Selling the 'Super Bowl'

Kevin Iole
Yahoo! Sports

LAS VEGAS – Richard Schaefer said interest in the super welterweight title fight between Oscar De La Hoya and Floyd Mayweather Jr. is so high that promoters could simply have opened the door to the MGM Grand Garden on Saturday and guaranteed a profit.

De La Hoya sold nearly 1 million pay per views for his last fight, on May 6 against Ricardo Mayorga, a second-tier boxer who threatened to pull out 72 hours before the event.

Given that, it wasn't hard to understand that a match between the sport's most popular fighter and its best fighter would do huge box office.

Schaefer just didn't realize how big.

"I knew this was going to get a lot of interest, given all the scenarios about the fight that were out there," Schaefer said. "You had the most popular fighter in the sport facing the best pound-for-pound fighter. You had Floyd's father who was Oscar's trainer. You had so many elements.

"But I was surprised, I must admit. When I started to put together a plan for the fight, I discovered it was bigger than I could have imagined."

Tickets sold out in a few hours and generated a record $19 million gate. A full 65 percent of the tickets carry a face value of $2,000. Front-row seats have been going for as high as $30,000 at brokerage sites on the Internet.

Pay-per-view sales are expected to threaten the record of 2 million set by a pair of Mike Tyson fights, against Lennox Lewis in 2002 and Evander Holyfield in 1997.

The fighters' faces are on the back of beer cans and around the neck of tequila bottles. There were displays promoting the bout in 14,000 7-11 stores, 30,000 Hispanic grocery stores and 1,100 Circle K stores, said Mark Taffet, HBO's senior vice president of sports operation and pay per view.

Those impressions, as Taffet calls them, helped sell the bout to a wary public in a real yet subtle way.

"That presence tells the consumer that this is a major news and entertainment event," Taffet said. "We who are involved in this can talk all day about how it transcends boxing and crosses lines, but our message doesn't resonate the same way."

Speakers at Wednesday's news conference repeatedly referred to the fight as the "Super Bowl of boxing," which clearly wasn't by accident.

In developing the marketing strategy for the fight, Taffet said organizers wanted to convey the message that this bout should be regarded as more significant than any other.

They used the Pere Partnership, a New York advertising, design and promotion firm, to devise a plan.

It came up with the logo that has the fighters in black with a throng of cheering fans behind them with the fight's title, "The World Awaits," in gold letters at the top.

"They did wonderful work translating our thoughts into images that conveyed a very powerful message," Taffet said.

Golden Boy produced a video in which it showed highlights of each of the boxers interspersed with fans who attended their promotional tour giving their predictions on the fight.

The spot, dubbed "Who You Picking?" has been viewed more than 108,000 times on YouTube.

Not much of that surprises Bob Arum, who promoted De La Hoya in 39 of his 42 fights and Mayweather in 35 of his 37 fights.

Arum's Top Rank is now on bad terms with both men, particularly De La Hoya, who angrily says he'll never work with Arum again.

Arum said he built Mayweather from his earliest days with the intention of one day promoting a De La Hoya-Mayweather bout.

"The whole trick was to make sure his skills were appreciated and that meant putting him in fights where you could showcase his speed and his boxing ability," Arum said. "We needed to have him considered an 'A' level fighter by the writers and the fans and that would have helped make him a certain level of pay-per-view attraction.

"Then, you bring in a De La Hoya, who had a great track record, and you match them and that was going to be the big payoff."

Arum said that even though no active boxer approaches De La Hoya's popularity, the era of the Muhammad Ali-Joe Frazier, Marvelous Marvin Hagler-Tommy Hearns, Sugar Ray Leonard-Roberto Duran type megafights is hardly dead.

He says, "We painted the canvas for this fight and that makes us immensely proud. No one else could have done it."

Arum predicted that pay-per-view sales will soon shift to the Internet and said that when that occurs, it will fundamentally alter the business.

"No fight ever was bigger than Ali-Frazier I,” Arum said. "In dollars, the amount generated was relatively puny, because electronically, times were so different. Remember, that was 1971 and there was no such thing as pay per view. There were only 350 closed circuit locations because that's all the system could handle.

"So you have to understand that you can't measure these fights based on the numbers of prior fights, because the electronics are vastly different. Five years from now, there are fights – not one, a number of fights – that will dwarf the numbers done in the past.

"We're close to the point where the television set and the computer will be the same and then you'll be able to do pay-per-view on the computer. Your universe will go from 50 million homes to a billion the minute they flip that switch."

Arum, who said he expects Mayweather to win, declined to discuss the feud with Golden Boy or the possibility of the two companies working together.

Golden Boy and Top Rank each have fighters under contract who would make for interesting pay-per-view shows, but the bad feelings on each side has, at least temporarily, put thoughts of dream fights like Shane Mosley-Miguel Cotto or Juan Manuel Marquez-Manny Pacquiao on hold.

Top Rank and Golden Boy are in the midst of a suit over the rights to Pacquiao, who might be the sport's most bankable box office star behind De La Hoya.

Arum recently promoted his pay-per-view card featuring Pacquiao in the main event against unknown Jorge Solis. While he doesn't have final figures, he said indications are that the show will finish around 200,000 sales, guaranteeing himself a tidy profit.

"You can't allow the television networks to control your fighter or you're dead," Arum said. "You have to be able to maneuver him around to your advantage, because the networks think they know everything.

"I'm doing this more than 40 years. I don't need a guy who has a background not in promotion but in law and who suddenly thinks he's a boxing expert telling me who I have to put my fighter in with.

"If you have an imaginative promoter, like myself or (Don) King, you can take guys on certain levels who don't appear like they'd be attractions and build them. It's all about creating demand for your product."

There is a considerable demand for De La Hoya-Mayweather – Schaefer said promoters might sell as many as 40,000 closed circuit tickets at $50 apiece in Las Vegas – which was helped immeasurably by the HBO show, "24/7."

The HBO cameras followed the fighters in their training and allowed the message to be delivered to a non-traditional boxing audience. The first three episodes of the four-part series came on Sunday nights after HBO's back-to-back powerhouses, "The Sopranos" and "Entourage."

"It's been the biggest linchpin to this campaign," said Ross Greenburg, the president of HBO Sports. "Your ordinary boxing audience isn't watching at this point. We were able to reach a totally different audience and say, 'Hey, we have something big going on here,' and it helped us greatly."

He said the shows have received an average of 4.1 million viewers, which he called "a big, big wow."

Schaefer said he hoped the approach taken to marketing and selling De La Hoya-Mayweather isn't one and done but rather something that can be used to enhance the rank-and-file fights, as well.

There are, Schaefer said, plenty of compelling stories that too often go untold.

"When it's done right, boxing is a special sport," Schaefer said. "We're talking to HBO about doing something like this again, because you create an attachment between the fighter and his fans. That's what it is all about."

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