More Pay Per Views? Say It Ain’t So!

By Matthew Hurley: I was in Las Vegas last weekend for the Mayweather –Mosley fight and planned on being at the MGM Grand to take in the festivities. Circumstances found me at The Mirage Hotel, a ways down the strip, for the closed circuit telecast instead. In the end I was glad I watched the fight with a near sell out crowd of real fight fans in The Mirage Ballroom rather than the tepid crowd of high rollers that sauntered into the MGM Grand for the main event.

Boxing in Las Vegas has a rich history. There was always something so cool about fight night at Caesars Palace back in the eighties when boxing became my passion. The pomp and circumstance always entranced me, and it just seemed so far away from my stomping grounds in Massachusetts. That distance helped turn Las Vegas into something of a promised land for me whenever a big fight was announced. I just always wanted to be there.

Now, time and several trips to Sin City have soured that idealized version of what Tim Dahlberg dubbed Fight Town for his wonderful book of the same name. Vegas itself is still cool, although I tend to get tired much quicker than I used to. But as a fight town it’s highly overrated. Boxing is a blue-collar sport adored by hard-working people who find themselves squeezed out when the truly big fights land in Las Vegas. Ticket prices are ridiculous, even nosebleed seats, and should a true fight fan have the cash to shell out for a proper seat close to the action, those seats are usually not even available to him having already been pre-sold or distributed to ticket brokers.

There is something slightly nauseating about the glitterati that show up to a big fight. Sure, there are real fans like Mark Walberg who watch everything from prelims to main events, but for the most part those sitting ringside are there to be seen – it’s a perfect photo opportunity. The real fans, who follow their heroes religiously, are generally stuck back at home watching on cable or, if they are in Vegas, at closed circuit shows at one of the many hotels – if it is even being offered.

Boxing had been scaling back on pay-per-views and promoters began bringing shows to the locales of the fighters and it was really working to the sport’s benefit. Whether it was Kelly Pavlik in Ohio, Juan Diaz in Houston, Tomaz Adamek in New Jersey, or even the Marquez – Vazquez trilogy in Texas and Los Angeles the powers that be seemed to finally understand that not only is boxing an ethnic sport but a localized one. Find a fighter a town can get behind and keep him close and it leads to star status and an enduring appeal. Keep the fights in local venues with reasonable ticket prices and the sport will thrive.

Without regular television airplay fighters, even elite ones, need to somehow establish their identities and the only way to do that is to gather a partisan, loyal fan base. Several years back this looked to be a nearly impossible feat when it seemed like every interesting championship bout, no matter the weight class, found itself on pay-per-view. It got so bad that fans at first had to pick and choose which fights they could afford and then, finally, when prices started escalating to nearly 60 bucks a pop even the most ardent boxing fan said, “No fucking way!” Some of the crap being shoveled onto the fans’ lap for a fee was embarrassing to say the least.

But then things changed for the better. There were fewer and fewer pay-per-views for cards that didn’t deserve that distinction and even one that did over 700,000 buys, the Manny Pacquiao – Joshua Clottey fight in March, wound up not in Las Vegas but at Texas Stadium. Over fifty thousand people showed up, proving that Vegas ain’t all that. Dallas Cowboy’s owner Jerry Jones wants to host more boxing promotions in the future and is adamant that should Mayweather – Pacquaio ever be signed he could bring in one hundred thousand people for the event. That’s plenty of space with affordable ticket prices for real boxing fans.

So it was with a great deal of surprise when I was settling in for the closed circuit telecast for Mayweather – Mosely that a fan named VJ told me that the rematch between Juan Diaz and Juan Manuel Marquez was signed for July 31, but that it would be at the Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas on pay-per-view. The first fight, voted by many as Fight of the Year for 2009, took place in Houston before a raucous crowd and was televised on regular HBO.

“Why not,” his friend Mark chimed in. “They put the Hopkins – Jones rematch on pay-per-view and they had to know nobody was going to buy that shit. But they did it anyway.”

VJ and his friends, and another group of fellas who sat at my table, including a guy claiming to be a former sparring partner for Lennox Lewis, to a man railed against the decision to put Diaz – Marquez in Vegas and on pay-per-view.

“It took every extra dime I had just to get here for this fight,” VJ said, knocking back a Budweiser. “And I can’t even get to see it in person.”

There was a real sense of resentment in these guys, all of them hardcore boxing fans. Sure, Vegas was fun and all, but their whole trip revolved around the fight. It was the only thing they truly cared about.

Still, as the preliminary bouts carried on and the beers flowed the crowd at The Mirage Ballroom couldn’t have been more jazzed. Everyone there, or at least in my vicinity, lived for a big fight like Mayweather – Mosley and the Mayweather fans were as loud and demonstrative as their hero.

A Mayweather fan named Paul at our table began pointing out those cheering Mosley and slowly drew his index finger across his neck. But then he would laugh and slap high fives with those very fans. It was all in good fun. And that intensity didn’t lag, even as Mayweather shutdown and then shutout Mosley over 12 mostly repetitious rounds.

From what I was told later that night, the crowd at the MGM Grand, filled with those high rollers and people looking for face time, couldn’t have been more sedate. Many were heading for the exits even before the verdict was announced.

You could conceivably lay that predicament at the feet of Mayweather for being almost too brilliant in his whitewash of Mosley, but at the closed circuit venue the fans, even those disappointed Mosley fans, cheered at the bout’s conclusion for the ring genius they had just seen. These fans, most of whom couldn’t afford a ticket for the live event, arrived early and enjoyed the prelims, the atmosphere, the camaraderie of their fellow fight fans and stayed right until the very end. This was a fight crowd.

“There should only be one or two pay-per-views a year,” VJ said to me as we were filing out. “It should only be for the very biggest fight, not these other little shows like Diaz and Marquez. It sucks. Can’t afford ‘em, can’t see ‘em.”

We’ll have to wait and see how many pay-per-view platters will be served up to us this year, but many fans like VJ won’t be lining up at the trough. Boxing fans are a loyal bunch, but even fanatical fans have their limit. Money is a huge concern for everyone these days and should the sport revert to its endless pay-per-view promotions and dump all of those shows out in the desert of Las Vegas a very significant portion of boxing fans will say, “No thanks.”

May 12, 2010
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