This past week the Sports Business Journal had an extensive report of the financial failure of the World Boxing League, which limped home following its first season. The WBL launched last year with city by city team boxing, hoping to pit young stars trained in cities like Los Angeles and Miami against other global cities in an effort to build new stars for boxing and also build off the concept that fans will find an allegiance not just for individuals but for some civic or ethnic pride. The result, according to the piece, saw ticket sales of less than 50 in some cities like Memphis, and the concept, which was looking for multi-million dollar investments, never really caught on.
Why? A few reasons, little of which actually have to do with any of the larger scale issues that boxing has today. First, boxing first and foremost is an individual sport, and like many other individual sports before it, the “team concept” doesn’t really work. Mixed Martial Arts has tried the team of county by country and city by city with no luck, volleyball tried city by city with no interest, and while World Team Tennis has had staying power, even Davis and Fed Cup in tennis struggle to find an audience. Individual sports are just that…fans want to see individuals rise up and win, mano a mano. They are intrigued by those from their hometown and certainly enjoy rooting for one’s county, but if there aren’t more than two people on the field at the same time the concept of team is usually hard to explain. Also in most individual sports, the athletes are a vagabond lot, often traveling a circuit and rarely compete in a given “season” in one place. The money and often the media coverage (and the fans) are at the bigger events for individual purses, and that’s where the players are best known. Maybe that changes a bit in some sports for the Olympics, where pride of nationality may take precedence, but even at the Olympics a sport like boxing is much more about the individual than the team country.
Another reason. We have more than enough team sports already. This year we have again seen second tier leagues in a challenged economy struggle to find their way, and the fan, at least the casual one, seems happy with the large scale team sports we already have. Soccer, baseball, football, hoops and hockey appear to be enough, maybe with some lacrosse thrown in from time to time. There does not seem to be clamoring for more team sports to fill the landscape. We are also in an economy where lifestyle sports are becoming more important to the consumer struggling with health issues, and action sports have filled a void for many younger enthusiasts who may have been interested in yet another team sport in the past. Chuck Norris’ departed World Combat League even showed that emerging sports like karate and tae kwon do, may be good for one person, but no one cares about teams from Austin and Houston battling it out.
One more. Any new concept takes time, and time is not an ally of large scale sports launches these days. Having to explain who the new fighters were, what the team concept did, and how winners were going to be selected takes away from what fight fans want to see…a good battle of individuals. Those who would tune in went for the fights as a one off, not to see the standings of tams that in a start up had little to no relevance. Even recently launched team sports that made sense to the public like the UFL and WPS have struggled to find their place because it takes time…years…to build alliance and change viewing patterns. Brands, media partners, and unfortunately investors, are not willing to wait that long in a 24/7 world like today.
The fact still remains that boxing still can hold its own for splash and interest when there is a big fight. There may not be many heavyweights to capture the attention of the casual fan right now, but especially among a growing Hispanic audience, big names can draw attention and eyeballs as individuals and in certain geographic areas. They fight with pride for their country and for themselves, and to try and fold them into a team isn’t a good way to try and develop an individual sport. Now maybe the WBL was before it’s time, and it is the proper way to develop young boxing talent. Boxers do train as individuals in certain geographic areas and do fill local fight cards on every level. However unfortunately the early returns on the investment appear to show that the public, at least in the U.S., does not want or need another team sport concept yet, no matter how high the level of competition. Americans do love the team sport concept, that is true. They just don’t have to love it for every sport that is out there.