Al Haymon Is The Wizard Oz, Follow his Yellow Brick Road?

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Floyd Mayweather Jr. Media WorkoutAl Haymon has recently announced his new boxing series “Premier Boxing Champions” (PBC). This series will be on NBC, NBC Sports Network, and Spike TV. To most of the world, this is nothing more than an interesting little blip on a sports landscape that includes Tom Brady’s deflated balls and Super Bowls but to the boxing community this is a massive change. For anyone that doubted the scope his ambitions, the announcement of PBC has made it clear: Al Haymon is looking to take over boxing.

In a sport that has never been short on controversial figures, Al Haymon sits somewhere near the top of its “Most Controversial” list. For a seemingly law-abiding guy that refuses to talk to the press, this is a pretty impressive feat. Al Haymon just… I don’t know what it is so I will call it a “knack”. Al Haymon has a knack for whipping boxing fans into a frenzy and after his recent maneuvers he’s got the entire boxing world buzzing.

On one side, you have fight fans that see a power-shift in Al Haymon’s favor as a sign of the apocalypse. On the other you have those that believe this is what boxing has needed for decades. So which is it? Is Al Haymon a boxing cancer or its cure? The answer depends on whether you think the sport is in need of a “cure” at all.

Boxing’s lack of mainstream popularity is no secret. As fans, we all know that there are only one or two people at work that we can talk to about fights. I can not come up with one “in-ring” reason for boxing to be a “fringe” sport. Think about it. Boxing has a glut of compelling stars, its action translates to television well, there are intense rivalries and it has a consistent air of unpredictability. Despite all of this, boxing is nothing more than a second-class tab on major sports websites like ESPN.com and SI.com.

As far as I am concerned, The sport of boxing works. It always has. Unfortunately, the business of boxing has not centered on expanding boxing’s audience or investing in its future in years. While major sports have continued to grow in popularity, boxing has continued to marginalize itself and alienate its audience. 50 years ago boxing was one of the largest sports in the world. In 2015, the average person would probably not be able to name four active boxers. So yes, boxing is broken, and it has been for years.

On the surface, I like what Al Haymon is doing. Bringing boxing back to network television for the first time in three decades. A huge step toward reinvesting in the future of boxing. HBO and Showtime’s 30-year monopolization of top fights have stunted boxing’s growth. Non-fans are rarely given the opportunity to check it casually out and allow an interest, in both the sport and the fighters, to grow organically. With the onset of Haymon’s “PBC on NBC and Spike TV”, boxing takes a step toward becoming more accessible for the first time in decades. Sure, HBO and Showtime are in millions of households, but that pales in comparison to the reach of network television and basic cable.

Boxing has lost an entire generation of fans since the 1980’s. Many of the hobbies and interests, we enjoy as adults begin much earlier. I firmly believe that the only reason I am a boxing fan today is because our household had free cable (and Pay Per View) when I was a kid. Boxing was available to me. I didn’t have to jump through hoops or seek the sport out. If kids at school brought up Holyfield vs. Foreman, I could just make a note to watch it. Holyfield/Bowe, Tyson/McNeely, Chavez/Whitaker; no matter how great or terrible. These fights allowed me to build a relationship with the sport that drives me to continue to seek it out today. Unfortunately, my situation was a unique one. Boxing lost an entire generation by making its biggest stars unavailable to them.

Boxing on primetime network television is a big deal. There is no debating this. Letting upcoming stars rise on free-TV can have a legitimate cultural impact on the sport. This impact can last for decades. If you are any bit as passionate about the value of the sport as I am, you must believe in boxing’s untapped potential. PBC is a real sign that Al Haymon recognizes this potential.

There are also rumors that Al Haymon is looking to kill the current Pay Per View (PPV) model. If he came out right now and said that this was his plan, it would be enough for me to support the guy. I absolutely loathe the PPV model. In the current structure, fans must pay for boxing’s most compelling content. This means that this content is seen almost exclusively in boxing’s built in fanbase.

There is no strategy within this PPV structure that utilizes boxing’s biggest stars to contribute to building a larger audience for the sport. The only way PPV fights contribute to the future at all is by putting younger fighters on undercards. The “strategy” is for lesser known undercard fighters to gain a wider audience. The problem is that this “wider audience” is within the already established (PPV buying) boxing fanbase. When it comes to investing in boxing’s future, this is a “best case scenario” for a boxing PPV.

The not-so-uncommon “worst case scenario” goes like this: If boxing has a bad PPV (terrible decisions, controversial stoppages etc.) boxing burns its most loyal fans. As these fractions of these burned fans give up on the sport over the years, the audience shrinks. The promoters’ answer to this shrinking audience dilemma? Charge the smaller audience more. These higher charges only serve to make the “bad nights” more upsetting so, of course, more people turn their backs on boxing. Do you see the pattern? The PPV system is built around cannibalizing an ever dwindling fanbase. Without a strategy to create new fans, this can only last so long.

Of course, there are those very rare occasions when casual interest is sparked, and regular people tune in. That can gain additional fans, right? Sure, maybe. Imagine finally getting the general public’s attention with a transcendent fight in the realm of Floyd/Manny. Three million people pay $100 to see the most important fight in years… And then there is a bad decision. Good job, boxing. Gambling the future of the sport on the hope that a fight will go off without a hitch is not a “plan”.

If Floyd Mayweather’s millions of dollars still leave you perplexed as to why PPV is a bad system, try this; Imagine a world where you can only see Lebron James play via PPV. Would this be a good thing for the NBA? Would putting the entire playoffs on PPV be a good thing for the NFL? Of course not. PPV is a ridiculous system. It may be great for Floyd Mayweather, but it is terrible for the sport. If Haymon wants to eliminate this, all hail Al Haymon.

Let’s not get too carried away. It’s not all gold stars for Al Haymon. There are big questions revolving around the quality of Haymon’s product. With three networks to satisfy, might he be spreading himself (and his talent) too thin? Haymon has a growing stable of over 160 fighters and some partnerships with a few other promotional companies. I assume this alone will be enough talent to carry him through 2015 and 2016. I have no doubt that there will be a few weak cards here and there, but it will much harder to disappoint people when you are giving them free fights with some regularity. That’s the thing about “free”. It just doesn’t sting as much. Of course, this is not a free pass to mediocrity. As it stands, he has a talent pool that makes quality match-ups possible. Whether he will use this talent pool to make great fights is a different question.

The elephant in the room is Al Haymon’s commitment to the fans. This is the area that boxing die-hards are most concerned about. Haymon garnered a lot of bad blood from the boxing public in 2014. His fighters avoided exciting match-ups and took horrible mismatches in their place. These “showcase” fights were then promoted as marquee events and broadcasted on premium cable (Showtime). Boxing fans are skeptics by nature. It’s one thing to bullshit us, but when you make it obvious it feels a lot more disrespectful. After garnering such resounding praise for an amazing 2013, he squandered that goodwill only one year later.

“Rod Salka” has become an all encompassing two-word description for everything that is “wrong” or “bad” about Haymon’s most recent output. This mismatch was handled so poorly that it immediately turned exciting fan-favorite Danny Garcia into one of the sport’s most reviled stars. Then there was the torpedoed fight between Peter Quillin and Matt Korobov. A fiasco in which Haymon allegedly urged Kid Chocolate to relinquish his belt and turn down a career-high offer of $1.4 million from Jay-Z. Your guess at the reason is as good as mine. I’ll just assume he has no interest in boosting the reputation of his new competition (Jay-Z). Regardless of the reason, the fans lost out in both cases.

There were also some underhanded dealings regarding Richard Shaefer’s business maneuvers as an employee of Golden Boy Promotions (GBP). Maneuvers in which he allowed GBP to build the careers of a number of legitimate boxing stars while conveniently leaving many of them free from any obligations to GBP exclusively. Maybe it is just a coincidence that these fighters happen to have been managed by Al Haymon? But in a sport that tests the loyalty of fans at every turn, the man isn’t making it any easier for us to deal with our trust issues.

I would love to go on and on about how disappointing the guy is but in hindsight; Al Haymon had a plan. He preserved his investment by taking no risks with his young stars so he can build them up “properly”. In this case “properly” means utilizing the expanded national exposure he plans on affording them in 2015 with the help of NBC and Spike TV. Instead of risking his stars to make a quick 2014 dollar, he preserved them, forfeited larger money fights, pissed off fans anAl-Haymond accepted the hit to his reputation.

Al Haymon seems to have sacrificed a full year of immediate gratification to invest in the future that includes bigger stars and a larger fan base. Let me know if you can think of any other manager/promoter that has ever considered the large scale future of the sport in relation to promoting his stars. 2014 was a terrible year but seeing a legitimate plan unfold in the sport of boxing is refreshing.

If we are to believe that Haymon sacrificed 2014 in the name of a larger master plan then maybe 2013 is a more accurate example of what the man is capable of. When Haymon was rejected by HBO at the end of 2012, he responded with one of the most successful and entertaining years in recent boxing history. We do not have to imagine what he is capable of when he wants to make an impression. We have already seen it.

Haymon is in the business of making money. It is in his best interest to excite fans. With these new avenues for exposure at his disposal, it behooves him to churn out a good product. Unlike the die-hards, this new audience he is courting will not hesitate to turn their back on both Haymon and the entire sport of boxing if they do not like what they see. I believe his entire strategy is based on increasing boxing’s market and becoming the center of it. If that is his plan, he is smart enough to know how fragile building a relationship with new fans will be.

Foresight is a wonderful thing, but that whole Shaefer/Golden Boy affair can be worrisome. Although nothing has been proven, the entire thing is ethically reprehensible. This situation alone is reason enough to question Haymon’s motives. This isn’t a “swell guy” out to save boxing. The guy is ruthless and clearly looking to take over. A future in which boxing is run by a tyrant with no scruples is a scary thought. I am all for change but do we need to sell our soul to a guy like this? Why can’t this be handled in a nicer way?

Reality check; the business of boxing has never been kind to nice guys. Frankie Carbo, Don King, Bob Arum… these names do not conjure warm and fuzzy feelings. “Swell guys” do not seem to do well in this sport because the sport has always been controlled by animals that will stop at nothing to crush their competition. What Al Haymon is attempting is akin to a corporate takeover. I would never condone his approach, but it is not unreasonable to look at it as a means to an end. There are necessary evils in both the business of boxing and the world of corporate takeovers. In this case, that “necessary evil” may be named Al Haymon. If you are looking for a change, this may very well be the only way it will come about.

Boxing has been broken for years. We currently have a fractured sport where the best do not fight each other, and the audience continues to shrink. It is a sport where we are forced to pay premium rates for decent main events and terrible undercards. With the current state that boxing finds itself in and my vision of its future, I am ready for a change. As long as there are no major rule changes, I have absolutely zero fear of a large-scale shake-up. I do not fear Al Haymon.

Boxing is resilient. If PBC fails, Haymon will lose a lot of money and boxing will fall back to its current broken model. If he succeeds, it will elevate the status of the sport within our culture and make it more enticing for future generations. In 10 years, it may be cooler and more lucrative to become a boxer than it is to play in the NFL. For the first time in years, the future of boxing has gone from grim to uncertain, and I believe that is a step in the right direction.