CELEBRITIES are everywhere and their impact is substantial. No longer those almost mythical figures we would see on our television sets once or twice a week, they’re now on our phones and in our ears during every waking hour. Ignoring them is not as easy as it used to be.
Once upon a time, a ‘celebrity’ would be the one presenting Saturday night game shows but now they’re not only presenting, they’re in the audience and they’re the contestants, hogging the limelight and robbing poor Joe Bloggs of his chance to win a much-deserved speedboat. They’re ‘writing’ best-selling books, recording chart-topping podcasts, marketing energy drinks and lending their vocal cords to the kind of songs that our children are listening to and then regurgitating at an alarming volume. That they appear to have no discernible talent – creating the illusion that they’re getting rich with little effort – it should be no wonder that teenagers of today are not focusing on becoming doctors, teachers or firefighters, they’re instead busily filming videos on their phones in the hope that one will go viral on TikTok.
The phenomenon of the homemade celebrity has been gathering pace since the start of the century. And now, in 2023, the fear is that they’re coming to take over the boxing world too. And boxers, real boxers, those who have been working on their craft since they were kids, are starting to get a little miffed that the likes of KSI can invade and sell out an arena while they’re scrambling around trying to shift enough tickets just to break even.
“If proper boxing fans supported us like the YouTube boxing fans supported them we’d get paid like they do!” former Commonwealth light-heavyweight champion Lyndon Arthur wrote on Twitter last weekend following the latest Misfits Boxing card. “You lot moan at PPVs… and don’t turn up to arenas until near [sic] the main event starts.”
Though Arthur’s annoyance is understood, it’s not the fault of the fans that too many undercards are loaded with one-sided fights and promoters and broadcasters have for too long mismanaged the long-term strategy of boxing’s development. That plenty of those promoters and broadcasters are now completely on board with ‘celebrity boxing’ should highlight the wider problem.
Think about it. We live in an era when Terence Crawford and Errol Spence Jnr are regarded as two of the best fighters in the entire sport, they’re (just about) clinging to their peaks and, even though they operate in the same weight class, we’re no closer to seeing them fight than we were five years ago. You can blame Crawford and you can blame Spence, you can blame the promoters and the rival networks, too. But if those promoters and networks really believed that Spence-Crawford would be the ginormous crossover event to not only justify the purses the fighters are demanding, but also generate a substantial profit, perhaps this bout would already have been made. But the sport – thanks to the proliferation of ‘world’ titles, promoters pulling in different directions, the incessant failure to make enticing top level matchups and marginalising audiences further by sticking everything worthwhile behind a paywall – is nothing like as appealing or accessible to the general public as it used to be. Therefore, though you and I know what a tremendous battle Crawford-Spence would be, it’s doubtful anyone outside of diehard boxing fans even have the slightest clue who they are.
The damage has already been done with Spence and Crawford, one suspects. But that doesn’t mean that the next generation have to suffer, too. Like it or not, folks, these celebrity boxing cards are giving their fans what they want. It’s not boxing, it’s barely even fighting in some cases, but when the fans – those who pay – are happy and not constantly moaning about everything being a waste of money, then ‘celebrity boxing’ is doing something that ‘real boxing’ is not.
Spence and Crawford do not have nearly as many fans or followers as people like KSI and Jake Paul. That is a fact we cannot escape. What celebrity boxing is taking advantage of is the age of social media fandom and the sheer size and loyalty of it. The ‘engagement funnel’ is an old marketing term but it has some value here, so bear with me. Essentially, the key is to build a vast audience at the top of the funnel in the hope that, by the time that audience reaches the bottom, plenty have become paying customers. KSI and the like came into boxing with tens of millions of fans already in place so, in a way, the hard work had already been done. The conversion rate – and interest – was always going to be high.
Boxing’s engagement funnel is different. Long before many of the leading fighters are household names, genuine household names, they find themselves fighting for bogus titles on pay-per-view or obscure channels that do nothing for accessibility. So though there might be the odd short-term financial gain thanks to the extra price tag, we are still alienating an awful lot of our potential market. In essence, we’re blocking the funnel at the earliest entry point. It shouldn’t take a marketing genius to tell you that is a poor strategy.
Had fighters like Spence and Crawford built substantial interest along the way, through their contests being witnessed by as many sporting fans as possible, and their courses plotted so a collision was not only inevitable it was obligatory, the interest – surely – would be significantly greater. So it should be little surprise that broadcasters like DAZN and promoters like the Sauerlands recognise ‘celebrity boxing’ as a quick fix. An adoring audience is already there. There is no need for promoter or broadcaster, in this case, to spend years building the fighters’ profiles or making the right fights. For them, it’s easy-peasy.
The problem will become increasingly apparent in coming months and years when more and more time is dedicated to these kinds of events because the real stuff has become too much like hard work. When the laziness really kicks in and the lack of structure in boxing – a sport that has no overriding organisation in place to demand the best fight the best – becomes an unscalable obstacle when it comes to generating real interest, as opposed to the easy-to-manipulate system it is today.
Some boxers realise all this already. This weekend’s pay-per-view A-side, Chris Eubank Jnr, has been aware of all of the above for a long time. In many ways, he’s been that aforementioned quick fix that promoters adore. It’s also why nobody bar Eubank in and around the super-welter or middleweight classes, Gennadiy Golovkin being an arguable exception, could elevate Liam Smith to box office status. Crucially, Eubank is not the best fighter in Smith’s catchment area, he’s simply the most famous.
Fame, as we should know by now, can take you to places that mere talent alone cannot. Let’s be clear, however. This is not a plea to the boxers to jump up and down on social media in an effort to make themselves more visible. Attaining celebrity status isn’t as easy as the likes of KSI, and even Eubank Jnr, make it appear. It’s more a plea to the powerbrokers in the sport to go back to the drawing board and, while there, realise that the current system – the splintered titles, the nonsensical rankings, the failure to work together – is not the way to make the sport a major player. It may create the odd standout star, but not enough for the rest of the world to really pay attention.
Leave the celebrity boxing to the celebrities; it’s time to rescue the real thing.