GEORGE Foreman was fighting Evander Holyfield for the heavyweight title, and anyone wanting to watch it in April 1991 had to plan ahead.
It was the night boxing pay-per-view was born. But to get the fight, customers had to go to their local cable TV offices and put a deposit down for a box that would allow them to get the bout.
“I remember the Friday before the fight we were getting calls from cable operators saying there were lines [queues] wrapped around the building a number of times and not enough boxes to meet the demand,” said Mark Taffet, who oversees pay-per-view for HBO. “We were shocked when we saw the number of buys.” The fight cost American boxing fans $35.95, and 1.4 million people bought it for their homes. They got their money’s worth when Holyfield took some big punches from the 42-year-old Foreman, but fired back with more of his own to win a unanimous decision.
A lot has changed in a quarter of a century. Now it takes just a few clicks of the remote control to buy a fight. The potential audience, meanwhile, has grown from 16.5 million addressable homes to nearly 100 million.
And, of course, the pay-per-view price has gone up. It will cost Americans a whopping $99.95 to watch Floyd Mayweather Jr. fight Manny Pacquiao on Saturday night, although British viewers need pay only £19.95 on Sky Box Office.
Cost aside, more than three million people are expected to buy the megafight for their homes, helping make it the richest fight ever. The bout is set to break records for both number of buys (the current mark is 2.48 million for Mayweather’s 2007 fight with Oscar De La Hoya) and total pay-per-view revenue ($150 million, set by Mayweather and Canelo Alvarez in 2013).
“We expect we will break the pay-per-view record,” said Showtime executive Stephen Espinoza, whose network is producing the telecast and is partners with HBO in delivering it. “We’re not sure exactly where the ceiling is but we are already seeing unprecedented traffic and unprecedented viewership. There are all kinds of indicators which point to huge success, we’re just not sure how huge of a success it will end up being.”
Longtime rivals in the boxing business, Showtime and HBO had to agree to do the fight together in order to get it made. Mayweather fights under contract with Showtime, while Pacquiao fights on HBO.
The model is similar to that used by the two networks in the 2002 fight between Lennox Lewis and Mike Tyson, including an announcing team that features HBO’s Jim Lampley on play-by-play and Showtime’s Al Bernstein as the analyst.
“Lampley and Bernstein, two of the most experienced and knowledgeable broadcasters the sport has seen,” said Espinoza, executive vice president and general manager for Showtime Sports. “It’s really an excellent pairing.”
The networks are counting on an unprecedented promotional campaign the week of the fight by the different cable and satellite distributors to push sales.
Unlike most fights, the adverts will be aimed at casual sports fans who might want to gather a few family and friends together for a viewing party, much like they would for a Super Bowl. “We’re targeting people who are not generally engaged in sports conversation as well as people who aren’t big sports fans but are event fans,” Espinoza said. “They may not follow sports much but they like the big events and this is a big event.”
The $99.95 price tag most systems will charge in the States is the most for any fight, though fans will be able to get up to a $50 rebate by buying beer from sponsor Tecate. Taffet, senior vice president of sports operations and pay-per-view for HBO, said that if people are making an event out of it, they can justify the cost by the number of people attending.
“When you take the cost of pay-per-view and divide it by the number of viewers in each house we expect the cost averages out to that of a movie ticket,” Taffet said.
“The cost of the refreshments for the viewing parties usually exceeds the cost of the pay-per-view telecast.”
The early indications are that the price won’t be a deterrent for a lot of people. Taffet said several distributors had already sold more than 10,000 pay-per-views with nearly two weeks left before the fight, which is unheard of in a business that relies on last-minute decision making.
If more than 3 million people buy the telecast it would mean huge payouts for the two fighters. Promoters get an average of between $55 and $60 for each pay-per-view after splitting with the networks and distributors, meaning revenue to the camps of the two fighters could near the $200 million mark.
Yes, it’s a lot pricier than the $35.95 charged to watch Holyfield beat Foreman.
And the argument could be made to wait a week when a tape of the fight will almost surely be broadcast for free on both networks.
Then again, no one will have to get up early on Monday morning to return a box to their cable operator.