Friday, May 29, 2020

Promoter Snapshot: Matchroom Boxing

This is the fourth (and final) article in my Promoter Snapshot series and will examine Matchroom Boxing (click here for the previous articles in the series on Golden Boy, Premier Boxing Champions and Top Rank). Similar to the format in the previous parts of the series, I'll be looking at Matchroom's strategic position in the sport, with an emphasis on their stable of fighters, media contracts and strategy, challenges in the marketplace, and key decisions to make in the next 12-18 months. 

Please note that the fighters listed in this article do not constitute a complete list of Matchroom's stable, but they should provide an adequate representation of their boxers under contract. Also, it should be acknowledged that Matchroom has a number of top female fighters under contract (such as Katie Taylor, Amanda Serrano and Cecilia Braekhus) and the company is a leader in promoting women's professional boxing. I haven't covered female boxers in the previous parts of this series and they will not be a focus of this piece.

Anthony Joshua, Matchroom's top star
Photo courtesy of Mark Robinson

Company: Matchroom Boxing

Company Overview: Matchroom Sport was originally started by Barry Hearn in 1982. Matchroom Sport broadcasts a variety of sports and games such as golf, poker, snooker, darts and more. Matchroom has been involved in boxing since the '80s and has promoted a number of British fighters over the decades, such as Frank Bruno, Chris Eubank, Sr., Audley Harrison and dozens of others. 

The most recent iteration of Matchroom Boxing corresponds with Eddie Hearn's ascension in the company. Eddie, Barry's son, is the Managing Director of Matchroom Sport and the de facto figurehead of their boxing program. Starting in the early 2010s, Matchroom signed a number of world-level British fighters who had been disappointed with their previous promotion within the sport, such as Carl Froch, Kell Brook, Tony Bellew, Kevin Mitchell and Gavin Rees. Matchroom then parlayed their growing fighter roster to become Sky Sports' exclusive boxing content provider. 

The Sky deal provided a strong, annual revenue stream and the company started to get more aggressive in signing British amateur talent. They were successful in bringing 2012 Olympic medalists Anthony Joshua and Luke Campbell into the fold. They have continued to sign British Olympians as part of their overall strategy and they now promote 2016 Olympians Joshua Buatsi, Lawrence Okolie, Joe Cordina, Josh Kelly, Anthony Fowler and Qais Ashfaq.

Matchroom's 2018 deal with DAZN ushered in another paradigm shift for the company. Armed with a new eight-year deal worth up to $1B from the streaming service (there is some fine print there, which will be covered later in the article), the company has established themselves as a leading promoter in the United States. They have also signed a number of top prospects from around the world. In addition, Matchroom has established a beachhead in other countries, broadcasting cards from Italy and Spain. There were plans to expand into several additional countries prior to the coronavirus epidemic. 

Under Eddie Hearn, Matchroom has specialized in staging big events. Did you know that Carl Froch put 80,000 in Wembley? Anthony Joshua has sold out stadiums in England and Wales. Bellew and Brook also headlined stadiums. Last year Hearn made the controversial decision to hold Joshua-Ruiz II in Saudi Arabia and he continues to court interest from different parts of the globe to stage events. The company likes to take the show on the road, whether it's a big event in Manchester or Sheffield, or a smaller show for a local attraction in Newcastle, Liverpool or Hull. In the United States, the company has followed this strategy of promoting across the country, with cards in California, Arizona, Texas, Pennsylvania, Florida, Massachusetts, New York, Rhode Island, and Illinois, among other locales. 

Similar to the other major promotional companies in the sport, Matchroom faces several challenges related to the COVID-19 outbreak. The restriction on international travel will make it difficult for Matchroom to grow its American and international operations in the near term. In addition, DAZN's financial difficulties may provide significant headwinds to Matchroom's global expansion plans. The company also faces a pivotal decision in 2021 when its existing deal with Sky Sports expires. 

Elite Fighters: Oleksandr Usyk, Gennadiy Golovkin, Juan Estrada, Srisaket Sor Rungvisai, Mikey Garcia

Champions: Anthony Joshua, Dmitry Bivol, Billy Joe Saunders, Callum Smith, Demetrius Andrade, Devin Haney, Josh Warrington, Murodjon Akhmadaliev, Julio Cesar Martinez

Recent High-Profile Champions: Kell Brook, Lee Selby, Ricky Burns, Tevin Farmer, Murat Gassiev, Maurice Hooker, Daniel Jacobs, Joseph Parker, Liam Smith, Jessie Vargas, Kal Yafai

Other Notable Fighters: Dillian Whyte, Michael Hunter, Kid Galahad, John Ryder, Hughie Fury, Rocky Fielding, Luke Campbell, Dave Allen

Sleepers and Potential Spoilers: Gamal Yafai, James Tennyson, Stephen Smith, Lewis Ritson, Callum Johnson, Scott Fitzgerald, Ted Cheeseman, Jono Carroll, Zelfa Barrett, Martin Bakole

Top Prospects: Israil Madrimov, Filip Hrgovic, Diego Pacheco, Daniyar Yeleussinov, Joshua Buatsi, Shakhram Giyasov, Austin Williams, Lawrence Okolie 

Under-the-Radar Prospects: Joe Cordina, Arthur Biyarslanov, Conor Benn, Alexis Espino, Otha Jones, Raymond Ford, Dalton Smith, Hopey Price, Aqib Fiaz, Jordan Gill, Kash Farooq, Anthony Fowler, Josh Kelly, Anthony Sims, Reshat Mati, Nikita Ababiy, Qais Ashfaq 

Stable Evaluation: On the surface, Matchroom features perhaps the deepest stable of talent in the sport, filled with elite boxers, stars, top prospects and useful B-fighters. However, much of their top-end talent has only been recently acquired, and many of those fighters may not be with Matchroom for much longer. Golovkin and Sor Rungvisai might only have a couple of big fights left in their respective careers. Matchroom has only one more bout in their contract with Mikey Garcia. Usyk (33) and Estrada (30), although both elite talents, have suffered a number of injuries in recent years. Despite Matchroom's impressive list of top-end fighters, many of them are either in or close to the cash-out phase of their career. Matchroom's promotional future rests more with fighters such as Joshua, Callum Smith, Haney, Madrimov, Hrgovic, and a number of their other young guns.  

Over the last few years, Matchroom has rapidly branched out from being a leading British promoter to one of the promotional titans in the sport. They've invested heavily in fighters from several Eastern European and ex-Soviet countries (Usyk, Bivol, Madrimov, Akhmadaliev, Yeleussinov, Biyarslanov and Giyasov). In addition, they've made key signings in the North American market, headlined by veterans such as Golovkin, Garcia, Estrada, Andrade, Vargas, Jacobs, Farmer, Hooker and Hunter, as well as young fighters such as Haney, Pacheco, Williams and Espino.

During Matchroom’s expansion into America, Hearn has received criticism from British fans for ignoring his home market. Although some of this criticism may have merit, the larger issue is the temporary trough of talent in British boxing. The last few years have seen the retirement of several former champions and world-level British fighters: Froch, Bellew, Haye, Groves, DeGale, Cleverly, Mitchell, Barker, Macklin, Crolla, John Murray and Rees. Most of these boxers appeared on Matchroom cards, sold tickets, helped headline big events, or at the very least, were capable B-sides for well-known titlists. 

The wave behind that group hasn't been as successful. Of course, Anthony Joshua has become an enormous star. But injuries and poor decision making derailed Kell Brook's career; Kal Yafai has failed to live up to his potential; Callum Smith has yet to put together a consistent run of solid performances as a young champion; Billy Joe Saunders, talented as he is, has had several problems out of the ring and only fights occasionally (Saunders just recently signed with Matchroom); Luke Campbell hasn't yet been able to make it to the title level; Kid Galahad has a style that few would pay to see. In short, the next wave of stars, other than Joshua, failed to materialize.

Oleksandr Usyk, looking to make a heavyweight run
Photo courtesy of Ed Mulholland

All of this leads to one of the central questions regarding Matchroom's ability to succeed as an international powerhouse: Can they develop fighters properly? Yes, they had a lot of success poaching established fighters from Frank Warren and Mick Hennessy in the U.K. But given the number of young, talented fighters they've had in England, how many of them will be able to sniff a pound-for-pound list? Is Matchroom overhyping the English fighters they sign? Do these fighters have the talent, but aren't being developed and matched properly? Does the company provide enough resources for their young fighters? The early returns on 2016 Olympians Josh Kelly and Anthony Fowler have not been great and further speak to the difficulty the company has had in seeing their top English talents succeed at the highest levels of the sport. 

Over the last few years, American Eric Bottjer has become a pivotal matchmaker for the company. He has vast matchmaking experience in American boxing and it will be interesting to see how he does with Matchroom's current prospect stable. Overall, there is a ton of top-level prospect talent in Matchroom's stable (in my opinion the best in the industry), but having the best prospects doesn't necessarily translate into making elite fighters. Given that, Bottjer and the Matchroom brass have their work cut out for them. 

Media Contracts and Assets: Sky Sports, DAZN

Media Overview: Sky Sports has exclusive British rights to Matchroom's boxing content through their linear cable channel(s) and Sky Box Office, their pay per view arm. In America, Matchroom is exclusive with DAZN. These two models differ significantly, as Sky is a premium cable channel (think of HBO) while DAZN requires an annual subscription or a monthly fee for Matchroom's entire boxing content with no additional pay per views (although this could change in the future). Matchroom's content is also available via DAZN in several additional countries.

Matchroom's existing contract with Sky could be up as early as 2021. Prior to the COVID-outbreak, DAZN was planning an aggressive entrance into the British market. Naturally, DAZN would have been in competition with Sky for Matchroom's U.K. boxing content. What will happen next, however, is anyone's guess. DAZN is facing numerous financial difficulties. Over the last year, their parent company has sold much of their non-streaming assets to free up cash; the company has turned to the banking industry for hundreds of millions of dollars in additional credit capacity; and they have even stopped paying some of their bills during the pandemic, failing to compensate leagues and other assorted parties for their streaming rights. 

In addition, the existing Matchroom/DAZN contract contains opt-out clauses whereby DAZN can sever the deal if certain performance milestones aren't met. This doesn't mean DAZN is necessarily getting out of boxing, but given its solvency and liquidity issues, it's safe to say that Matchroom's existing eight-year deal with DAZN is something less than ironclad. At a minimum, it's likely that's DAZN's plans for rapid global expansion, of which boxing was to play a significant role, will be curtailed. 

DAZN's entrance into boxing has been messy. Unsure of their business model, they've already changed their annual fee, instituted a per-month option, and then subsequently adjusted that. The performance of their streams has been spotty, with streams frequently freezing. As a work-around, many consumers have been forced to exit the app and log back in, which sometimes works, but not always. Even with this work-around, consumers often miss pivotal moments of fight action, creating bad will for the company. 

DAZN's broadcasts have been an exercise in trial-and-error. Their initial play-by-play analyst, Sugar Ray Leonard, has been removed (he was poor). One of their early presenters, Kay Adams, has left. LZ Granderson was initially hired for their broadcasts, but I'm not sure what he added to them. Their broadcasts originally featured taped pieces by AK and Barak, who now broadcast a daily show on SiriusXM Radio, but no longer are featured on DAZN, which is fine by me. 

I have previously voiced my significant concerns about Brian Kenny in my Premier Boxing Champions article. Sergio Mora occasionally provides timely insights, but he contradicts himself so often over the course of fight that he becomes a net negative in the presentation of the fight action. Chris Mannix, formerly a presenter on DAZN, has replaced Leonard and he's been fine, although he's often overshadowed by the constant chatter from Kenny and Mora. Claudia Trejos is a knowledgeable boxing insider and can provide quality interviews, by why is she interviewing trainers in the 10th and 11th rounds of a fight, when a match should be at its crescendo? This results in distancing the viewer from the fight action. This isn't a Trejos problem per se, but it highlights a lack of understanding by key people running the DAZN broadcast. The network also features an overreliance on the over-the-shoulder camera angle that distracts from the action at hand. Overall, it's not a clean broadcast and Matchroom would be wise to devote more attention to helping to assist in a better presentation. DAZN isn't yet operating at the level of its competitors from a broadcasting standpoint.

Hearn and DAZN have experimented during their time in America. Matchroom has placed two fights featuring You Tube stars on its traditional boxing cards. To say it hasn't flowed smoothly has been an understatement. During these fights, the network relies on a different team to broadcast and hype up these particular matchups. I'm not against trying to grow an audience base or even broadcasting these fights, but they haven't worked within traditional boxing cards to this point.

Devin Haney, one of Matchroom's best young fighters
Photo courtesy of Ed Mulholland

Over at Sky, the network has made a number of changes in recent years, almost all for the better. They have transitioned over the last few years from a core broadcast team of Nick Halling and Jim Watt to Adam Smith (who heads the boxing program at Sky) and a cast of many, including Carl Froch, David Haye, Tony Bellew, David Coldwell, Paulie Malignaggi, Darren Barker, Matthew Macklin and more. Smith is more assured in his call than Halling was, although he can get caught up in cheering on a British fighter over an international opponent (which, to be fair, is culturally very much a part of British boxing). 

Sky loads their biggest fights with a series of on-air fight panels and reporters in the crowd. Overall, the broadcast is professional and a well-oiled machine. With that said, the less Johnny Nelson, who often plays the contrarian, the better. I'd also like to see Sky further utilize an unofficial scorer on a more consistently basis throughout their broadcasts. Too many of their commentators score rounds even. (Although even rounds do occur more frequently in Britain than they do in other jurisdictions, they aren't as common as Sky commentators' scorecards would have you believe). More reliance on a good unofficial scorer would help provide a clearer picture to viewers regarding the fight action. 

Overall, Matchroom and Sky do a great job of promoting big British fights, often featuring several programs prior to the fight itself, emphasizing fight tactics, face-offs or panel discussions. They are usually well-produced, even if not always nourishing. They also have done great job incorporating podcasts and social media as part of their media mix. I've really enjoyed Chris Lloyd's podcasts and his work in broadcasting undercard fights; hopefully his role can expand over time. One trend with Sky and Matchroom that should be addressed is their overreliance on pay per view. The content provided on regular Sky boxing broadcasts just hasn't been as strong as it was a few years ago.    

Other Assets: Relationship with MTK Global, Annual fight card from Monte Carlo, Strategic partnership with the Sauerland family, Deep connections with the Great Britain amateur program, Strong relationships with several top U.K. trainers

Company Outlook: Eddie Hearn, although only 41, is already a gifted boxing promoter. He dreams big and isn't afraid of risk or criticism. In addition, he has the ambition to want to be great. He wants to expand the sport and his company's dominance within it. In addition, he's already an expert at cultivating and utilizing the media.  

His approach also has attendant risks. He prefers big splashes over steady growth. This is not making a judgment about right or wrong, just noting a predilection of his. Overall, his tolerance or risk and even his courting of risk are similar to Top Rank's Bob Arum. Both have grand ideas for boxing and their respective companies, and are comfortable consorting with all different types of people in order to execute them. 

Hearn continues to think out-of-the-box. His latest conception is, post-coronavirus, to stage fights on the Matchroom office grounds in Essex. The idea is one full of risk, health risks for the fighters and Matchroom staff, and reputational risk should the events go poorly. However, Hearn wants to be a trailblazer, an innovator, and this idea, strange as it first was to many, is consistent with his boundary-pushing efforts in the sport; he's willing to shoulder the blame if it goes poorly.  

I don't know how Matchroom will solve the problem of having an international stable of fighters while there are significant travel restrictions throughout large parts of the world. Will Hearn be able to fly back and forth to America to promote fights? Will he be able to stage fight cards outside of the U.K? If not, what will happen to his fighters outside of his home market? Will their development be stalled? How will the travel restrictions affect his ability to sign new talent outside of England? These are serious questions about the future health of his company, and as of now, there are no specific answers that address them. 

Perhaps most importantly, Matchroom's immediate future will revolve around what happens with DAZN. Even in the worst-case scenario, (the dissolution of DAZN), Matchroom prospered before the streaming service existed and should be able to continue without it. Most likely we'll see some form of retraction from DAZN in the short and medium-term and Matchroom may need to adjust its business strategy to reflect its partner's changing economic reality. 

As a result, Matchroom may be thinking about Sky far differently than it did just a few months ago. While outsiders don't know what promises were made regarding the future of Matchroom's boxing content in the UK, if the decision remains open, the fact that Sky is a fixture and won't be going anywhere in the near future should hold a lot more value than it did last year.

Much of Matchroom's success has been predicated on putting butts in the seat and creating a memorable atmosphere in the arena and for those watching on TV. I had the pleasure of attending Brook-Spence in Sheffield and it was a truly memorable event. As mentioned earlier, many of Matchroom's previous ticket sellers have retired or are now past their peak. One of Matchroom's main points of emphasis should be identifying and cultivating additional attractions for the company. As it stands now, despite having many top boxers in their stable, Joshua and Golovkin are the only two who can consistently move tickets wherever they fight.  

A few key questions remain to be answered: How does a company with vast visions of growth recalibrate for something much smaller and more intimate? Matchroom's dreams for 2020 may be pushed back for a number of years. Will Hearn (and Matchroom as a whole) want to grind out the mundane for a prolonged period until the spectacular is once again possible? Will frustration and boredom set in? For now, being the best promoter may not correlate with being the biggest. The best ones will figure out how to consolidate, make key investments and disinvestments, survive, and prepare for a more favorable environment. For all promoters, these could be lean years ahead, but does Hearn, who loves the glamour and grandeur associated with the sport, have the desire to function in this modified context, where corporate wins and goals may be on a much smaller scale? It's going to be fascinating to find out.

Adam Abramowitz is the founder and head writer of saturdaynightboxing.comHe's a member of Ring Magazine's Ring Ratings Panel and a Board Member for the Transnational Boxing Rankings Board. 
snboxing on twitter. SN Boxing on Facebook. 

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