Boxing evolves in the age of social media


About two years ago, Banner Promotions boss Artie Pelullo and company vice president Matt Rowland were driving back to their home base in Philadelphia after a business meeting in New York.

The subject of their car conversation turned to the future of boxing distribution.

Rowland, who is 33, began to explain the ways of social media to 61-year-old Pelullo, whose idea of cutting the cord was more about what happens in a delivery room after a baby is born than any notion of millennials ridding themselves of cable and satellite services in favor of using phones, laptops and iPads to watch their favorite programs.

Present-day Pelullo is now a believer in social media being a big part of boxing’s future.

“My opinion is that social media is the future of a lot of things, not just boxing,” Pelullo said. “Matt brought me into the 21st century. He said we should explore this two years ago. He said social media was the future. He said if we’re going to grow as a company and as a sport we need to move on [from linear television]. There’s a whole world out there.

“So for two years we’ve been figuring out what’s the best approach for our fighters and our business. It took a couple of months for me to wrap my head around it, and I have been learning.”

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It all came to a head last Saturday when Banner Promotions became the first boxing company to distribute a fight live in the United States exclusively on Twitter.

Pelullo promotes lightweight contender Peter Petrov, who was challenging world titleholder Terry Flanagan in Manchester, England. British promoter Frank Warren owned the broadcast rights in the United Kingdom, where the fight was televised on BoxNation, a subscription boxing channel Warren helped found. But Pelullo held the American rights, and though he had gotten at least one offer from a television network for the fight, he was not happy with the amount of money on the table.

All along, Pelullo had been looking for the right opportunity to bring a fight to social media — with a likely younger and more diverse group of eyeballs. This was it.

“When the opportunity came up to put the fight on Twitter we jumped all over it,” Pelullo said. “I wanted to figure out what was best for my company and this was the best thing — a quality fight to work with Twitter on that we could offer exclusively in the United States.”

Banner Promotions and Twitter announced their partnership to make the fight available in the U.S. only three days before the fight, and yet it still drew an audience; that Saturday evening, hundreds of thousands of consumers clicked on the link to the fight on Twitter, which also helped advertise the broadcast. Those viewers saw a crystal-clear stream, which was a simulcast of the BoxNation broadcast.

Twitter was happy to be involved.

“We are thrilled to partner with Banner Promotions to bring more live boxing to Twitter,” Anthony Noto, COO at Twitter, said in making the announcement. “Our passionate boxing fans can view the live stream of the WBO lightweight world championship and join the live conversation all on Twitter.”

Even though there was no pot of gold in this particular event as far as a rights fee, Pelullo was thrilled with the results. He believes it was an important building block to monetizing his fights on social media in the future.

“I believe the internet is the future for our sport,” Pelullo said. “The fight on Twitter did over what they call 300,000 significant impressions. And I believe Amazon, Facebook and Twitter are going to be more involved in sports. Amazon just paid $50 million for the rights to the Thursday night NFL games.”

Indeed, earlier this month Amazon won a bidding war with Twitter, Facebook and YouTube for the right to stream 10 Thursday night NFL games, which will still appear on linear television as well. Last year, Twitter paid the NFL $10 million for the same package.

Pelullo isn’t expecting a $50 million boxing deal any time soon, but he is bullish on boxing finding a place on social media where it can generate revenue, be it on a platform willing to pay a rights fee or from advertising during the fight. Last week’s fight, he believes, was the start of something big.

“The opportunity came for me to do this deal with Twitter through some relationships that I have,” he said. “And I believe that it’s going to be a platform to grow our sport and open the doors for a new fan base for millennials, who don’t have TVs.”

A February fight between Adrien Broner and Adrian Granados on Showtime, which happened during a free preview weekend for the network, offered an opportunity to experiment with a simulcast on Twitter. Bobby Ellis/Getty Images

While Pelullo sees social media as a way of reaping financial gains in the future, Stephen Espinoza, the executive vice president and general manager of Showtime Sports, has to walk a fine line between using social media as a way to promote and market his premium cable subscription network offerings while not doing it too much, so as to turn those platforms into his competitors.

But Espinoza has been willing to experiment with putting fights on Facebook and Twitter. Typically, Showtime televises some preliminary bouts on its Showtime Extreme channel. But in December, because of a scheduling conflict, the network couldn’t do that for its Abner Mares-Jesus Cuellar card.

Two Showtime Sports vice presidents, Brian Dailey, who handles digital media, and Neema Ghazi, who is involved in distribution and content, approached Espinoza with the idea of making the bouts that would have gone on Showtime Extreme available via Facebook Live.

“Facebook has been active in terms of going out and soliciting content providers of all kinds to do events on the platform,” Espinoza said. “We were very happy with the reception, in terms of the awareness and the experience.

“It was most definitely worth it. Our assumption is, and I think it’s a safe assumption, is we’re getting a different audience than our typical audience who wouldn’t stumble on it on Extreme but would on Facebook. It’s not just about the number of people watching but who they are — an audience that is different than the audience we typically get on linear television. It’s also brand building, building additional fans. It’s goodwill for the organization.”

In February, Showtime televised the Adrien Broner-Adrian Granados card on a free preview weekend. Espinoza and his staff figured that since it was already going to be available to TV viewers without Showtime subscriptions, why not make the fights even more widely available? So Showtime’s telecast was streamed simultaneously on Twitter, the first live boxing event on the platform.

“It was a good experiment and it we got a bit of a different demographic than watches on Showtime and we got good feedback,” Espinoza said. “It was a no-lose situation. One of the things we found on Twitter is that three-quarters of the audience that watched was under 35. That is from analytics we got from Twitter.

“That’s a good demo that we need to continue try to get for the health of the sport. A lot of those younger viewers don’t traditionally have premium TV, so we reached a group that is not our usual viewer.”

While Showtime’s offering of live bouts on social media likely will only happen from time to time, the way in which the company harnesses social media on a more regular basis is with other events that surround the actual fights — streams of news conferences, both pre- and post-fight, and the weigh-ins. Other networks and promoters also do that regularly.

“Those are really well-received and it’s a very easy process and great marketing for the event — and great content for the fans,” Espinoza said. “As for the live fights, that’s the tension of being a premium network — where the value proposition is you’re paying to get something you normally don’t get, so making things free is contrary to the business model. But how do you get people interested in paying for the exclusive content if they never get a chance to see what it is?

“Our core business is always delivering Showtime, but we have to make sure we deliver it every conceivable way. We are trying to build the audience and allow people to sample what we have to offer, which is why have done things like fights on Facebook and Twitter.”

But Espinoza is aware what that could mean in the future.

“When it can be monetized and there’s a financial component, maybe eventually I am bidding against Twitter for a fight,” he said. “Right now every marketing platform is also a potential programming outlet, and your marketing partner can become your competitor a few years down the line.”

That notion is music to Pelullo’s ears.

“We’ll still do fights on TV, of course,” Pelullo said. “But there is so much more available now with social media. We just have to figure out the best way to build it. It’s a whole new world and not just for boxing.”


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