Will the World Series of Boxing stem diminishing interest in the sport?
WEDNESDAY, 09 JUNE 2010 15:57
BY EVAN WEINER
Sometime this fall, probably in November, somewhere in some sports arena in Manhattan or perhaps Newark or maybe Uniondale and in 11 other locales worldwide there will be a sports experiment that bears close scrutiny. Boxing will become a team sports with four franchises in North America, New York, Chicago, Los Angeles and Mexico City, four franchises in Europe, Istanbul, Turkey: Milan, Italy; Moscow, Russia and Paris, France. There will be an Asian quartet, Astana, Kazakhstan, Baku, Azerbaijan, Beijing, China and Delhi, India.
Boxing, a sport that has seen better days in terms of popularity in the United States, needs to be rebranded. Long gone are the days of Joe Louis, Rocky Marciano, Muhammad Ali, Joe Frazier, George Foreman, Sugar Ray Robinson, Sugar Ray Leonard and even Mike Tyson. Boxers come and go now generally as afterthoughts in the sports world.
The North American teams will have home and home series, the European teams will have home and home series and the four Asian clubs will have home and home series. The three division winners will advance to the semi-finals and there will be one wild card team and the championship will be held in Macau, China. The 12 teams will be stocked by a draft, which will be held in London, UK, on June 28. The draftees will come from a pool of fighters who are registered with national boxing federations globally.
A 12-team structure with individual owners and a pool of athletes that are drafted onto a roster is standard fare for any new league. But this one is very different. No North American sports league has teams outside of America and Canada. There has never been an entity that has had North America, Europe and Asia component although tennis' Davis Cup and golf's Ryder Cup are one-off international events.
Other sports leagues globally will be paying attention to the experiment. The World Series of Boxing (WSB) came about because a number of people around the world and a sports management company think they can improve the sport according to Ivan Khodabakhsh, the Chief Operating Officer of the WSB.
The WSB came about as the result of a partnership between the International Boxing Association (AIBA) and International Management Group (IMG) that was created in November 2008. AIBA will own 75 percent of the venture while IMG has the other 25 percent. AIBA will supply the boxers and the boxing personnel which will include the equivalent of a general manager, a head coach and a training and medical staff, along with referees and judges. IMG will do all the marketing and international TV and broadband. WSB boxers will be top ranked amateurs who are about to turn pro, there will be no big names in the league, and those fighters will keep their 2012 Summer Olympics eligibility even though they have turned pro with the WSB. The boxers will come from all 195 AIBA members including USA Boxing.
The WSB will have the backing of the International Olympic Committee and will live under the rules of the IOC and will adopt the rules and regulations of the World Anti-Doping Agency.
Why is there a WSB?
"On the professional side, you can question their (World Boxing Council, World Boxing Association, International Boxing Federation and World Boxing Organization)," said Khodabakhsh. "When AIBA President Dr. Ching-Kuo Wu took over (the AIBA), he initiated a number of reforms. The one thing the AIBA looked into is whether the AIBA can reform boxing."
Dr. Wu had doubts as to whether boxing could reform and decided there is a better way to promote the sport than going through Don King or Bob Arum, two of the major players in boxing promotion.
"The AIBA decided to start with the grass roots level and not duplicating (what King and Arum do) and create something and bring boxing into the 21st century," he said. "The idea was to create the World Series of Boxing. We did look at all issues, what is good about boxing and why other leagues are successes. So we will create individual boxing and team boxing. You need to have a season for the fan base and the followers, you can't have a one-off bout and disappear, we want to create a meaningful story to connect the bouts to each other."
Each team will have six matches and they will have five different divisions (Bantams-54kg), Light (61kg), Middle (73kg), Light Heavy (85kg) and Heavy (91kg). There will be 5 rounds of 3 minutes in the team competition and 7 rounds of 3 minutes in the Individual Championships. Match decisions will be based on points, Technical Knock-Outs, Knock-Outs and disqualifications - there will be no draws.
A new scoring display with electronic input is being studied in order to provide an open scoring system that will be based on the so-called 10-point "Must System" (10-9, 10-8, 10-7, to indicate the winner of each round and rank the second-placed boxer based on the level of their performance). Scores will be publicly displayed at the end of each round and at the conclusion of the bout. The scores will be given by three judges seated ringside.
The top two individual fighters in each weight class will fight for an individual championship after the season.
Because boxing is a dangerous sport, the health of fighters and the frequency of fighting is a concern that needs to be addressed.
"We have a detailed medical handbook," said Khodabakhsh. "We will have an anti-doping program, we will monitor the gloves. We are very well aware (the fighters) are assets to the franchise. We will have brain scans and bring structure to the sport."
The WSB is not going to be on the same level as Major League Baseball, the National Football league, the National Basketball Association, the National Hockey league, the PGA or the tennis tour. The boxers will be young and not make much money whether it is in dollars, pesos, Euros, rupees, Yuan or rubles.
"They (King and Arum) will do what they do," said Khodabakhsh."We aren't getting their boxers, we are getting amateurs. The boxers will be in a healthy environment and will sign three-year deals.
"All of the boxers have registered with their federations and all have competed in international events. These boxers have developed skills in the highest levels of amateurs and are ready to turn professional."
Chuck Fairbanks, when he became the coach of the New Jersey Generals of the United States Football League in 1982 wryly laughed when he was asked if there were enough quality players available for the USFL. Fairbanks said what you need is the right ball, fat in the middle, square on top that bounces funny. In other words, Fairbanks said there were more important aspects to the sports business than performers.
Khodabakhsh acknowledges that the business side is extremely important. IMG is handling broadcast arrangements worldwide and as of yet there is no United States TV partner although that announcement could come very soon, perhaps by draft day. But there is a TV deal in China. That is the nature of the business, global. The league will be collecting money in various forms and pay taxes in various forms.
There will also be phased in expansion and it will not be in the United States.
"All the federations expect to be part of it," said Khodabakhsh.
Oceania, South America and Africa will be part of it. What is important is that we have a league with exciting boxing but this also has to be profitable. We have been struggling to regulate salaries and a salary cap. India's money is worth different from the United States and France. It will be about $25,000 a year not including prize money per boxer."
Khodabakhsh will be meeting with Madison Square Garden officials and with people in Chicago, Los Angeles and Anaheim in an effort to get arena commitments in the US. The season will start on the weekend of November 19-20 and end sometime in March or April with the team and individual champions taking place in May. Macau was chosen because it is a bigger tourist area than Las Vegas and gambling revenues have surpassed the Nevada gambling oasis.
The boxers have been vetted and will have their visas and will be able to go from country to country and will be involved in more than fisticuffs according to Khodabakhsh. They will participate in local and global marketing.
The WSB experiment will also be an interesting case study. Corporate dollars fund sports in North America and Mexico while there is a lot more government support in Asia. "In China and Kazakhstan, there is a high level of government as a source of income," said Khodabakhsh. "Government sponsorship is more important in Asia; there are commercial (corporate) partners in Europe and the US. Mexico is a mix."
Two United States formed leagues, the World Football League and the World Hockey Association had global aspirations. The World Football League barely lasted it's year because it did not have solid financial backing in 1974 and folded in 1975. Had the World Hockey Association not reached a deal with the National Hockey League in 1979 which brought Edmonton, Hartford, Quebec City and Winnipeg into the NHL, the World Hockey Association had plans to go to Europe in 1980. The National Football League tried a spring time minor league with a mixture of North American and European based franchises which ultimately failed. The league which had a few different names played in 1991 and 1992. The NFL suspended the league in 1993 and 1994 and brought it back as solely a European entity in 1995. The league ceased operations in 2007.
The WSB plans not to challenge King or Arum, but if the team boxing idea globally is successful, they could change a portion of boxing. A Delhi-Chicago final may not resonant in the United States but there are a lot of people in India and in Macau. That's the audience the WSB is trying to capture, not the Atlantic City or Las Vegas fighting crowd.
Evan Weiner is an author, radio-TV commentator and lecturer on "The Politics of Sports Business." He can be reached at email@example.com