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Boxing’s pay-per-view model has changed drastically, will UFC eventually follow suit?

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Boxing superstar Canelo Alvarez is moving off pay-per-view after signing a lucrative deal with DAZN, but will we see the UFC’s approach to PPV change any time soon?

Gennady Golovkin v Canelo Alvarez Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images

The big news on Wednesday was sports streaming service DAZN announcing a five-year, 11-fight deal worth at least $365 million with middleweight boxing champion Canelo Alvarez (50-1-2, 34 KOs), bringing the Mexican superstar off of pay-per-view and onto a monthly subscription platform that is available in the United States, Canada, Japan, Switzerland, Austria, Germany, and Italy. According to Ring Magazine, this is actually a 10-fight arrangement for $350 million, which mathematically suggests that the “one-off” December 15th bout vs. Rocky Fielding is a $15 million guarantee. Everything else averages out to $35 million, with potential for more money based on meeting subscriber goals set by DAZN.

Alvarez has been the top North American pay-per-view draw in boxing over the past several years. His last three fights — the two bouts vs. Gennady Golovkin and his catchweight vs. Julio Cesar Chavez Jr — all eclipsed one million buys. The move to DAZN represents the biggest shift yet in the pay-per-view landscape for boxing, but also for the UFC.

SiriusXM’s Luke Thomas addressed this topic on The Luke Thomas Show radio program on Wednesday, and highlighted that the UFC is essentially the only combat sports promotion in town still heavily committed to putting its top draws on PPV.

“The UFC still intends on doing 12 pay-per-views a year for the next five years,” Thomas said. “I find that impossible to believe. Maybe they’ll try it in 2019, they might even try it in 2020, but I just don’t see how this works. You’ve got the major stars of boxing moving away from that. It’s going to look weirder and weirder. The WWE Network is not in on that kind of thing anymore. Yes you can still buy pay-per-views if you want, but they don’t really promote it.

“What’s left is UFC doing it,” he added. “You can say ‘they don’t have to do the PPVs!’ Well right, but remember how the deal works. It’s 10 on ESPN or ESPN 2, 20 on ESPN+, but then 12 prelims that will also air on ESPN as well from those pay-per-views. How are you going to make that up if you can’t do that anymore? I think that deal is going to change over time. I don’t see how any way — in the way in which it was written, for four or five years of 12 pay-per-views every single year? That to me seems absolutely impossible, and people like Saul ‘Canelo’ Alvarez are driving a nail into that pay-per-view coffin.”

Canelo may be DAZN bound, but by no means is boxing’s pay-per-view model going away (at least not that quickly). Premier Boxing Champions has the ability to do PPV events produced by both FOX and Showtime, while Top Rank on ESPN could conceivably do PPV cards, although ESPN did none in 2018. There will only be two major US boxing PPV shows for the whole of this year, a stark contrast from the 10 PPVs in 2006.

What is clear is that the top stars and pound-for-pound boxers are no longer predominantly or even exclusively on North American pay-per-view. It seems as if the answer to the recurring question of who boxing’s next pay-per-view draws would be after Floyd Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao was simply to reduce the need for pay-per-view. It’ll most likely take truly major matchups — Terence Crawford vs. Errol Spence or Vasyl Lomachenko vs. Mikey Garcia, for example — to merit PPV worthiness.

Major boxing promotions such as Top Rank, PBC, Golden Boy, and Matchroom are aligning themselves with FOX, Showtime, ESPN, and DAZN, with combined rights fees well in excess of $300 million per year. Vasyl Lomachenko has never headlined a pay-per-view and his next bout is set for ESPN. Terence Crawford has fought on ESPN and ESPN+. PBC talent such as Errol Spence Jr and twin brothers Jermell and Jermall Charlo may alternate between FOX and Showtime. The likes of Anthony Joshua, Oleksandr Usyk, and Naoya Inoue can currently be seen on DAZN.

It was only four years ago that UFC president Dana White declared that boxing “will go away,” adding that “Once everything went to a pay model, boxing stopped giving you good fights for free. As soon as that model ended your market starts to shrink when you’re only on pay-per-view.” Now moving forward, the overwhelming majority of top fighters and many of the most important boxing matches are either on “free” cable television or a monthly subscription model. Compare that with the UFC, which may run more non-PPV events than they do PPV, but almost all of its championship bouts are on PPV, and that’s unlikely to change by running a dozen PPVs on an annual basis under the ESPN contract. That’s a decrease of just one PPV compared to recent years.

The UFC may not operate identically to boxing, but with Canelo and the rest of the Golden Boy Promotions roster now on DAZN, they are still riding the pay-per-view wave at a time when boxing and WWE are backing off. You have to wonder how much longer they’re willing to do so.