Friday, September 9, 2011

The Failures of the Super Six

Before delving into some of the unfulfilled expectations of the Super Six World Boxing Classic, let me throw out a disclaimer: the Andre Ward-Carl Froch final should produce an outstanding fight.  With that said, the tournament has been a failure.  After two years and ten fights (all on Showtime), the final might not even sell out a 10,000-seat arena.  Even with millions of dollars of publicity, umpteen press conferences, untold numbers of network promos and, often, compelling fights, the Super Six has not penetrated the boxing and sport public commensurate with the time and money outlaid. 

To my eyes, there have been three distinct failures of the Super Six, irrespective of fighters withdrawing from the tournament.  The result of these failures is a subpar competitive event and fan experience.  Although the Super Six was novel in concept with certain errors and growing pains unavoidable, the failures addressed here are all strategic and planning in nature, involving the execution of the tournament.  Each of these failures could have been addressed prior to the commencement of the tournament.   This article will examine how and why the Super Six didn't live up to its lofty expectations and what remedies could be put in place for similar future ventures.

Failure #1  The Inability to Identify the Best Six Fighters in the Division

Not to beat a dead horse, but how does Showtime put together a six-person tournament in the super middleweight division and not include titlist Lucian Bute?  The Canadian fighter had already defended his belt four times prior to the Super Six.  With his rabid fan base, Bute would have ensured that any bout in Quebec would sell out.  

Showtime identified four fighters who were highly credentialed to be involved in the tournament.  Andre Ward, Mikkel Kessler, Carl Froch and Arthur Abraham were all worthy participants.  Abraham, who previously was a long-time middleweight titlist, entered the tournament undefeated.  His inclusion in the super middleweight tournament was certainly sensible.  Ward was an undefeated Olympic gold medalist who was ready to up his competition.  Froch started the Super Six as a beltholder.  Kessler was seen prior to the tournament as the number one fighter in the division.

Andre Dirrell was a debatable entrant in that he had a very limited resume prior to the tournament, having fought as a pro only 18 times against limited opposition.  Nevertheless, Dirrell proved in his close loss to Froch and his domination of Abraham before Abraham’s disqualification that he belonged in the tournament.

Showtime's main failure in the selection of the Super Six contestants was the inclusion of Jermain Taylor, who was viciously knocked out by Froch right before the announcement of the tournament.  As a middleweight titlist, Taylor's reign was mostly smoke-and-mirrors, winning two debatable decisions against Bernard Hopkins, losing earning a draw with Winky Wright, squeaking out a victory against junior middleweight Cory Spinks and failing to inspire in a win against another junior middleweight, Kassim Ouma.  None of his successful defenses came against punchers. 

Taylor's middleweight reign ended unceremoniously in Atlantic City, as he collapsed in the corner of Boardwalk Hall, after eating some punishing right hands from Kelly Pavlik.  Taylor and Pavlik immediately fought a rematch at super middleweight, where Pavlik prevailed again. 

Perhaps Showtime conveniently forgot the decisive 12th round of Taylor's fight with Froch.  All Taylor had to do to win the match was to stay on his feet.  Instead, he collapsed along the ropes from Froch's pressure and right hands.  Taylor did dominate Froch during most of the fight, boxing beautifully at various points.  However, why did Showtime select a fighter for its tournament who had just suffered a knockout loss and who had recently been KO'ed at a lower weight class? 

Interbox, Bute's promoter, claimed that Showtime never presented Bute with a firm offer to enter the tournament.  This issue has not been directly addressed by the brass at Showtime, but the network has since locked up Bute with a three-fight deal outside of the Super Six.  Hopefully, there will soon be the establishment of the real champion at super middleweight, but, after two years and untold millions, the Super Six failed to deliver that fighter.  It's very possible that this whole tournament could be an exercise in establishing the second-best boxer in the division – a substantial waste of resources and time.

Failure #2  Lack of Operational Quality Control for Individual Fights. 

The Super Six was the brainchild of Ken Hershman, the Executive Vice President of Sports and Event Programming of Showtime, the head of Showtime boxing.  Hershman conceived of the round-robin tournament.  He helped to select the contestants and created the rules of the Super Six.  Hershman rolled out the Super Six to the media and immediately received fawning coverage for the vision and scope of the tournament.  

And after initially building the Super Six to "event" status, what did he do?  He erroneously deferred to the individual promoters to set up the matches, sell tickets, and find venues.  This philosophy could have worked had he been dealing with some of the bigger promoters in boxing, such as Frank Warren, Bob Arum or Golden Boy, but instead he was at the mercy of such second-tier promoters as Mick Hennessy, Gary Shaw and Dan Goossen, people who were successful at securing television dates for their fighters, but not ones who had displayed previous track records of selling tickets and building events – you know, promoting.  Hershman did have Sauerland Event in the tournament, the biggest promotional firm in Germany, as well as Lou DiBella, who if he didn't have the established record of selling tickets, he at least understood what a promoter is supposed to do. 

Because of this deferment to the promoters, a series of events decreased fan support and overall enthusiasm for the tournament.  Fights were needlessly delayed (such as Froch-Abraham and Ward-Abraham), short ticket-selling windows hampered attendance (Ward-Abraham, Froch-Johnson, Froch-Abraham) and the selection of fight locations were often baffling (Froch-Abraham in Finland, Froch-Johnson in Atlantic City).

In short, Hershman did not ensure that his network's biggest fights were put in the best locations.  Also many of the selected locations and venues did not optimize the potential attendance or media coverage for the tournament's fights.  Somehow, New York or Las Vegas, two of the three biggest fight markets in America did not host any of the six Super Six matches.  There should have been policies in place for the ticket sale lead time needed for each fight.  Sure, Showtime is not a registered boxing promoter, but let's not kid here.  The Super Six was Showtime's idea.  It did the matchmaking, the marketing, and the media buys for the tournament.  These are all functions that promoters perform.  Why then shirk the selection of fight locations and the need for suitable ticket access for the public?
In addition, there was a vast discrepancy among the fighters' respective roads to the finals.  Froch had to fight in England, Denmark, Finland and Atlantic City.  Ward never had to leave California.  Froch did emerge in the finals but he had to fight three of the tournament's original contestants in order to qualify for the semifinals while Ward only had to fight one. 

Failure #3  Lack of Buzz Surrounding the Final Two Rounds.

Somehow, after myriad network appearances and two years of Showtime's marketing muscle, the semifinals of the Super Six were held in the small ballroom of Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City and a reduced-capacity setup at the Home Depot Center in Carson, California, a suburb of Los Angeles.  The tournament started with packed arenas in Germany and Denmark; the two semifinal matches were fought in 3,000-seat venues.  The disappointing attendance of the tournament and the inability to select venues worthy of the Super Six's "event" status are the largest failures of the tournament.

If Andre Ward and Carl Froch were not proven ticket sellers before the commencement of the Super Six, their impressive performances throughout the tournament should have helped to build buzz for the semifinals and finals of the two-year event.  The fighters themselves have not disappointed.  Yet, enthusiasm for the tournament has waned.  

In America, Showtime is seen as the scrappy, second-place boxing network, putting on good fights without being burdened by the bureaucracy or largess of HBO, a network often inhibited by its uncompetitive matchups for its house fighters and sweetheart deals with its preferred promoters.  But, this is a vast oversimplification.  True, HBO, owned by media behemoth Time Warner, has a significantly larger budget for boxing and a much higher subscriber base than does Showtime.  However, Showtime is owned by CBS, a huge media conglomerate in its own right.  Additionally, Showtime is not some new player in the boxing arena; it has been one of the larger players in the sport for over 20 years. 

Scrappy becomes less enchanting when a network fails to execute its vision.  Showtime has the same access to the boxing media that HBO does.  They are based in New York like their rival is.  It has access to the best labor pool in the United States.  Yet, the network's boxing infrastructure is poor.  It lacks the skill and expertise to build fighters.  HBO Boxing's ability to tell stories, whether it be a countdown show, a pre-fight piece or its 24/7 show, is unsurpassed in the industry.  HBO viewers could tell you all you needed to know about Arturo Gatti or Bernard Hopkins.  Showtime has had some great fights recently, but what do we know about Israel Vazquez's or Jose Luis Castillo's life?  It's not as if Showtime hasn't tried to build fighters who appear on its network, it just hasn't had much success in creating resonant, lasting stories.  Additionally, many of Showtime's taped pieces seem perfunctory.  Its Fight Camp 360 show has focused on some of the interesting back-room dealings of the tournament, but have we really gotten to know the fighters?  Why haven't they become bigger names? 

Until 2011, Showtime hadn't been seriously considered for broadcasting the mega-bouts in American boxing over the last decade.  Previously, the network had abandoned its pay-per-view platform and didn't demonstrate the same expertise at handling big events that HBO did.  This year, only by agreeing to include other marketing and promotional assets from the CBS portfolio was Showtime able to land Pacquiao-Mosley and Cotto-Mayorga.  Curiously, these same assets have not been deployed for the Super Six, which soaks up an enormous amount of Showtime's boxing budget and, conceptually, is the biggest event that the network has staged in years.  The lack of vision in this instance is stunning.

Similarly, why didn't Showtime negotiate with big venues like Madison Square Garden, Staples Center or the MGM Grand to host the semifinals and finals of the tournament, ensuring additional marketing muscle and media coverage?  (MSG was undergoing some construction but the example is just illustrative.)  Sure, I like Atlantic City as much as the next guy, by nothing screams "event" more than New York City or Las Vegas. These locations signify that something important is happening in boxing.  MSG and MGM do a great job of promoting their fights and helping to get butts in the seats.  For good or for bad, Atlantic City has the reputation of securing solid, second-tier fights.  Is that what the Super Six is?  Is that what Showtime worked two long, hard years for – a solid, second-tier fight?

The Super Six has suffered from a branding problem in the tournament's later stages.  Yes, the initial three press conferences at the inception of the tournament, with the six fighters lining up on one stage, created powerful visuals and excited boxing fans, but Showtime has lost its bold footing as the Super Six has progressed.  What specifically has Showtime done to raise the awareness of the tournament's final, beyond its traditional marketing efforts?  The innovation and boldness of the initial Super Six concept has given way to Showtime's traditional and staid marketing efforts.  Where is the passion?   Again, Showtime created the vision and framework of an exciting new paradigm for boxing, yet Showtime's execution of the event has seen it fizzle into mediocrity.  Showtime didn't think big for the conclusion of the tournament.  They went with adequate – in terms of marketing, vision, location and venue.

Somehow, NBC, which had previously extracted itself from the boxing business, was able to sell out Caesar's Palace in Las Vegas for the first season finale of its Contender Series.  Prior to the show, no one knew who Peter Manfredo or Sergio Mora was, yet NBC (and a fledgling promoter) created a successful final event.  The network realized that a novel concept needed to build a considerable buzz to deliver commensurate ratings for its finale.  NBC, unlike Showtime, figured out that the conclusion of its tournament needed to be in Las Vegas.  

In terms of building special events, Showtime doesn't have the same number of eyeballs that NBC does – but CBS, its corporate parent and sister network, sure does.  HBO, with only its pay subscription model, has mastered how to stage big events.  Additionally, Showtime has had two years to promote the Super Six fighters and tell their stories.  In totality, the lack of fanfare for the Super Six final is stunning and speaks poorly of Showtime's vision and creativity.

Ultimately, the fight between Ward and Froch should be memorable, but the legacy of the Super Six will be one of failed execution and diminished returns.  Hershman has been quoted as saying that he would certainly consider staging another Super Six in a different weight class, but the first one was far from a resounding success.  The network must take a long, hard look at its boxing strategy.  If it wants to be a secondary network that shows competitive fights from time to time, the status quo could suffice.  However, if Showtime's desire is to be one of the premier destinations for global boxing events and an innovator within the sport, it's time to build a better brand, one whose default settings aren't frugality and complacency.  A little more pride would be a good place to start as well. 

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