Springtime for DAZN

The boxing promoters, the assorted network public relations flacks, and their hired and unhired guns who pass themselves off as boxing media, may try their hardest to pass this year off as a great success for boxing. But behind closed doors, the TV and streaming network suits and their relentless bean counters must know that their product is at best underperforming, even in the almost-rare circumstances when they present good fights.

On April 20, two of the elite welterweights in the world were fighting—not each other, of course, and not on the same network. Terence Crawford, near or atop everyone’s pound-for-pound lists, predictably stopped the oft-battered Amir Khan, whose corner stopped the fight in the sixth of mostly one-sided rounds after an inadvertent low blow by Crawford. This was shown on ESPN pay-per-view in front of some 14,000 fans at a not-sold-out Madison Square Garden. Various media reports put the number of pay-per-view buys in the 150,000 range, a disastrously low number for such a talented fighter and would-be star as Crawford. Perhaps this show made money or broke even, despite a reported $5.5 million going to Crawford and another $5 million to Khan, but it did nothing to create buzz for Crawford, who by now at age thirty-one with a record of 35-0 and 26 KOs deserves to be as popular as any flopping basketball player you could name.

The other top welterweight fighting was a former champ, Danny Garcia, who faced the tough Adrian Granados in the main event of a show aired in the US on Fox. Granados had never been stopped before, even when he faced Shawn Porter in 2017. In Porter’s next fight, he won a unanimous decision over Garcia. But on April 20, Garcia, looking as sharp as he ever has, dropped Granados twice in round two en route to the referee mercifully stopping the battering in round seven to give Garcia a TKO win.

In the ratings, this show was also a bust. Being shown on the Fox broadcast network in prime time on a Saturday night, the show averaged a little over a million to place Fox dead last in the ratings of the four big broadcast networks. A good fight, plus a showcase win for Andy Ruiz Jr. over a hapless Alexander Dimitrenko—which apparently helped land Ruiz a June 1 date with Anthony Joshua—was almost unnoticed by anyone outside the boxing bubble. And don’t think the Fox suits didn’t notice these paltry ratings for a product for which they paid millions.

Since Garcia fights for PBC on Fox and Showtime, and Crawford for Top Rank on ESPN, the likelihood of their facing each other, or Crawford facing any other top PBC welterweight like Errol Spence Jr., is nil for the foreseeable future. Both networks have invested heavily in their exclusive contracts with these promoters and “advisors,” and don’t want to share anything with their rivals unless the money is so big, as with Mayweather–Pacquiao, that they all will fleece enough people to take home a couple of mints.

But their main enemy of enemies, of course, is the new, independent kid on the block, DAZN, the streaming service launched in the US only in September of last year but which has signed many top stars including Saul “Canelo” Alvarez, Gennady Golovkin, Danny Jacobs, and, for the moment, Anthony Joshua. The old networks consider themselves at war with DAZN, which they want to stamp out before DAZN threatens their own streaming plans. DAZN fashions itself becoming the “Netflix of sports,” and the TV suits know the decline of their old broadcast and cable networks is related directly to their failure to embrace new technology and compete with Netflix and Amazon Prime.

One of the top reasons—and the most important for many—that consumers stay with old cable TV providers and networks in the first place is that this is the best way to watch live sports. Movies, TV drama, comedies, and the rest are no longer appointment viewing, so watching them on various apps or websites whenever you want has become common. This is not so for live sports, where viewers want to see it for themselves live and before the results become known and posted all over social media and news sites.

Now here comes DAZN, threatening these old outfits by grabbing live sports content around the world, and in the US first focusing on boxing, Bellator MMA, and a new Major League Baseball wrap-up show. And don’t think the suits at Fox, Showtime, and ESPN think that their boxing product is impervious to the same forces that drove the AT&T-owned HBO to drop boxing after forty-five years to focus on megahit shows like “Game of Thrones.” Fox, Showtime, and ESPN are copying the pay-per-view-based playbook and model that landed HBO Boxing in the museum of TV antiquities. With DAZN signing former pay-per-view stars such as Alvarez, DAZN is in major growth mode, and a target of those who want to crush it. Even with their recent price increase, DAZN costs only $19.99 per month or $99.99 for an entire year to watch all that you can, obviously a bargain compared to one pay-per-view for sixty to a hundred bucks.

Perhaps someone will try to acquire DAZN, maybe Comcast whose NBC Sports is relatively weak in streaming outside the Olympics. Comcast recently acquired from the Murdochs Sky in the UK, which already shows Matchroom fights including the highly successful Anthony Joshua pay-per-views there. This is based not on any inside knowledge, but an understanding of how the concentration and centralization of capital works or, as is more popularly known, the big fish swallowing the little fish. Or DAZN could skyrocket into a successful standalone entity on its own, as Netflix and Amazon have done. But don’t expect anything other than fierce competition from the wounded and dying old-style TV networks.

DAZN has reportedly set a goal of expanding to one million subscribers in the next several weeks and has a loaded schedule to attract boxing fans who thirst for big-fight action. This past weekend was likely DAZN’s best in terms of quality fights, with cards on Friday, April 26, and Saturday, April 27, which had fans abuzz.

The Friday card had a 122-pound title unification fight between T. J. Doheny and Danny Roman that saw many memorable moments of back-and-forth action. Roman scored a knockdown in round two and pulled away in the second half of the fight with another knockdown in round eleven to earn a unanimous decision in a compelling, top-level fight, handing the bloodied but brave Doheny his first defeat.

This was followed by a rematch of one of the top fights of last year, as WBC super-flyweight champ Srisaket Sor Rungvisai faced Juan Francisco Estrada. Their first encounter was a close one, with Rungvisai taking a majority decision. The rematch was good though not as dramatic, as Estrada dominated, outboxing and getting a unanimous decision over a surprisingly flat Rungvisai, who didn’t seem himself until late in the fight when his effort was too little, too late. Rungvisai also, inexplicably, didn’t stay in his usual southpaw stance until late in the fight, indicating either a badly-flawed game plan, an injury, or both. But Estrada fought brilliantly, leading many to argue that he now belongs among the elite fighters in the sport.

The next night, April 27, DAZN aired a doubleheader featuring two semifinals from the World Boxing Super Series. Two more fights, two more knockouts, and two more memorable bouts.

First up was in the bantamweight division, where the veteran Nonito Donaire faced late replacement Stephon Young, following an injury to Zolani Tete. The thirty-six-year-old Donaire had not been expected by many to make it this far in the tournament, but a fourth-round injury in the quarterfinals to Ryan Burnett, who seemed to be winning that fight up until that point, gave Donaire the win. Donaire was also not expected to defeat Tete, but here he was in the semifinals, looking as sharp and powerful as ever, outclassing Young. It all ended in round six when Donaire knocked Young out cold in a potential knockout of the year candidate. Now Donaire advances to the finals against the winner of the other semifinal between two unbeaten fighters, the incomparable Naoya “Monster” Inoue and Emmanuel Rodriguez, who fight May 18.

The other semifinal, in the 140-pound super-lightweight/junior-welterweight/light-welterweight (take your pick) division, was on paper a much closer affair than what ended up happening in the ring. One of the tournament favorites, Regis Prograis, faced Kiryl Relikh, an underdog but a fighter who had never before been stopped. Prograis wasted no time making a statement to the world about his abilities, dropping Relikh with a body shot late in round one, and probably breaking his nose in round two. With speed, movement, punch selection, and accuracy, Prograis outclassed and broke down Relikh. In round six, Relikh’s corner stopped the fight. Prograis looked brilliant and made the statement he had wanted to make by beating up Relikh. Next for Prograis is the 140-pound finals of the World Boxing Super Series tournament against the winner of the Josh Taylor-Ivan Baranchyk fight, which also takes place May 18.

This past weekend was indeed a creative triumph for DAZN, at least in terms of quality and memorable fights. DAZN has the North American rights for the World Boxing Super Series, which is sure to please serious boxing aficionados.

Curiously, Showtime’s kamikaze effort against this DAZN show on the same night featured one of the worst main events in memory. The Robert Easter Jr. versus Rances Barthelemy fight produced round-by-round punch stats that were almost negative numbers. It should have been called Not The World Boxing Super Series. Who at Showtime thought that Easter–Barthelemy would be a worthy main event? And the early TV ratings seem to indicate that this was a bust in that department as well.

Fox, Showtime, and ESPN refused to show the World Boxing Super Series so they could protect their fighters with mismatches instead of the competitive tournament fights found in that series. And the watering down of talent, with each network hoarding their own limited stash of fighters and thus airing stinkers, gave us this, which was even far worse than expected.

DAZN’s quest to build and, more important, retain a solid subscriber base will hit a critical point this Saturday, May 4, with a fight that in the old universe would have been an expensive pay-per-view—Saul “Canelo” Alvarez against Danny Jacobs for middleweight supremacy. Both fighters had extremely close fights with Gennady Golovkin, each ending with controversial verdicts. Canelo–Golovkin I, in 2017, was ruled a split draw, with many believing that Golovkin deserved the win. Canelo–Golovkin II, in 2018, ended as a majority decision for Alvarez, again with opinions divided about who deserved the win. Golovkin–Jacobs, also in 2017, ended in a close unanimous decision for Golovkin, once again with many disputing the outcome and saying Jacobs deserved a victory.

While styles make fights, of course, what this means is that these three are all elite middleweights, and a reasonable case can be made for either Alvarez or Jacobs winning. That makes this a must-see fight even for casual boxing fans, who have been driven away by high pay-per-view prices, regularly scheduled mismatches, and boxing’s corrupt governance, which includes preposterous decisions, worthless piles of sanctioning body title belts, and, to some, rampant doping.

While their fights of 2017 and 2018 had razor-thin margins, however you scored them, Alvarez–Jacobs in 2019 could end differently. Alvarez looked more focused and powerful in his rematch with Golovkin than in their first fight. After fighting Golovkin, Jacobs had three wins, but, surprisingly, seemed to struggle in his two most recent outings against underdogs Maciej Sulecki and Sergiy Derevyanchenko, the latter of whom he defeated only by split decision. Now Jacobs is thirty-two years old, while Canelo is four years his junior, at a prime twenty-eight. Jacobs has a height and reach advantage, and has typically shown more fluid movement than Alvarez, but the younger man knows that and might neutralize Jacobs by trying to keep the fight on the inside.

The other factor is that this fight is in Las Vegas, the “City of Sin,” where boxing officiating lives up to that moniker. The judges for this fight are the same three as for Canelo–Golovkin II: Dave Moretti, Glenn Feldman, and Steve Weisfeld. How that plays out in a fight where a decision seems a real possibility will be known when it’s over. But boxing is boxing, Vegas is Vegas, and Alvarez is the main draw, so include those facts in predicting whether or not there will be yet another sinful outcome.

Boxing is a sport and business still bound by the chains of tradition. In the past, most revenue came from arena ticket sales. Now it is primarily a TV sport, and increasingly a TV and streaming sport. That’s where the main money, money, money comes in. But the old guard running boxing has been slow to embrace that new reality. DAZN’s barging into boxing has forced them to confront this. And with DAZN slated to feature Anthony Joshua’s June 1 fight at Madison Square Garden, this is DAZN’s time to shine. Shine they did this past weekend, and likely once more on May 4.

We will see how long it takes for DAZN to reach that one million subscriber goal in the US. They have already placed numerous commercials on TV sports events for Canelo–Jacobs, including a humorous video with comedian Tracy Morgan of Saturday Night Live and 30 Rock fame, mocking expensive pay-per-views. While DAZN is part of an international company with a large staff and pool of money, at some point all those expenses have to yield results. This is their shot at accomplishing that.

So right now it is springtime for DAZN. Where it leads, to summer romance or to broken hearts and depleted bank accounts, will be better known in time. But don’t count DAZN out simply because of their initial spending spree. It wasn’t that long ago that broadcast TV networks scoffed at cable as third-rate trash, that print publications (remember those?) chuckled at the Internet as a business pipe dream, and companies like Amazon and Netflix were viewed as doomed from the get-go. Adapt or die, so for whom the coffins will be fitted will become obvious soon.