BoxNation – Late to the Station

It was announced this week that BoxNation are taking their first step into the Pay Per View landscape with the rematch between Tyson Fury and Wladimir Klitschko.  The arrangement of the fight itself has taken months of wrangling, from alleged failed drugs tests to injuries to threats of legal action.

This is a paradigm shift for the Frank Warren fronted channel (long supported by the owner of Rainham Steel, Bill Ives); launched in 2011 it has always been a monthly subscription channel, now at a cost of £12 per month on top of a Sky package (along with an £8 registration fee).  The number of subscribers to the channel is a closely guarded secret, the guesses made by industry observers as vague as they likely are inaccurate.  It is thought the numbers peaked at approximately 200,000 in 2012 when David Haye fought Dereck Chisora and sit on average at around 100,000 per month as standard.  Fluctuation is inevitable.

The channel has long been the target of doom mongers.  Browse any boxing forum on the subject and armchair experts up and down the country have been predicting the downfall and closure of the only dedicated boxing channel in the country.  It has yet to fulfil their gloomy expectations.

So with a business model in place which, if the above numbers are in the correct ballpark would bring in £1.2 million per month, is the step towards PPV wise?  Sky are the flag bearers in British boxing for the model, running up to six per year alongside the Matchroom brand.  Charging around £16 per purchase, Eddie Hearn has claimed sales as high as 400,000 for big Anthony Joshua fights.  Known for his propensity to sell a tale as well as a fight it’s safe to say those numbers are either irregular or an outright lie.  If we said the average is 150,000 purchases (or just over 1% of UK households) then that gives a £2.4 million income stream per PPV.  Impressive numbers and easy to see why BoxNation want in on the act.

The problem?  Well, it all seems to have been done a bit in the style of…….Frank Warren.  Long time the leader or promoting British boxing, his standing in the sport has fallen with the emergence of the younger, more media savvy and vibrant Eddie Hearn.  Like him or loathe him, Hearn has helped breathe new life into a sport that was on its knees only a decade or so back in this country.  Hearn has re-born PPV, killed it off and yet somehow resurrected it again during his tenure through the like of Haye, Harrison, Froch and Joshua.  Froch’s 2013 fight with Mikkel Kessler at the O2 saw PPV return and has since become a mainstay of Sky programming. 

Three years is a long time in the sport and those fans that Hearn has helped attract have also come to ‘grow up’ with PPV.  Call them casuals if you like, the fact is that Hearn has the ability to stoke an interest amongst the general sports fan so that when a fights is deemed significant enough for PPV, their money is parted with.  In other words, the PPV model is now embedded amongst the newcomers.  The old timers or course will carry a resentment – but they have never been Hearn’s target audience.

BoxNation are now taking on the establishment.  To say it feels a bit ‘Frank Warren’ is that they are late to the party.  For a start, the fight is a rematch.  Sky have already had the original and although Hearn wasn’t directly involved, he was able to get his face connected enough to make it seem he was relevant.  Also, Hearn has revolutionised what a boxing event looks like in the UK, symbolised only this week by the huge Brook vs Golovkin show in London.  The product on offer may be unappetising to many, but the look and feel of the event itself in unquestionable.  You turn enough lights on, you draw in enough moths.  Warren doesn’t have that product yet.  Attend any of his shows and you feel like they have been left behind somewhere in the 90’s.  None of the vibrancy that Hearn has introduced; the lighting and staging feel weak in comparison.  It feels more for the purist.  The unfortunate fact is, the number of purists watching and attending the sport is now outweighed by the casual boxing observer.  Warren hasn’t drawn that audience in.

It’s not surprising.  Go back to the model of £12 a month.  It is unquestionably great value for a boxing fan, getting to see all manner of current and historical shows as well as specialist boxing programming.  But you have to find it.  The reason a casual observer can see boxing on Sky is because they already have Sky Sports – anyone purchasing it for the football alone could be likely to flick the standard Sky Fight Night on when it comes around Saturday night.  It’s accessible.  BoxNation isn’t.

So will it be a success?  This undoubtedly hinges on the advertising.  They have started with what should be the biggest fight in world boxing; the rematch for the legitimate heavyweight championship of the world.  For reason well know, it has been fraught with difficulties to even be arranged. The lack of the champion Fury at the press conference to launch the fight and the PPV channel is by itself laughably poor.  It makes the setup look amateur.  If Warren had wanted to make the channel go with a bang, it may have been useful to sit the world heavyweight champion underneath the logo. 

The PPV channel will be on the Sky platform.  Therefore it is safe to assume a commercial agreement is in place whereby Sky will financially benefit from a percentage of each sale.  How much is unknown.  Will they therefore assist in advertising it?  They have their own commercial agreement with Matchroom and Hearn, who you suspect would be uneasy with sharing the advertising for a sport on the biggest sporting channel in Britain.  Their exclusivity sits with Sky Sports, but BoxNation have gone via Sky to gain the platform (a technically different entity).  But upset Hearn and Sky risk losing a large chunk of content with Matchroom running darts and snooker on the channel.

If Sky Sports don’t air adverts for this fight, the whole thing is doomed.  You need to have access to those armchair sports fans, spark their interest.  Fury is a name (for wrong or right reasons) that sports fans know.  His name, alongside the ability to claim legitimacy to the world heavyweight crown, should be enough to draw the numbers in.  But only with the backing of Sky.  If they don’t receive that and are only able to advertise on their own BoxNation platform, this whole process is going south, quickly.  Sure, they could advertise on other platforms such as ITV, but it would be taking a dribbling piss into a hurricane of wind.  There is no guarantee of getting the eyes of the sports fans on any other channel than Sky Sports, the gamble would be too large.

Another flaw to the launch has been the lack of a pricing guide.  They have announced that existing subscribers will receive the PPV for free, but for those who only wish to purchase the single night of action, no price has been announced.  What will be the benefit in purchasing one night of action over buying a month?  For £20 you would currently get a single month including activation, so surely the PPV has to be priced accordingly to make it worthwhile to offer?  £10?  Seems low, but then perhaps they will accept low to generate the income stream.  Klitschko won’t be cheap to entice over, so any additional helps.  Is that number sustainable?  What if it were £15?  Seems pointless to then not pay the £5 more for another 30 days of access.  You suspect the numbers are still being churned at BoxNation HQ.
There is of course the benefit now of being able to access at the touch of a Sky remote button.  Those that have been to the pub and returned home fancying some blood can order at ease and add to the Sky bill, rather than the arduous task of filling in subscription details.  Undoubtedly that is a plus point.

There is another obstacle though; online streaming.  In an age where the Firestick can offer users access to any TV, movie or sporting event free of charge, as well as a plethora of website offering the same services, is one more PPV offering a saturation of the market place given that there is already an established brand in place?  This again likely comes down to advertising.  If Sky advertise it as one of their own, then the viewer will likely know little difference.  When they advertise a PPV now, it has a Matchroom branding but ultimately it is Sky PPV.  This could just have a different promoters logo.  If they are stuck in their own BoxNation bubble, they will be preaching to the converted.

Perhaps BoxNation would have been sensible to launch this not with Fury versus Klitschko, which feels a little like a re-run of a movie on a Sunday afternoon, but with something fresh.  Saunders versus Golovkin would have seemed the more logical choice.  Piggyback on the British interest in Golovkin following his fight with Brook.  The groundwork on introducing him to the general sports fan has already been done.  Then to be able to bill it as a genuine undisputed title match makes it an even bigger event.  Get the O2 on the phone, or even Wembley alongside Fury and Klitschko.  OK, it may be unrealistic in terms of the capital available to Warren to be able to put on a show of that magnitude, but that is how you launch a channel with a bang.  Even Saunders and Golovkin alone would have sufficed.  Interest has never been higher in Golovkin than after the weekend, suddenly fans who knew little of him before last Saturday will not take a far higher interest in the Kazakh wrecking ball.  Draw those same eyes to your station, have them buy your PPV. 

The fact is, this all seems a little flat.  Perhaps it is the drawn out Fury vs Klitschko saga.  Perhaps it is the lack of information available about the platform upon launching.  Perhaps it is the lack of excitement over being asked to fork out yet again for more boxing.  Or perhaps the reason is because it all feels a bit…….Frank Warren.