Friday, May 15, 2020

Promoter Snapshot: Top Rank

This is the third article in my Promoter Snapshot series. It will examine Top Rank, Inc. (click here for the prior articles in the series on Golden Boy Promotions and Premier Boxing Champions). Similar to the format in the previous articles, I'll be looking at Top Rank's strategic positioning in the sport, with an emphasis on their strengths, the specific challenges that they face, their fighter stable, their media strategy and their key questions to consider over the next 12-18 months. Please note that the fighters listed below do not constitute a complete list of Top Rank's stable, but they should provide an adequate representation of their boxers under contract. 

Company: Top Rank, Inc.

Company Overview: For over four decades Top Rank has been a leader in American and international boxing. Led by Bob Arum, the company has a deep stable of executives with a collective experience of over 100 hundred years in the sport, including matchmakers Bruce Trampler and Brad Goodman, and business and operations experts such as Todd duBoef, Brad Jacobs and Carl Moretti. 

Historically, Top Rank has been in the star-making business and the company has played a significant role in developing fighters such as Muhammad Ali, Marvin Hagler, Oscar de la Hoya, Floyd Mayweather, Manny Pacquiao and many others into worldwide attractions. Known for their matchmaking and international connections, Top Rank has had a consistent run at the top of the sport. 

Bob Arum with one of his best, Terence Crawford
Photo Courtesy of Mikey Williams/Top Rank

But similar to all other boxing promoters, they have their share of challenges, and many of them, given the current economic climate and the realities of the coronavirus outbreak and aftermath, won't be answered easily. In fact, perhaps no company will be forced to recalibrate their business strategy as much as Top Rank will. With the curtailment of international travel and questions regarding live gates for future fights, Top Rank's ability to feature many of its best fighters in competitive matchups may be significantly hindered. 

In 2018, Top Rank signed a multi-year deal with ESPN to be their exclusive boxing content provider (the company once had a long-running boxing series with the network in the '80s and '90s). Long aligned with HBO, Top Rank's switch to ESPN represented a significant opportunity for the company to grow their business, and boxing as a whole. ESPN has always been boxing's sleeping giant and so far the partnership, despite some bumps, has been a positive development for the sport. 

Earlier this year, Arum floated the idea that Top Rank may be for sale. Now, how much of this is bluster, the usual due diligence that a responsible company undertakes, or a decision made out of necessity is unknown at this time. But unexpected deals or partnerships often occur in business, so I wouldn't necessarily discount Arum on this topic. Perhaps what's most important is the acknowledgement that the company is, at a minimum, soliciting interest from outside parties. Much of this could be the usual course of business, but one never knows where these types of discussions could lead. 

Elite Fighters: Terence Crawford, Vasiliy Lomachenko, Naoya Inoue, Tyson Fury, Artur Beterbiev

Champions: Jose Ramirez, Josh Taylor, Shakur Stevenson, Teofimo Lopez, Miguel Berchelt, Emmanuel Navarrete, Jamel Herring, Jerwin Ancajas

Interim Champion: Ryota Murata

Recent High-Profile Champions: Oleksandr Gvozdyk, Oscar Valdez, Carl Frampton, Andrew Cancio, Carlos Cuadras, Isaac Dogboe, Jessie Magdaleno, Jose Pedraza, Gilberto Ramirez, Eleider Alvarez

Other Notable Fighters: Kubrat Pulev, Jarrell Miller, Rob Brant, Felix Verdejo, Michael Conlan, Andrew Moloney, Jason Moloney, Egidijus Kavaliauskas, Jesse Hart, Jose Benavidez

Sleepers and Potential Spoilers: Agit Kabayel, Kudratillo Abdukakhorov, Carlos Adames, Michael Seals, Steve Nelson, Chris Van Heerden, Alexander Besputin, Javier Molina, Alex Saucedo, Masayuki Ito, Miguel Marriaga, Christopher Diaz, Genesis Servania, Joshua Greer

Top Prospects: Xander Zayas, Abraham Nova, Edgar Berlanga, Joseph Adorno, Janibek Alimkhanuly, Gabriel Flores

Under-the-Radar Prospects: Raymond Muratalla, Orlando Gonzalez, Jeyvier Cintron, Paddy Donovan, Robeisy Ramirez, Elvis Rodriguez, Henry Lebron, Jared Anderson, Sonny Conto, Guido Vianello, Josue Vargas, Julian Rodriguez, Albert Bell, Carlos Castro, Bryan Lua

Stable Evaluation: Top Rank has acquired their best fighters through several different channels: elite international amateur talent (Lomachenko, Stevenson, Lopez, Jose Ramirez, Gvozdyk), co-promotional deals with veteran fighters (Fury, Inoue, Beterbiev), their relationships with top managers (Crawford) and veteran free agent signings (Taylor). 

Many boxing promotional companies face the make-or-buy decision regarding acquiring talent. To get to the top of the sport, do they develop their own fighters (PBC, Golden Boy) or do they sign established veterans (Matchroom Sport)? (Although in recent years, Matchroom has certainly invested more resources in international prospects.) Top Rank, fortunately for them, has the wherewithal to do both. With deep connections all over the globe (U.S., Puerto Rico, Mexico, the U.K., Brazil, Japan, China, Australia, India, Russia, Ukraine, Armenia) they are able to bring in talent to their organization, whether that talent is established veterans, emerging prospects, or amateurs about to turn pro. 

Vasiliy Lomachenko, one of the elite in the sport
Photo courtesy of Mark Robinson

Most of Top Rank's best fighters are at the peak of their earning power or just starting to enter that phase. With Fury, Crawford, Lomachenko, Inoue, Taylor, Beterbiev and Jose Ramirez, they have seven fighters who are in the "big-money" portion of their career. Stevenson. Lopez and Navarrete could quickly follow them to create ten. Others like Gvozdyk, Alvarez, Herring, Frampton, Berchelt and Murata all have healthy per-fight minimums. Satiating all of these big-money fighters in a new era without live gates and a depressed economy will be challenging. One thing is for certain: there will be winners and losers in their current group of top fighters in terms of promotional support over the next year; the previous status quo no longer exists. A number of their best talents probably won't have a big fight for some time.

Top Rank, like all companies, tries to develop elite talent and star attractions, but they also see the sport differently than many of their competitors do. In addition to cultivating top talent, Top Rank's large fighter stable also consists of fighters in the following categories: 
  • Ticket sellers and marketable fighters, regardless of skill level
  • Popular local or regional fighters 
  • Potential B-sides and spoilers in divisions where they are deep
  • Olympic rivals of their popular fighters
  • Gatekeepers for their prospects
  • Favors to strategic partners
As good as Top Rank's development pipeline has been over the years (and they have had legions of success stories), they've had some recent misses. Five years ago, fighters such as Felix Verdejo, Oscar Valdez and Jose Benavidez were their prized prospects. They also had other top young boxers such as the Magdaleno brothers and Gilberto Ramirez. With apologies to Oscar Valdez, who has become a solid A-minus fighter and champion, there doesn't appear to be an elite talent within that group. Of course, things happen to young fighters, some that are within the control of a promoter, and some far beyond their purview. That's why companies sign dozens of prospects; one can never be certain who will emerge. But for whatever reason, that wave of fighters failed to meet expectations. Was this evidence of cracks emerging in the Top Rank talent development pipeline, or was it a natural part of the ups and downs of a boxing promotional company?

Their current stable of prospects is not among the best in the sport. Many of their popular young fighters (Flores, Berlanga, Adorno) have serious question marks about their ultimate talent level. Several people that I've talked to like a number of their fighters who haven't received as big as a promotional push (e.g., Janibek Alimkhanuly, Orlando Gonzalez, Abraham Nova, Raymond Muratalla, Elvis Rodriguez and Henry Lebron) better than those who have.  

The ease of winning title belts has also drained Top Rank's prospect stable, but in this case, in a promising way. In past eras, fighters such as Teofimo Lopez (22) and Shakur Stevenson (22) would still be considered prospects. But in the four-belt era, they have been able to win a world title belt despite facing limited opposition during their development. As has become common in boxing, even though these fighters are champions, they will continue their development and maturity in the ring; most likely they are far from finished products. Top Rank is certainly not alone in this regard, with Golden Boy Promotions (Canelo), PBC/Mayweather Promotions (Gervonta Davis) and Matchroom Sport (Anthony Joshua) utilizing the same strategy in recent years, grabbing a title before their fighter had been fully developed. 

One also needs to consider that what Top Rank's roster of under-23 fighters looks like now will not necessarily reflect their entire next wave of talent. Strategic acquisitions have always been a part of their business model, and they will continue to make them to supplement their roster.  

Media Contracts and Assets: ESPN, Top Rank fight library

Media Overview: In the waning days of ESPN's "Friday Night Fights" series, the show was certainly underproduced. Many of the technical elements, such as the lighting and the audio, were only small steps up from what could be found on community access television. Once Top Rank re-partnered with ESPN, it was natural that the two parties would work toward creating more of a "big-fight" atmosphere for its broadcasts. So far, the results have been mixed. 

At the beginning of their new partnership, ESPN would throw every conceivable media asset at their boxing broadcasts: here's Stephen A. Smith, here's Mark Kriegel, here's Teddy Atlas, here's Max Kellerman. Their broadcasts would feature six or seven on-air talents onsite and often a few more in the studio after the fights. With often poorly defined roles and a compulsion to utilize everyone available, the product became "more is less." The broadcasts were messy. Atlas fought with Kriegel. Kriegel, when calling fights, often side-stepped the action to focus on anecdotes about the fighters. 

Over the last year, ESPN's broadcast has improved, although they still have work to do. With Andre Ward and Tim Bradley, they now have a dynamic duo of analysts who convey the action in the ring as well as any on television. Both are experts at picking up on fighters' technical nuances and strategic decision making. Ward, in particular, has become the spiritual heir to Larry Merchant, finding the perfect dose of cold water to splash on the more enthusiastic elements of the broadcast. 

As he demonstrated with his call of Wilder-Fury II, Joe Tessitore can be an excellent play-by-play announcer when the action is compelling. He understands the big moments in the sport and fully comprehends the intricacies of boxing, especially regarding rules, refereeing and judging, aspects that can trip up many broadcasters. However, when the fights are less than enthralling, he can regress into bad habits from his "Friday Night Fights" years: overselling a particular fighter, or, conversely, exhibiting indifference to the ring action. When a fight is bad, he'll often drift away from calling the action, talking with his broadcast partners about topics far afield. This wandering will sometimes cause him to miss key elements in the fight. As for overselling: "Gilberto Ramirez, the undefeated sensation!"; the repetition of "lineal champion" in the non-Wilder Fury fights. Perhaps Tessitore needs a stronger a production team behind the scenes to help keep him on the right path. He is certainly capable when properly focused. 

ESPN has also found useful roles for several others. Bernardo Osuna is an excellent sideline reporter (he's also great when calling play-by-play). Kriegel has prodcued several wonderful on-camera and written essays about the fighters. Max Kellerman and Stephen A. Smith have often brought boxing to their "First Take" show, and that has been a great example of how ESPN and Top Rank can work synergistically to help grow the sport. In addition, Top Rank has created a compelling team, with Crystina Poncher, Brian McIntyre and Chris Algieri, to call their undercard fights and international broadcasts.

Despite improvement, the network still has some work to do for their broadcast to be considered among the best in the sport. They often utilize unusual camera angles, such as over a fighter's shoulder and above the ring, that distract viewers and distance them from the ring action. I'm also not sure why ESPN needs to have a three-man onsite panel to host the action before turning it over to its lead broadcast team of Tessitore-Ward-Bradley. Fewer voices would probably be more effective. Finally, they need to have a serious talk with their talent to call the action more down the middle. Their broadcasts too often play favorites and resort to cheerleading and/or homerism (The DAZN broadcast also struggles with this).  

Heavyweight champ Tyson Fury, addressing the fans
Photo Courtesy of Mikey Williams/Top Rank

The relationship between Top Rank and ESPN has at times been confusing for boxing consumers. The network has put some of Top Rank's best fighters (Crawford, Lomachenko) in matchups only available on their paid streaming service, ESPN+, while at other times these boxers have appeared on the linear network, with no particular difference in the quality of opponent. The network also utilizes ESPN+ for lesser matchups and international fights. It's unclear where and when ESPN will mandate which product will remain on their linear broadcasts and which will be streamed. I think clearer communication with consumers would help. 

With almost two years into the Top Rank deal, I haven't fully grasped what ESPN's overall strategy is for boxing. Driving subscriptions for ESPN+ and Disney? More weekend live sports? A strategic investment in an undervalued sport? Big, buzz-worthy fights? Additional programming during slower months? Hopefully we get some clarity as the Top Rank/ESPN deal evolves.

During the quarantine, Top Rank has opened their vaults to some of the top titles in their prodigious fight library, helping to program a number of nights on ESPN networks. I hope that Top Rank continues this trend. The company has over 40 years of prizefights featuring hundreds, if not thousands, of compelling matchups and/or famous fights. In a perfect world, they, or an outside entity, would better market, productize and exploit their library; it's essentially an untapped, or barely tapped asset. 

Other Assets: Partnerships with managers, trainers and promoters around the world, A strong relationship with Madison Square Garden, Affiliation with BT Sport, Reputational goodwill/experience

Company Outlook: Entering 2020, Bob Arum publicly emphasized two priorities for the company: more 50/50 fights and an increase in international events. The first, more competitive matchups, is a tacit admission that their boxing programming hasn't always been up-to-snuff. Fighters such as Terence Crawford, Oscar Valdez, Gilberto Ramirez, Jerwin Ancajas and Emmanuel Navarrete just haven't been matched tough enough. And these boxers have been featured prominently during Top Rank's deal with ESPN.

As a result of lukewarm ticket sales for many of their fight cards in 2019, Arum wanted to stage more international fights in 2020, with the belief that the enthusiasm of specific foreign markets would create more successful events. Jose Ramirez was scheduled to fight in China. Jamel Herring and Shakur Stevenson were supposed to defend their titles in the U.K. Naturally, with the coronavirus outbreak, these plans have been put on hold. 

Domestically, Top Rank has often worked with local promoters to help with ticket sales. This strategy has been a mixed bag. On one hand, local promoters know their markets well and can deploy available marketing dollars more strategically. But a number Top Rank's fights haven't performed well at the box office, irrespective of their promotional partner. More centrally, why would one of the largest companies in boxing promotions want to outsource such a critical function in the presentation of the sport? Putting butts in the seats should be an imperative, and for whatever reason Top Rank in recent years hasn't believed in its necessity. In fairness, they've made some hires in the last two years to begin to address this, bringing in people experienced with MMA and other live events. They've also expanded their online presence. To date, these initiatives haven't fully borne fruit yet, but it's too early to assess in a definitive manner. 

Overall, Top Rank is in an unusual position of having many of the best boxers in the sport, but without the immediate ability to make big fights for them. They are the company most poised to prosper in the international boxing market, but what happens when there is no international boxing market? Travel restrictions, lockdowns and shifting safety protocols within states and jurisdictions have played havoc with their plans. A number of excellent fights have been scuttled. Probably many more that had been discussed will need to be put on the back burner. 

But make no mistake; Top Rank considers themselves not as mere survivors in the boxing industry, but leaders. They have a long-term media contract with ESPN worth nine-figures and that network has a dire need for live sports content. If Top Rank can figure out a way to make boxing work in the near-term, they will have a captive television partner and the ability to draw a lot of eyeballs in a deserted sports landscape. 

Top Rank's present circumstances are conundrums for them to address, but they have the brainpower, experience and financial resources to find a solution. And if they can somehow make lemonade from this predicament, their stable, media contract and executive team will make a potential sale or strategic partnership even that much more attractive to potential suitors, if that in fact is a direction they wish to pursue. Top Rank's stable features great fighters from all around the world. Never before has that been such a liability. But if there's a company that can figure out how to make this work, it's Top Rank; and they certainly have their work cut out for them. 

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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