Spence-Garcia seems a bizarre set-up in the history of boxing pay-per-views.
You've got a classy lightweight champ in the latter man -- Mikey Garcia -- who keeps gunning for belts against bigger dudes when he might earn more mainstream renown (and bigger bucks) staying put in one division.
And then you have welterweight champ Errol Spence -- an irrepressible force in the ring who's been constrained outside it by his inability to get a unification fight, despite sharing a stable with three fellow strapholders (the law firm of Pacquiao, Porter & Thurman).
The result is a match seemingly made for the boxing fancy only -- two exceptional talents (perhaps generational) who are nevertheless unknown to Joe Trade-Deadline-Obsessed Schmo -- a Hispanic kid who believes himself -- not unreasonably -- the reincarnation of Henry Armstrong against the welterweight equivalent of Harry Wills, the not-to-be-forgotten original "Black Panther" (if you think that last bit is hyperbole, check out the inside work Wills does against Firpo with his free hand when they're semi-clinched and then watch Spence do the same against Brook -- the shot angles are remarkably similar).
That both men have reached this point under the aegis of the always-unseen "adviser" Al Haymon is an almost tautological addendum: You could make the argument that both boxers would be better known by this point in their careers if they hadn't -- if they were signed to one of the few remaining carnival barkers (Arum, Duva, Eddie Hearn when Eddie is back in England, as the American milieu still seems to evade him, Lou DiBiscuits when his signees are the major league attraction).
But I come not to decry the state of disunion but to ask a clear-eyed question -- to stay in the realm of realpolitik: Alright, these two dudes are set to meet in the first-ever Fox pay-per-view in two weeks -- how can a company attract Deportes Dave to this spectacle to be broadcast from the Dallas Cowboys' JerryWorld?
It's not a hypothetical question, not exactly -- or at least, it's inspired by a very specific set of circumstances. No doubt, Fox Sports has a plan to blare these boxers' names across Murdoch's media properties for the next two weeks. On Tuesday, Spence will stage a workout in his native Dallas, and from the coverage of that alone, you'll be able to assess the volume of the Fox vox.
But say you had to garner viewers for the property without the power to command for-show shadowboxing. That would be a hell of a challenge, I thought, after receiving a press release about the closed circuit coverage of the fight a week ago. These two guys are as good as they are overlooked and ignored.
Fathom Events, the Colorado-based theatrical distributor of Metropolitan Opera showings and recently-released Japanese anime and big-time boxing (it's owned by the big-three cinema companies AMC, Regal and Cinemark) is set to air Spence-Garcia in more than 300 theaters.
Even knowing basically nothing about the contemporary closed-circuit business (incidentally, the broadcasts don't use closed circuits anymore, but the terminology has stuck around) I thought that seemed an ambitious number.
So I emailed the PR heads at Fathom and asked: How many people need to show up for Spence-Garcia for Fathom to make a return on its investment (any room that shows boxing might make more money showing the weekend's latest release, remember -- #AMadeaFamilyPassover)?
How many fight patrons were their popcorn vendors expecting?
Here's a chunk of the statement I received in return from Fathom CEO Ray Nutt, preceded by the clip his surname demands (with apologies to those who can't hear the Simpsonian humor here because of the anachronistic caricature executing it):
Okay, so Fathom CEO Ray Nutt: "We are...very selective about the content we show to ensure that it is a profitable event for all partners involved."
Not super helpful, though the CEO did share some basic chestnuts -- usually, tickets retail for $20, they have seen 75,000 people hit theaters for a single match (not that anyone expects that number this go-round) and their all-time high gross was for Mayweather-MacGregor in 2017 -- a take of more than $2.3 million (this doesn't account for closed circuit events that preceded the birth of Fathom in 2005 and also doesn't account for inflation).
For further context, I glanced at the box office charts myself -- from the start of 2016 till today. In that three-year-plus period, Fathom has shown exactly 190 programs across America -- including evangelical Christian films, the Bolshoi Ballet and, of course, sanctioned violence.
Here's where showings of the last type slotted into the charts, with sincere apologies regarding the shoddiness of the screenshot (I tried to erase everything but fighting words, but instead of learning Adobe software, I learned Quark once upon a time, and oh, well, fuck it):
Many nougats...er, nuggets:
According to Box Office Mojo, whose numbers insiders told me to trust, Mayweather-MacGregor, farce that it was, earned $2.6 million (or 300k more than the CEO himself indicated). That discrepancy aside, what stood out to me foremost was the confirmation of what we already know from home PPV buys:
Canelo Alvarez -- built up by an HBO and Showtime machine whose stewardship of the sport has ended, even if the latter entity still broadcasts fights -- is the sport's only current PPV star. He's one half of two-thirds of these fights (and the A-side each time, no matter how much we all like GGG's body shots).
I also wanna credit Oscar De La Hoya's Golden Boy Promotions for Canelo's success, except the company has been such a pain to deal with since detaching from PR firm Mercury at the start of 2019, I can't bring myself to do it. I hope Oscar and Eric and Robert and Ramiro in Downtown LA realize sooner rather than later that DAZN and Matchroom are no substitute for the firm that so diligently set up interviews, facilitated connections and kept Oscar and Bernard on the right side of most reporters.
Back to the charts: Not that this will suddenly change promotional thinking, but look at the disparity between views for the first Canelo-GGG fight and the delayed sequel that went down one year (and one Canelo PED suspension) later: They crammed the sequel into an additional 68 theaters but grossed only $4,479 more. Or an additional $66 per new theater.
If you assume the Fathom gross is just a third of each ticket sale, that's literally just 10 more people per theater. Ten!
Not that I'm fool enough to think those Shotcallers who just called off an immediate rematch between heavyweights Deontay Wilder and Lazarus Fury will now recognize the diminished returns delayed rematches can offer. And yet...
The chart also vindicates Anthony Joshua, who refused to give Wilder and Fury any credit for renewing American interest in heavyweight boxing despite my urging him twice to do so last week at the Garden presser for his June 1 title defense there.
Fathom fed Wilder-Fury into 486 theaters -- more than it allocated to Canelo-GGG I -- and it grossed less than half of what those two middleweights made. Three thousands smackers less than the Met Opera's "The Magic Flute," which came in 98th place.
Here's where I pause and rue reader interest -- and my own, also, fine -- in the business side of this hurt game. Tim Smith, Haymon Boxing spokesman and former fight writer for the New York Times, recently wrote to me in correspondence regarding this promotion:
"One of my mentors told me that no one ever pays to see two businessmen hash out a contract. I’m not sure that’s the case anymore."
A melancholy thought. Tim went out of his way to blame reader interest in made-for-Twitter hot takes and not writers themselves. Whatever the reason, I wish Spence were up at Grossinger's and I could hang about the Catskills watching him round into form.
In fact, Al, if you get this and decide on a lark to turn away from all your prior managerial principles, invite me down to Dallas to watch a Spence workout not staged for the media. A real one. I can't promise to be Liebling, but I can pledge my kvectchy, neuro-inflamed, insomniacal self will give his best impression thereof.
Meanwhile, back on planet Earth, I noted CEO Ray Nutt had only just assumed the reins of the company when Fathom staged Mayweather-MacGregor: he took office in late July of 2017, and that Frankenfight monster hit screens in August. Which means his predecessor was instrumental in setting it up.
The prior CEO was John Rubey, who, like Al Haymon, got his start in the music business, though his very first closed-circuit broadcast was actually distribution in 25 states of the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo.
I called Rubey hoping he'd have more to say than his successor -- how would he go about marketing this event Nutt refused to crack? How much did he suppose Fathom was gonna take home from Spence-Garcia?
"If Ray wouldn't talk to you..."
Dammit -- where was the vengeful gabbing on which I'd counted?
Rubey kept referring me to Box Office Mojo. Then he said, "You know Mayweather?...He's got the big numbers."
At which point, I considered this man's surname and thought back to a Maharaja's more plentiful offerings.
Seriously, though, what the hell's with the closed-circuit code of Omerta?
Thirteen minutes and six seconds into what became a 48-minute-long convo:
"I can't speak to how I would do it (promote Spence-Garcia) as a theater event, coming from the music business."
(What? But you were just talking about Mayweather fluently?!)
"Fox would do a really good job to promote this...if they follow the playbook that HBO and Showtime have used."
"Millennials want choice. They don't want you to tell them what they will or won't do. So you've got to give, particularly in the entertainment band, the ability to choose the screen that they wanna enjoy the event on. "
Yeah, I was trolled hard. Many thanks to Mr. Rubey for his time, if not his determined discretion.
Roll the trailer Fathom has been playing in a theater near you...
And here's the similarly-themed fight poster Fathom has hung on theater walls:
I asked a bunch of people whether this was Fathom's best tactic in the situation -- as the fighters' names aren't widely known, focus instead on the impressive-looking records (it's not like the nominal promoters, Tom Brown and Richard Schaefer, can convey a message either more naughty or nuanced -- neither man is a tough talker and neither is expected by Al to be).
One graphics whiz who's helmed fight art for myriad promotions wrote back to me:
"When creating a fight poster targeting casual fans -- to convert [them] to customers -- you really need to capture their imagination and attention and tell a story at a mere glance. While I personally think the illusion of perfect records is a plague on the sport, I understand their decision to use it here as a tagline, especially for casual fans.
"I would have considered exploring the David and Goliath aspect a little bit. The natural lightweight defying all odds to jump up two weight classes and face one of the pound-for-pound best for another belt...To me, that is a much more exciting story than just undefeated records, which we can see virtually any time.
"They did a decent job attempting to capture the epic big fight atmosphere with the stadium lights and glow. I would not have gone for a completely greyscale color story, as my eye isn’t drawn to anything specific, and if I were walking past it, I would honestly not really take note.
"Adding their records would have been a smart move if the records are the main focus."
Someone intimately involved in the game for decades, though not this promotion, went for an analogy:
"I would say, Is Errol Spence a Marvin Hagler? A guy who is actually sort of squeezing himself to fight at 147 because he's really more 154, a monster, a beast, a body puncher, a tremendously physical fighter?
"And is Mikey Garcia a Ray Leonard? A fighter of skill who's had long absences from the ring in his career, who's doing things his way, in a very conspicuous way, and who has the audacity to say that, 'Under these circumstances, at this moment in my career, I can step up and fight a guy who many people in boxing regard as the most dangerous guy in his weight neighborhood, and fight him and beat him'?"
The insider then turned fatalist.
"The public knew Leonard, and they sort of knew Hagler. But they really don't know these guys in anywhere near the same way. And it's too late. It's too late to make this Hagler-Leonard.
"If I were the owner of the theaters where the thing is going to take place, I think I would have been saying, maybe two months ago, 'Where's the tour? Where are the stages on which these two guys stand next to each other and offer a personality contrast? Where's the vituperative language between the two of them, where they try to make clear to the public that they don't like each other? Where are the public workouts? Where are all of the trappings that have normally gone with a fight like this in the past? And if you're not going to do that, why am I putting this into my theaters?'"
To the insider, I'd say, great question -- now you ask it of Fathom's Mum-is-the-word and Sons (yeah, it's an awful music pun, deal). There has been a crammed schedule of press stare-downs, some involving words, too, in the last week. And there's the digital shoulder programming, whose effect I'll remain skeptical of till the final numbers come out, even if it's far better than none at all (you tell me how inspired or not this Mikey moment is, when with a measured pace he tells Spence he's superior in every way).
But that the public at large hasn't heard anything about 'em -- maybe they flitted by on your friend's social media pages, just Instagram gossamer, the digital diaphanous -- is an indictment itself.
"Mikey's a weird dude anyway," the insider concluded. "Spence is not front and center, in terms of being a public figure. Maybe there was no other way to get it done. But I think it's a loss for the sports audience and it's a loss for boxing that these two guys aren't being brought off the page in a very big way."
We'll see if that's how it all turns out -- inexplicably, Fox got rid of the best autumn baseball music of my lifetime in favor of the football tune that already could be heard on the channel every other season -- only to bring back John Tesh's "Roundball Rock" for select Big East college basketball games this year, when we all know that song, if not legally then at least culturally, is the sole property of '90s "NBA on NBC" tripleheaders.
The Fox robot has outlived all other graphic trends of its "Toy Story" I-era and remains pugnacious on the left-hand side of our -- now-flat -- screens -- the steroidal version of Microsoft's Clippy, defying decades of visual decluttering.
So while I see the competitors here -- back to Spence and Garcia -- as challenging fodder, I dunno that the first Fox PPV is doomed for the way it has handled them -- or that the unnamed clash would fare better in a couple weeks had it received more traditional Tex Rickard-type promotion (kinda PBC-damning, though: these guys have been thrust before us for four years now and I can't think of a nickname for their encounter that's a natural extension of their prior on-air work; maybe the best name for the bout would simply be "Ciphers").
Fox is always a wildcard when it comes to sports (or nearly any show: #COPS #TemptationIsland #WhoWantsToMarryAMillionaire -- and by the way, that final octothorped show has the lowest IMDB rating I've ever seen on a cold Google -- a 1.2 out of 10).
In a moment, the musical reason I attempted that awful Mumford pun; for now, here is the searchable index of all 300 theaters showing the bout, which you can examine alphabetically in a PDF, if you're so inclined, beginning with the Century16 theater in Anchorage, Alaska, which is actually a stunner, as it turns out (shoutout to Jeterga on CinemaTreasures.Org for the shot):
It's also worth recalling that while this is the very first Fox PPV, the PBC deal has the network telecasting four per year. There is time for improvement at the multiplex (turn, turn, turn) -- besides which, Canelo and Chavez Jr. proved you can make bank in just 300 rooms, though that was a unique Mexican grudge match.
You just don't know when we'll see this level of talent in both corners again, though. Which is why the stakes feel high for this first go-round. As Dan Patrick said two decades ago:
"He's listed as day-to-day, but then again, aren't we all?"