season one as the sales team strives to stick to lofty prices attached to the top sponsorship category
Expect a mix of local and centralised agreements in season one as the sales team strives to stick to lofty prices attached to the top sponsorship category.
And what of the Champions League association? Marketers and fighters alike have dropped in the name of sport’s commercial behemoth to drive interest in the series, and the similarities in presentation are undeniable. Two fans talking to me in Liverpool ask why the branding looks like European football’s illustrious competition.
The executives behind the series shy away from too much of a direct link, however. And you can see why.
The topic is a sensitive one given that Highlight Event and Entertainment was spun out of Team Marketing to allow Highlight to pursue other sporting projects and protect itself against ever losing its Uefa business. While helpful in attracting attention, the comparison also brings with it perhaps unrealistic expectations of weighty commercial sums flowing in to the series over three-season cycles.
Sauerland feels that it would be “foolish not to look at the Champions League with its most successful IP in sport and not take elements from it,” but Dalmiglio notes: “We don’t intend to replicate any type of set-up. Of course we want to deliver the best. What we believe is that boxing has been a little bit mistreated in the past. Our answer is creating a proper media product that will deliver the best of the best.”
Having gone live in September with gaps in broadcast distribution and a paucity of sponsors, the series is unlikely to have shaken off all of its critics. But the time has not yet come to judge a fledgling project that is radical in its approach and supported by years of commercial preparation.
Convincing some broadcasters, sponsors and traditionalists that it is “changing the world of boxing” will take longer.