Showtime announced it would shutter its boxing broadcasts next year, joining HBO in dropping the sport. The moves leave streaming service DAZN as the established U.S. home for boxing while other networks and platforms weigh whether to move forward with the sport.
DAZN chief executive Joseph Markowski talked with Times sports culture critic Tyler Tynes about the future of boxing broadcasts, the rise of celebrity boxing and more.
The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Tynes: The last few months in boxing either have been disastrous or opportunistic depending on who you are and how much you have invested in the sport. How have you felt about the growth of the sport this year — both the influencer idea of boxing and the traditional contests?
Markowski: Boxing is now in an interesting spot, reaping the rewards of a few trends that started several years ago. DAZN’s entry into the U.S. market came at a time towards the start of our big investment in boxing. I think the market dynamics have been ever adjusting since then. Boxing’s getting to a point where things are starting to happen in a positive sense. The emergence of more intelligent broadcast decision-making, to not be led by digital and streaming metrics which can more accurately predict and assess how successful an individual fight would be and what is its value. I think there’s [just] more intelligence in the broadcast market now, than there was five years ago, that is pushing promoters. There’s a pressure coming to promoters to deliver fights that are closer to the fan wants than perhaps they were pushed to do [before].
Alongside that, you’ve got the emergence and growth of celebrity fighting … And we are at the very heart of that. That and its success is putting pressure on traditional, core boxing to deliver entertaining fights because there’s a risk that [their] lunch is eaten by the celebrity boxing crowd. There’s a few forces converging that are putting healthy pressure on the boxing side of the boxing business — the promoters, fighters and managers. You’ve seen cross-the-aisle collaboration between us and Showtime this year, between us and ESPN. That’s good for fans. It’s helped fights become bigger. Ryan Garcia vs. [Gervonta] ‘Tank’ Davis being a really good example of that. And although we hold our hands up and say we’ve made mistakes in our entry to the market, and we definitely were a bit clumsy entering, I think we’ve quite quickly adjusted and now we’re in a very exciting position at the heart of all of that to start making some big moves.
Tynes: One of the major things has to do with audience demands and the changing trends of what consumers want. The celebrity and influencer boxing dynamically changes what we’ve come to see in America. The idea of the Big Fight is no longer just in this country. Do you think the pendulum for what makes a big fight is more closely aligned to digital platformers like DAZN and Netflix these days?
Markowski: That’s just reflective of where consumption is going in media. There is definitely still a premium on linear distribution and cable distribution in the U.S and still in tens of millions of homes in the U.S. and has a huge reach. But, it is a declining reach, right? [Cable] was 95 million homes 15 years ago. So although there is still a very powerful linear distribution infrastructure in this country, streaming is [cutting] into that every single day and I think people are more comfortable with the streaming ecosystem. They’re using Spotify, they’re using Netflix, they’re using Max, they’re using Hulu to consume media. I don’t think boxing’s escaping that. I think boxing’s probably been, sport generally has been, a bit slower to the races on that than other entertainment genres. … We’re seeing a lot of positive consumption trends that suggest that people are more comfortable of all ages using those platforms.
Tynes: There seem to be three major events we can point to to see that. Within the conversation of streamers taking dominance, the Garcia vs. Tank fight was a sticking point for that. It ended up being the fifth-highest-grossing fight in Vegas history, the only bout to make as much money as it did and not come under the name of Floyd Mayweather or Canelo Álvarez. What was your involvement in the success of the event?
Markowski: It took us six months to do. I was very proud of our ability to get it done. I appreciated [Showtime Sports president] Steven Espinoza’s partnership on that one because there are many twists and turns in that negotiation that could have on either side led us to stepping away. That becomes a blueprint for how fights get made in the future. I always think about soccer or the NFL: If the Cowboys and the Giants are set for the Super Bowl, they never don’t play it because they can’t agree to commercial terms. Manchester United don’t not play Liverpool in the Champions League final because they can’t agree to commercial terms. Yet, that happens in boxing every single week. Big fights don’t happen because the respective teams and fighters can’t agree. So boxing needs to find a way to make these fights happen, and if it does that, it’s got the power to be a hugely profitable sport. But, it’s really, really hard and it’s harder than it should be.
We’ve made huge strides in making it easier for ourselves. The performance of our business reflects that and this is our most successful year to date. We’re a profitable boxing business. Our U.S. business is profitable. And it’s taken us five years to really be very, very dedicated to it. It’s something that we have worked hard at and we need to keep working hard at, but I think our efforts to partner with Showtime and ESPN has resonated with fans and the boxing community. They know what we’re about, they know what we’re trying to do. We’re about delivering fights to the biggest fan base possible and the hard [work] is starting to show now.
Tynes: The second part of the digital disruption seems due to DAZN’s X series of celebrity boxing matches. Whatever the consensus about the celebrity death-matchification of these events, they’re wildly successful. Does the matter of legitimacy around the fights, or safety, come up in your discussions when planning them?
Markowski: I love this debate. Sport often forgets that it’s entertainment, and I think sometimes sport thinks that there’s this guaranteed, carved out amount of time in every fan’s week to watch sport, and therefore they’re competing amongst other sports for that share, of that time. But, I don’t see it like that. As the young generation come into young adulthood and into decision-making in their own households. That same sort of YouTuber, influencer generation, they’re not 15 anymore. That generation has grown up with a huge array of sources for high-quality, free-to-view content. And what you’ve got now is an emerging generation of young adults who have grown up consuming hundreds or thousands of content channels mostly on the internet. And it means that there is more competition for their attention. And sport, it’s a decreasing share of that overall consumption.
It’s in a major genre of entertainment, but it’s less and less dominant than it was. And I think what it’s now to me is that you have the results of sport not really reacting to that quickly enough and losing a share of the audience because that audience is watching other stuff or doing other things with their time. So sport needs to remember that it’s entertainment. Now, I’m not for a second saying that every sport should just Logan Paul-ify itself and have Logan Paul and KSI and their powers doing the sport on a sort of pro-am level and making content around it. But I do think looking at the X series and looking at Jake Paul’s impact on boxing as well, you have a very interesting set of lessons and philosophies that you can take and distill and apply to other sports.
We are living in a different time now. There’s so many ways people can spend their time really cheaply or for free and have really good, quality entertainment experiences. And I look at it when I think my own life, when I sit down on a Friday night, do I want to watch an NBA game or do I want to go out for dinner or go bowling or go for a walk or cook or go for a drink? All these different ways I can spend my leisure time. I think sport needs to work out a way for it to be the most interesting and the most entertaining option within that menu as often as it possibly can. And I think if it doesn’t, as more and more entertainment options come to be and are freely available or cheaply available, then sport’s going to lose market share. And I think that’s the big thing. It’s like defining itself as an entertainment product for a broader entertainment ecosystem is super important to its health, and I think sometimes sport has, well, an overly narrow view of what industry it is.”
Tynes: Americans will certainly say that sports — regardless of the numbers — is still so much more of a part of our daily appetite. If you are a fan of traditional prizefighting in this country, and you see guys who haven’t trained for more than a year making millions in a dangerous sport, isn’t that image hard to defeat in some ways?
Markowski: Well, it’s like any other entertainment form. Does it matter that I’m sure there are fine artists who’ve trained for 20 years in the top art schools and are technically better painters than Mark Rothko? Technical skills don’t necessarily equate to market viability. I don’t disagree that there are better, technical ballet dancers, but I’m sure they all don’t end up becoming the chief ballerina for the New York City Ballet for various reasons. The world’s not fair.
Entertainment industries reward people who are proven by their sales numbers and their engagement. Ultimately, a boxer’s entertainment value and marketability comes down to how many tickets and pay-per-view or subscription sales he or she can generate. That’s why these guys get paid the money they are. We are living in crazy times where a kid can make videos in his bedroom and become one of the world’s most famous people. What that says about society is above my pay grade, but I’ve got a view on it. I don’t necessarily love that certain institutions in society are becoming less relevant than others that are more vacuous. The Kardashians have made themselves famous because of what?
Tynes: Because they‘re famous.
Markowski: Right. So, in that way, why should KSI have to explain why he’s successful, or apologize for it? And I think sometimes those boxers who sat around complaining that they haven’t made as much money as someone who’s been boxing for a year maybe need to think about their own marketability. If they are motivated by money and selling tickets, they can maybe look at what KSI is doing and learn from it.
Tynes: The third part of this is the demise of Showtime Sports, particularly their boxing arm. With their closing at the end of the calendar year, there will be no legacy boxing publisher on cable for the first time in decades. Companies like Netflix have suggested that they want to get in the boxing business. But, the company most well-equipped to tackle the lack of a real platformer is DAZN. So, how do you see DAZN’s outlook on boxing next year?
Markowski: Again, it’s all reflective of where content consumption’s going. We’ve invested in and focused solely on digital distribution. That is because that’s where consumption is going. I don’t think the reason Showtime left the market is only because of that, but also because their linear-digital mix was wrong. It comes down to the fact that boxing, the economics of it are hard to get, right? Our entry disrupted the market. And the market has massively adjusted since then, multiple times. Did Showtime get that right recently? I don’t know. Boxing is probably an unpredictable pain point for [them].
I’ve got my battle scars from boxing. It’s been an incredibly enriching professional experience to be a part of it and so central to it, but it’s f— hard and you’re dealing with a completely disparate sport of promoters and managers and players and boxers and just general community. There’s no organization to it. It’s not like dealing with the Premier League or the NFL where you go and buy a schedule and you know exactly what you’re getting and you can get a document with a schedule and it’s six months at a time. It’s all really, really labor intensive related to other sports media products. And when you get it right, it’s great. But, it’s hard to get it right and I think a few businesses look at it and go, “F— that, it’s too much hard work.” And I sort of understand that. We’ve stated it, it’s been a great entry point for us in the U.S. We’ve made it profitable, but I understand people wanting to stay away from it.
Tynes: All of these changes can feel like they’re progressing rapidly. Boxing as a product has had it’s most impressive year in two decades. But, with the spoils made a much larger, uncontrollable community. One of the only places that will remain is DAZN. What can viewers or fighters expect from the company in 2024?
Markowski: DAZN’s boxing business will be very, very profitable and successful in 2024. I think it’s got expansion opportunities. I think it’s going to be interesting to see where the PBC (Premier Boxing Champions) go. I dunno where it’s going to go. I think the PBC guys are considering their options. That will be an obvious growth opportunity for DAZN boxing. That’s going to be a big one. The growth of celebrity boxing is going to be interesting too.
I think the key question around that is sustainability. Is it sustainable? Are there enough fights to keep it going as an ongoing sports media product or is it going to die when KSI and Jake Paul decide to do something else? I dunno. It’s something that’s a challenge to my business to make it sustainable and make it worth continuing to invest in. I think we can do that. So I think boxing is a healthy spot. It will require constant management like it does, but I’m excited that boxing is on a very healthy trajectory, but it just needs to help itself. I think sometimes boxing promoters are a bit too quick to grab quick cash and not think about medium and long-term sustainability. I think that’s what I encourage them to do. They need to think a bit more long-term than they often do.