By David McIntosh
2019 could be a special year for boxing. For boxing fans, it could also be an expensive one. One of the first big UK domestic matchups of the year, between James Degale and Chris Eubank Junior, will be Pay Per View on ITV Box Office on 23rd February. Those tuning in can expect to pay around £20 for the pleasure. In the U.S. the Manny Pacquiao vs Adrien Broner fight comes in at a sharp $74.99. Happy New Year boxing fans! In the UK, 2019 will see a flood of PPV fights across multiple platforms in addition to fights broadcast on subscription channels and the very occasional display on terrestrial (free-to-air) TV. Last year we saw the welcome addition of live action on Youtube via the World Boxing Super Series, something we can only hope continues into 2019. Catching all of the action will require a healthy bank balance, a PhD in computer science to navigate the multitude of sign-ins and passwords, a steady eye on the boxing schedule and probably five remote controls. That tends to be fine for boxing fanatics (like me) but boxing promotors should be wary – squeezing the fans will push boxing further to the sporting fringes and that can be a risky strategy – just ask U.S. boxing.
Degale vs Eubank raises some important questions– firstly, where should the bar be set for PPV? The super-middleweight clash is almost the perfect fight from which to ponder that puzzle. A domestic fight with no credible belt on the line and no clear next step for the winner (unlike the WBSS fights). It certainly doesn’t scream PPV. Somebody somewhere has made a pretty brave judgement call and only time will tell if the call was a good one. For boxing enthusiasts, there is much to like about that fight. Eubank Junior remains something of an enigma and 2019 could see him ascend back towards the top of an exciting division. Degale has had a wonderful career and might just have a late bloom in him. Stylistically too, Eubank Junior relishes an opponent standing in front of him and Degale has never quite been able to resist being drawn into a scrap, something that has without doubt begun to catch up with him. It’s a good fight and accounting for the back stories and style match up I can probably make a case to myself to purchase the fight. However, the proof of this PPV pudding will not be made by hardcore fans like me. For PPV figures to work, broadcasters need more than the devoted followers – they need casual fans to tune in too. Will Degale v Eubank Junior appeal to them? Time will tell.
Another debatable point raised by the proliferation of PPV is the increasing cost of watching boxing. No boxing fan, dedicated or casual, will begrudge more money going to the boxers, particularly a warrior like Degale who has entertained us for years. If any sportsmen and women deserve greater reward it’s fighters. Like most, I would like to see the money distributed more widely and more deeply throughout the sport but that’s a more complex nut to crack. What PPV ensures is that the cost of boxing is concentrated on the enthusiasts, those willing to pay more, more often. But, as with all economies, the price will impact demand at some point. Whilst Degale v Eubank Junior might be a numbers success the impact might be felt by two other boxers later in the year as demand starts to falter. Instinctively, many casual fans will already have a subconscious annual limit for PPV of two to three fights. On the price point, perhaps, more importantly, PPV also creates a barrier between those who can afford to pay and those that cannot. For a sport steeped in working-class tradition, that is dangerous territory. How many kids from poorer backgrounds have actually seen Anthony Joshua fight? Eddie Hearn’s retort to such naivety would surely be “It’s a business! This ain’t Cuba mate! etc” which is entirely fair, but somewhere deep down the submergence of boxing under the weight of PPV doesn’t seem entirely right.
2019 could well see the UK and global boxing continue its amazing ascent. For the enthusiasts, it is truly a great time to be alive. But maybe 2019 could also be the year the sport slowly drifts out of touching distance for scores of casual fans and scores who cannot pay for a view. A promotor would tell you it’s nothing personal, it’s just business. Maybe so, but it’s also a shame. Let’s hope there is still a place for free-to-air boxing in 2019 too.