On Nov. 14, two of the best boxers in the world square off in Las Vegas. The welterweight fight between Manny Pacquiao and Miguel Cotto will be carried on HBO PPV. Who will be watching? "Tens of millions all over the world," as ringside announcer Michael Buffer would intone. But how about the U.S.?
Todd duBoef, president of Las Vegas-based Top Rank, which promotes both fighters, concedes the brand's own fight is to build something like MLB-, NBA-, NHL- or NFL-style brand identity in the U.S. That task isn't made easier by the confusion that most people have about belts, rankings and even the fighters themselves.
All that may be changing. For one thing, boxing is the second-most-popular sport among the fastest-growing demo in the U.S. -- Hispanics. And the sweet science has also gotten mileage from programs like Versus' "The Contender" and HBO's "24/7." The latter, launched in 2007, follows opposing fighters' personal and professional lives leading up to their fight. HBO launched a major campaign for the program this year to reach a younger audience. Marketing Daily shakes off the ring rust with duBoef.
Q: Given all of the pro sports that draw marketers, what does boxing offer to brands?
A: I think there's massive opportunity. Of course, one of the natural sides is the Hispanic base in the U.S. But professional boxing is one of the top three sports everywhere in the world. Not in the U.S. -- but if you go to Latin America, it's soccer and boxing. Also in Australia, though you also have Formula racing there. In Asia, boxing is very popular.
Q: Does the popularity of specific boxers determine or reflect the popularity of the sport?
A: I would say if you turned back the clock, that question was applicable in yesteryear's model of marketing products around boxing. But now I would say it's not about any one fighter. It's the exposure of the brand and the product of boxing itself.
Look, it isn't Larry Byrd or Magic Johnson who created pro basketball; what got the interest was the NBA itself. I really believe we have wonderful characters and wonderful stories -- great attractions and stars -- but the truth is we have to bring the product itself to the forefront. Shows like [HBO's] "24/7" build the brand by educating the fan base, so people know and love the product.
Q: Have mixed martial arts (MMA) and Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) helped or hindered the boxing brand?
A: I can't answer that. Our studies show that the overlap of fan base is less than 8%, so I don't believe their fans are our fans. But I do believe that Dana [White, president and co-founder of UFC] created something that has made all of us who have marketed our product take note that it's about the sport.
So I think a lot of creativity in our marketing plan results from some of the things we have seen: MMA was an online phenomenon initially, while we took a more archaic traditional approach to marketing. Now we are going back to the online world and doing lots of proactive media. MMA brands were forced to go online because traditional media wouldn't cover them. We, on the other hand, were supported by traditional media, but now see lots of opportunity online.
Q: How does the Web help you bring in consumer brands?
A: When I'm looking at my marketing plan for this upcoming fight and see our online presence is somewhere around 135 million impressions, I can go to a brand and show them what we will be generating.
Q: Why have consumer brands been scarce in boxing hitherto? Is it because they don't like boxing as a marketing platform?
A: Basically, companies always loved boxing, but when it was taken off of the terrestrial media and put on premium channels, networks had a void for content and sponsors could not move to premium platform -- there was no (ad) buy. And professional boxing went from 90 million homes to 15 million homes on HBO. So it's not that advertisers aren't interested, it's that they didn't know how to connect to it.
Q: Is that changing?
A: I have been approached by brands and involved in the last 12 months in an enormous amount of corporate support by companies who want to put their arms around the business and put their brands in boxing, and I think that's basically turning back the clock. People are seeing that boxing does well, crosses all demographics, and is global in scope. My events are bigger than any NFL game or NBA game [globally]. I don't believe this story of boxing has been told correctly. Now it's starting to get there. There's real momentum.
Q: Are there product endorsement deals in the works for boxers?
A: There's a conventional wisdom around product endorsement by an athlete in boxing: "When they get into the ring they are wearing nothing you can sell." When a fighter gets in ring, few are going to buy boxing trunks and shoes. But [brand marketers] are being more creative now. They see a symbiosis between products and athletes in other sports.