In May of 2015, the Floyd Mayweather-Manny Pacquiao boxing match generated a record 4.6 million pay-per-view buys — nearly double the previous record of 2.4 million buys for 2007’s Mayweather-Oscar De La Hoya bout. Industry pundits at the time said it could be at least another generation before a fight could be made that generated enough wide appeal to even approach that record.
This past August, Showtime Sports and Event Programming general manager Stephen Espinosa and UFC president Dana White pulled it off.
The much-anticipated, unprecedented Aug. 26 boxing match between Mayweather, the undefeated former boxing champion, and current UFC mixed-martial-arts champion Conor McGregor did more than settle the question of whether an MMA fighter could take on a top boxer in the ring. It captured sports fans’ imagination, drawing a preliminary 4.4 million pay-per-view buys. When all cable, satellite, telco and online purchases are tallied, it could surpass the record now held by Mayweather-Pacquiao.
It’s already the undisputed champion in terms of PPV event revenue, besting the $450 million that Mayweather-Pacquiao earned.
“As big as the UFC has become over the past 20 years, and as big as boxing has been in the history of PPV, it took boxing and the UFC to get together to do the biggest fight ever,” White said.
Added Espinoza: “For combat sports it was a very interesting experiment that turned out well for all involved … it was a successful fight as a television experience and a financial endeavor.”
Most impressive is that Espinoza and White orchestrated a knockout fight promotion and PPV event without a previous roadmap as to how to bring both boxing and MMA fans under one roof.
Powerful One-Two Punch
“I think the participation by both Dana and Stephen was critical in putting this together,” said Michael Berman, executive vice president of programming and general counsel for In Demand, which distributed the fight to MVPDs.
Both Showtime’s Espinoza and UFC’s White were familiar with handling PPV mega-events. Espinoza, who joined Showtime in 2011 after serving as lead counsel for the Oscar De La Hoya-owned Golden Boy Promotions, had overseen two of the top five most lucrative and successful pay-per-view events of all time prior to Mayweather-McGregor, including Mayweather-Pacquaio and the 2013 Mayweather-Canelo Alvarez bout.
White’s background as president of the UFC is legendary. White took over a once-shunned mixed-martial-arts franchise in 2001 and built it into one of the fastest-growing sports brands in the world.
UFC was sold for some $4 billion to WME-IMG in 2016, based on White’s ability to develop high-profile, monthly PPV fights that draw the difficult-to-reach demographic of young men.
Still, both White and Espinoza had a steep hill to climb in developing an event that had never been attempted before on such a high scale. “It was a great unknown,” said In Demand’s Berman.
“It was such a unique fight that it had to appeal to many different audiences. They had to create the momentum, the buzz and the anticipation, and they checked off all of the boxes with this fight.”
Also working against them was the calendar. Espinoza said Showtime and the UFC had only 72 days from the announcement of the fight to the night the fighters stepped into the ring — well short of the three-month window typical for large-scale PPV events — to secure carriage deals and to build the behind-the-scenes infrastructure to make sure the fight would be delivered successfully to fans.
In the end, Espinoza and White were able to secure distribution deals that would make the fight a true global phenomenon.
“Our distribution for the fight included 97 Army bases around the world, a science station in the Arctic Circle and over 5,000 bars in the U.S., on top of a near record-breaking residential PPV,” Espinoza said.
Added White: “Truly, this was a global event … I always dreamed of putting together a fight that the whole world watched, and we were pretty close on this one.”
The fight’s opening four-city press conference in early July revved up fans’ passion for the fight. The two charismatic, confident fighters went toe-to-toe verbally during separate press conferences in Toronto, Los Angeles, New York and London.
“We knew that momentum was building for the fight, but what solidified it for us was when we took the fight on the road,” White said. “You couldn’t get a seat in any of the arenas and the events were super-entertaining. I knew we had a home run once we got out on the road.”
New Media Reach
Under Espinoza and White’s oversight, the fight took full advantage of new digital technologies to extend reach and awareness arguably beyond any past PPV event. Given that both Mayweather and McGregor have huge social media followings, Showtime and the UFC were able to launch an unprecedented social media marketing campaign that featured videos and other media to reach both hard core and casual combat sports fans.
In addition, distribution of the Mayweather-McGregor event was expanded beyond traditional pay-per-view homes into the digital arena. Showtime for the first time ever launched a Showtime PPV digital app dedicated to promoting and accepting buys for the Mayweather-McGregor fight, while the UFC cranked up its UFC.TV platform to secure buys for the event. While both suffered some technical glitches in the hours leading up to the bout, the sites expanded the opportunities for fans to watch and set the template for future boxing and MMA events to follow.
“As technology gets better, we’re getting to a place where when we put on an event, the entire world can watch, whether it’s on digital platforms or on one-off television deals,” White said. “With this fight, were able to reach a younger generation of fans who consume television a lot differently.”
Added Espinoza: “Our strategy has been to be platform-agnostic and ubiquitous, so wherever people are watching — whether it’s phones or tablets — we want to be there. For truly premium content, there is still a robust market that will pay for programming, but those consumers expect that content will be available when, where and how they like it. As long as you make it available on their terms, then they are willing to pay for it.”
Both White and Espinoza said the Mayweather-McGregor bout has had a carryover effect on both sports. “It’s impossible to think that with the event that we did that it didn’t raise the awareness globally about the UFC, Conor McGregor and mixed martial arts,” White said.
The fight has actually overshadowed Showtime’s strong 2017 boxing campaign, in which saw the network air a record number of title fights.
“We’re doing better fights than anytime in the recent past, and that has elevated not just our programming platform, but the sport as a whole,” Espinoza said. “What we have contributed to is a rejuvenation and reinvigoration of boxing.”
Through Mayweather-McGregor, Espinoza and White have also set the precedent for a new category that could yield more boxer-UFC fighter combinations — and big PPV event performances — in the future.
“Time will tell what the impact on combat sports will be,” Espinoza said. “Will it be like the first Super Bowl, where we saw two leagues come together in what would eventually became a united football league, or is it going to be something that’s done occasionally as a one-off featuring specific individuals that can carry an event?”
Added White: “At the end of the day, my job is to put on fights that people want to see — that was a fight that people wanted to see. If we end up in that type of position again, I would do it again.”