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Boxing’s new wave of broadcast deals is leading to big paydays for many fighters

As new TV and streaming deals are locked down, boxing promotions and networks are in the midst of a highly competitive battle for top fights and top fighters.

Sergey Kovalev v Eleider Alvarez Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

You probably don’t know who Eleider Alvarez is. If you read this too quickly you’re wondering why Eddie Alvarez is in an article about boxing. To be fair, many casual boxing fans likely aren’t aware that the Canadian by way of Colombia is the reigning WBO light heavyweight (175 lbs) champion after his shocking KO of Sergey Kovalev last August, in what was his first US television main event.

When Alvarez (24-0, 12 KOs) returns to the ring on February 2nd, it’ll be an immediate rematch against Kovalev, who enacted his rematch clause. HBO televised the first fight, but their days of covering live boxing are over, so the ESPN+ streaming service gets the second bout, which marks the first under Alvarez’s new co-promotional deal with Top Rank Boxing.

Having spent years accepting step-aside fees from then-WBC champion Adonis Stevenson, who repeatedly bypassed Alvarez when he was a mandatory challenger, Eleider’s win over Kovalev marked the first major title fight of his career, and it’s set the 34-year-old up for some serious paydays down the line.

Citing Radio Canada, a report from Boxing Scene says that Alvarez is guaranteed a seven-figure purse “for as many as seven fights,” and that he “will also receive a percentage of any pay-per-view event that he headlines and ticketing revenues for all events.” If he were to lose his title, the terms would be revised.

Alvarez is just one of several examples of elite boxers cashing in on the current spending spree we’re seeing from boxing promotions and their increased budgets as part of a wave of new and extended television and streaming deals in North America. Hell, Eleider is a distant second in terms of boxers named Alvarez cashing in on attractive offers.

If you’ve not been paying attention, the boxing broadcast scene has undergone drastic changes over the last two years. Top Rank ditched HBO to go to ESPN. HBO Boxing officially shuttered its doors last month. Streaming service DAZN launched in the United States last year and houses Matchroom Boxing and Golden Boy Boxing stables, with Anthony Joshua and Canelo Alvarez respectively the two biggest names. Premier Boxing Champions extended its agreement with Showtime and then signed a deal with FOX Sports. Combined rights fees of these competing promotions almost certainly exceed $300 million per year for well over 100 annual events.

Of course, it’s one thing to have the platform and the available dates, but it’s another to be able to deliver premium content on a consistent basis. What has transpired is an arms race of sorts for fights and fighters that will significantly shape the sport over the months and years to come.

For instance, Tevin Farmer (28-4-1, 6 KOs) is the IBF junior lightweight (130 lbs) champion, having lost in controversial fashion to Kenichi Ogawa in December 2017, only for Ogawa to fail for steroids. His second bite at the cherry saw him win the vacant title against Billy Dib, and his two title defenses thus far have been on DAZN, as part of a co-promotional deal between Lou DiBella and Matchroom USA. When Farmer fought Ogawa, his official purse was $70,000. His Matchroom contract is reportedly worth up to $2 million for four fights, which is undeniably above market value. One outlet claims Farmer made roughly $700,000 for his TKO of James Tennyson in October, and then had a quick turnaround and won a decision vs. Francisco Fonseca last month on the Canelo vs. Fielding undercard.

While it never went through as planned, Billy Joe Saunders (27-0, 13 KOs) was slated to face Demetrius Andrade for what was Saunders’ WBO middleweight (160 lbs) title in October, but the Englishman failed his drug test and lost his title. Saunders is not attached to any US network, but Eddie Hearn struck a deal to put Saunders-Andrade on DAZN, and had Saunders not popped for oxilofrine, he would’ve stood to make a career-high $2.3 million. Andrade, who is with Hearn’s Matchroom Boxing, remained on the card and beat Walter Kautondokwa for the vacant title, and still kept his $800,000 purse. Looking to finally be a more active fighter under a more stable promotion, Andrade is set to take on Artur Akavov on January 18th in New York, and ideally is in much better bouts than that one moving forward.

Last August, Top Rank and Matchroom went to purse bids — the highest-bidding promoter wins the rights to promote a sanctioning body’s mandated title fight — for the WBO junior welterweight (140 lbs) bout between champion Maurice Hooker (Matchroom) and Alex Saucedo (Top Rank). Top Rank was able to outbid Matchroom by $70,000, meaning ESPN got the rights over DAZN, but the aggressive bidding for two men who’d never headlined a major show led to Hooker getting a career-high $1.2 million, while Saucedo also had a career-high of about $400,000 as part of the 75-25 split. Hooker won by TKO, so he kept his title and DAZN/Matchroom can still boast a champion. There is no chance either man would’ve commanded that much money prior to 2016.

In a classic case of “you win some, you lose some,” Top Rank had lost the bid to Yvon Michel for the WBC light heavyweight title defense between Adonis Stevenson and Oleksandr Gvozdyk, however controversial that may have been. Stevenson’s purse was north of $1.2 million, Gvozdyk’s was a career-high $661,815, and he took the additional $210,100 (10% of the winning bid) as a bonus by winning their December fight, which was aired on Showtime. Gvozdyk became the new champion and took a major belt back to Top Rank and ESPN. I’d be remiss if I did not note that Stevenson is out of his coma after his KO to the Ukrainian.

You may bemoan the alphabet soup world of boxing titles — only the WBA, WBC, IBF, and WBO are the major ones — but they effectively double as bargaining chips for fighters, and more so for networks/promoters looking to entice prospective free agents and opponents to compete on their platforms. Alvarez isn’t getting a huge Top Rank contract if not for beating Kovalev. Farmer isn’t commanding an average of $500,000 per fight if he isn’t IBF champion. Are these overpayments relative to their value as commercial draws? It may seem so. Even Hearn has argued as such as a fight promoter, citing the inflated purses of PBC fighters (which are often larger than what’s written down on commission sheets).

“No,” he said. “Everyone was bubbling along but we came in and everyone has had to up their game and spend more money. Basically the impact we’re having is the same as the PBC had, when they started. They were overpaying fighters, we had to step up, Top Rank and everyone had to step up and now they’re overpaying again.”

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“Fighters in America are drastically overpaid because what they’re generating commercially, it doesn’t stack up to the numbers of the purses. But there’s never been a better time to be a fighter, that’s for sure.”

Perhaps it’s because of PBC’s hefty purses — this is courtesy of powerful manager/adviser Al Haymon — that DAZN has been unable to sign the likes of Jermell and Jermall Charlo, Adrien Broner, Gervonta Davis, Mikey Garcia, and Jarrett Hurd despite making formal offers.

And this story has more twists and turns approaching. Former unified middleweight champion and network free agent Gennady Golovkin (38-1-1, 34 KOs) hasn’t made his decision on where his fighting future will be. Other network free agents include IBF middleweight champion Daniel Jacobs (35-2, 29 KOs) and WBA light heavyweight titleholder Dmitry Bivol (15-0, 11 KOs). If Jacobs wants to unify titles with Canelo Alvarez or Demetrius Andrade, he’d head for DAZN. Should Bivol go for ESPN, he’d join two other titlists there and Top Rank would have three of the four major belts at 175 lbs.

This obviously doesn’t apply to every and any boxer, titleholder or not. That’s why the headline reads “many fighters” and not “all fighters.” There are still going to be scores of reputable pugilists who aren’t being sought after and thus are stuck getting meager paychecks. When Top Rank restructured its deal with ESPN, it didn’t mean the rank and file got their purses raised, but Terence Crawford has already signed his own extension that will up his paydays to well over $3 million per bout whether he’s on ESPN, ESPN+, or PPV.

What does this mean for us as consumers? Well we don’t know yet. Going from HBO/Showtime to ESPN/FOX/Showtime/DAZN could result in a modernized version of the same “promoter/network wars” fractured mess that has plagued boxing for decades. Will Terence Crawford (Top Rank) ever fight Errol Spence (PBC)? Is Anthony Joshua (Matchroom) going to fight Deontay Wilder (PBC)? Can Canelo Alvarez (Golden Boy) vs. Demetrius Andrade (Matchroom) be easily made under the same DAZN umbrella? Are rival networks willing to co-promote PPVs, as early signs for 2019 suggest pay-per-view won’t be riding off into the sunset?

For better or worse, unlike in MMA where the UFC is miles ahead of every other organization, there is no single overwhelmingly dominant boxing promotion or television/streaming network. Competition is fierce, and for high-profile promotional and/or network free agents, the market for their services is red-hot. ESPN and FOX are unlikely to be satisfied doling out money for subpar content and a slew of non-compelling mismatches featuring boxers no one cares about. It’s up to promoters and networks to suppress the ugly political aspect and make the biggest and best fights possible to fans, whether it’s PBC and Top Rank, Golden Boy and Matchroom, or even stronger in-house matchmaking within those promotions. Collaboration is needed, or else the worst case scenario is the revival of showcasing boxing at a more mainstream level is going to go to waste.

For now, it’s a game of wait and see. The one thing that we have seen is that relatively unknown boxers like Eleider Alvarez and Tevin Farmer are benefiting financially through means that simply didn’t exist a few years ago, and the strong demand we’re seeing now is encouraging for the future of the sport.