By Thomas Hauser
Last week, when I posted an article about pay-per-view piracy and the Internet
, reader reaction was swift.
Some of the responses involved humorous recollections. Writer extraordinaire George Kimball reminisced about a man he met a dozen years ago who was a retired cop working as an investigator for a Boston cable company. His job involved curtailing the use of illegal black boxes and piracy. On the night of a big fight, the investigator went to check out a saloon. There was a guard at the door who figured him for law enforcement and delayed his entrance by ten or fifteen seconds. By the time he got in, there were sixty patrons sitting at the bar with their eyes glued to Home Shopping Network.
Another reader noted that, no matter how hard those who practice illegal file-sharing seek to justify their actions, they aren't stealing a loaf of bread to feed their children. Blogger Eddie Goldman observed, "The pay-per-view pirates are not only stealing from monopolies like HBO, which may seem to lessen or remove the ethical qualms if not the legal ones for this digital piracy. The pirates are also stealing directly from the fighters, since most fighters receive some percentage of the pay-per-view revenue." More than one reader made the point that organized crime has long been a major player in the sale of black boxes. Indeed, for some criminal elements, the boxes have been as profitable as illegal drug-trafficking and prostitution.
Illegal file-sharing on the Internet today is practiced primarily by people who grew up using computers. They view the Internet culture very differently than "baby boomers" do. Anything that can be received via the Internet comes with a sense of entitlement. Monthly payments for broadband and basic cable are treated as all-inclusive.
Meanwhile, the technological war goes on. Where cable piracy is concerned, eventually there will be black boxes that are capable of decoding digital signals. On the Internet front, forty million homes in the United States have high-speed access and that number is growing rapidly. File-sharing and broadband distribution are major components of virtually every consumer electronics show. In response, the industry is working to develop copy protection technology that will preclude replication of signals for purposes of file-sharing.
With regard to boxing and Internet piracy, the core problem is that the industry is governed by a business model that hasn't worked well for a long time and will work even less well in the future. Charles Jay expounded on the problem several years ago, when he wrote, "Boxing has made a habit of insulting its audience. It has evolved into a sport that is supported on its most substantial levels by two institutions: the television industry and the casino industry. What develops as a result is that, instead of having a business model in which it must satisfy millions of customers and tailor its product accordingly, promoters have only two customers: the television programming executive and the casino marketing executive. These promoters have become insulated from having to deal directly with the public. And because many promoters are in effect acting more in the role of manager, their goal in dealing with a TV network may be to put on the least competitive fight they can get away with rather than the best possible matchup for the audience. Granted, from time to time we see superfights that meet with wide response from the public at live venues and on pay-per-view. But those aren't the fights that are happening every day, every week, every month. Those are not the events that can, in and of themselves, sustain this business. We are losing the middle fast. At some point, the promotional community needs to wake up and realize that its mindset has to shift toward an attitude that is more responsive to the actual audience. The commodity in this business is not the fighter; it's the fan. Fighters come and go; but if you're a promoter and your fans are going more than coming, you've got trouble. If you do the right thing, you're going to keep fans interested. If not, you're going to lose them. It's that simple."
Meanwhile, it's clear that my article tapped into a wellspring of resentment toward the boxing establishment and the pay-per-view industry. I expected that. I didn't expect the care that some fans would take in expressing their point of view. Some of the emails I received were angry and intemperate. Others were long and well-reasoned. I don't agree with everything these readers said, but their thoughts deserve to be heard. So herewith a sampling of reader response:
* "The truth is that the cable networks and promoters are the thieves, not the fans. Those 'pirates with a commercial agenda' you mention are the cable networks and promoters. The cost of cable, satellite delivery, premium-channel packages, and PPV far outstrips inflation. And many cable providers don't let customers subscribe to just HBO and Showtime. If you want HBO and Showtime, you have to also buy Cinemax and Starz. These costs are driving people to seek alternative methods of access."
* "Are you suggesting that fans are at fault because they don't feel like shelling out fifty dollars for increasingly mediocre boxing cards? Are you saying that fans who downloaded the ultra-boring third Antonio Tarver-Roy Jones matchup, for example, are damaging the sport more than those who continue to support such fiascos by turning over our hard-earned dollars to the promoters that put them together? Events like Mzonke Fana vs. Marco Antonio Barrera do much more to harm PPV than file-sharing online."
* "You portray loyal devoted boxing fans who download fights online as pirating hooligans preying on poor suffering boxing promoters and networks. While I can appreciate that file-sharing could be alarming to those who wish to maintain hegemony over the sport and continue to rip off those that follow it, I would have hoped that a writer like yourself would have more understanding of the plight of the average boxing fan and might at least appreciate the reasons why online trading of boxing videos is becoming increasingly popular."
* "Broadcasters have become lazy in matchmaking and greedy in accepting virtually any card, no matter how poor the quality, on a PPV basis. It's very simple. The broadcasters need to stop insulting boxing fans with PPVs like we saw throughout 2005. PPV used to be the exception. Now it seems to be the rule for almost every event with one star name. That just isn't acceptable."
* "Which do you think poses a greater threat to boxing's future: Internet piracy or the trend toward pay-per-view? Personally, I believe that pay-per-view poses the single largest threat to the future of any sport; and in particular, boxing. It takes a while for fans to become familiar with a sport. If new boxing fans aren't able to watch the most highly-touted and marketed fights because they're on pay-per-view, why should they waste their time watching B-level fights on free cable? It can be very discouraging to follow and root for an up-and-coming fighter only to be forced to fork over a PPV fee to watch his most significant fights. File-sharing provides a necessary lifeline for boxing fans who can't afford to pay for big fights. If this outlet is removed, who will the big networks be targeting as fans fifteen years from now?"
* "Your point, as I see it, is for the suits to stop piracy so low wage earners can't use technology to save some money and enjoy what rich people enjoy when they fly from all over the world to see a championship fight. Boxing is one of the least popular sports at the moment, but one of the most expensive to it's fans. Go to a live fight? The average person? Sure, maybe to some local junk. But to a fight with marquee names? Yeah, right; if you have a few thousand dollars lying around."
* "If there's a place to point the finger of blame, it's at HBO for driving costs to astronomical heights in its desire to control the sport and then allowing itself to be pushed into overpaid mismatches that leave PPV as the only way to afford meaningful fights. And look what happened. HBO's greed reduced HBO Championship Boxing, which was once the most significant player in the industry, to a farm team for HBO-PPV. HBO can no longer keep compelling match-ups on its own core network."
* "PPV was a hugely misguided step in the migration of boxing from free television to an increasingly marginalized audience. Does it make sense for a sport with an aging and shrinking fan base to charge more and more for a product and make it increasingly difficult to access? The start of the solution is to expand the audience, not to further fractionalize it with new exclusionary technologies. Piracy cannot be effectively policed, so go with the flow. Make fights easier to obtain, not more difficult. Improve the quality of the product and grow the audience."
* "File-sharing is the only way for boxing fans to view fights from around the world that don't air at any time in their country. This point can't be made strongly enough. We pay exorbitant fees to our broadcasters for the privilege of having them in our home and we still cannot receive more than the tiniest percentage of the sport we love."
* "There are no similar problems with 'piracy' involving football or basketball. This should tell you something about whether there is a problem with boxing fans or with the boxing business. Doesn't it say something that so many people in today's gotta-have-it-now world are willing to watch a sporting event on a delay basis rather than live? Can you imagine thousands of die-hard football fans, rather than watching the SuperBowl as it happens, chosing to download it after the fact and watch it on their tiny computer screens? It's laughable to even consider the possibility. So what does it say about boxing that it has forced many of its most loyal fans to do just that? Yes, laws are being broken and that is always regrettable. But doesn't positive change often begin with a little dissent?"
* "When a movie studio turns out a dozen films a year and one or two blockbusters, they don't increase the ticket price for the blockbusters. In fact, they make those films more accessible by wider distribution, just the opposite of boxing and the PPV mentality."
* "It's not enough for the networks and promoters to charge fans $49.95 for a big fight. The people who run boxing have such contempt for us that they give us garbage undercards after we pay our $49.95. You've heard the conventional wisdom, Mr. Hauser. Fans buy the main event, not the undercard. Well, now we're getting the main event for free online."
* "Let's not kid ourselves. Fight-trading in one form or another has been going on for some time, and I don't mean just 'lending a tape to a friend' as you put it in your article. You don't have to be a boxing fan for long before you get to know about dealers who have tapes of old fights that they're willing to dub illegally and mail to you for a price. Now these fights are being given away for free online rather than at a cost."
* "There is no point in complaining about Internet users trading old fights as opposed to same-day file-sharing. Unlike the record companies, which you allude to in your article, HBO does not sell a backlist of its older fights. And they are very rarely, if ever, replayed on the network. Most are gone forever the second after they're shown (at least for those of us that don't work in the media like yourself.) If you miss the original telecast, you have no way of catching up on the fight except for a file-sharing site. As for the fights that are shown on ESPN Classic and then distributed online, I hardly think that this is going to hurt the network. In fact, given how little time the network devotes to boxing now, it's obviously not too concerned about capturing the boxing crowd. So essentially what we have is a set-up where fights that the networks rarely show are being offered to a select group of die-hard fans free of charge. While this might technically violate copyright laws in some countries, I hardly think it's a crisis situation."
* "Your take on file-sharing as it concerns the music business shows a lack of a clear understanding of the issue. You seem to suggest that the record companies have been successful in limiting the amount of free file-sharing that takes place online. However, this is simply untrue. While certain websites and networks have been shut down, it is easier than ever to download a piece of new music for free. No, Mr. Hauser, what has changed is that the music industry has finally begun to adapt to meet consumer demand and fight the threat of free music downloads head-on by offering what free downloads cannot: quality and reliability. Many people are willing to shell out a buck a tune at iTunes to know for sure that the file they download will be high-quality and virus-free. Perhaps the boxing promoters and networks should take their cue. My point here is that forcing the boxing industry to be more creative in meeting the needs of its fans would hardly be a bad thing."
* "The industry could, as you suggest, go down the legal route. It may even manage to ruin a few peoples' lives such as the music industry did. But the chances of the legal route being effective for the boxing industry are negligible. A far more practical and effective solution would be for the boxing industry to embrace the new medium and find a way of providing the service that people want. If media outlets don't find a way to satisfy their consumers, then people will find another way."
* "Boxing is the only sport that forces its fans to pay for the biggest events. It is also the only sport that charges its athletes to be champions. Many of the fighters are finding ways to get around paying bogus sanctioning fees. Well, now the fans are trying to get around paying bogus fees as well."
* "The suits at HBO and Showtime would have more right to complain if they weren't ripping off their own shareholders. Neither company's stock has done well lately. But that doesn't stop the suits from going to fights and ordering three-hundred dollar bottles of wine at dinners that the shareholders pay for. It doesn't even stop some of them from having businesses on the side when they should be devoting all of their time to the jobs that the shareholders are paying them for. Les Moonves and Tom Freston [then the co-presidents of Viacom] each received $52,000,000 in compensation last year. Who did you say was ripping off the system?
Thomas Hauser can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.