DAZN Is Back: Will Enough People Care?

Live boxing is back on DAZN. On July 24, the network streamed a five-fight card headlined by Vergil Ortiz Jr's seven-round demolition of Sammy Vargas.

Two years ago, DAZN announced that it was going to change boxing's business model. It pledged "an end to pay-per-view" and promised to deliver high-quality fights to subscribers in the United States for the modest sum of $9.99 a month. It signed Canelo Alvarez and Gennady Golovklin to multi-fight deals for close to $500 million, contracted with Golden Boy and the World Boxing Super Series for additional fights, and gave promoter Eddie Hearn in the neighborhood of $125 million a year to deliver more boxing.

That got everyone's attention. Then things went south. The network has spent hundreds of millions of dollars in the United States to build what, to date, is essentially a niche boxing channel.

In March, as COVID-19 spread, DAZN suspended the payment of rights fees for games that were postponed and other content that wasn't delivered to its platforms in nine countries around the world. Meanwhile, boxing ground to a halt.

Ironically, the pandemic improved DAZN's shortterm balance sheet in America. The network saved at least $40 million on what would have been Canelo Alvarez's Cinco de Mayo Weekend fight and millions more per month in license fees for other events.

But on the negative side of the ledger, DAZN had approximately 800,000 subscribers in the United States at the start of 2020. In recent months, many of these subscribers (DAZN won't release the number) have canceled their subscriptions. This means that, as DAZN seeks to rebuild in America, it will be building upon a significantly lower subscriber base than it enjoyed six months ago. And even 800,000 subscribers were far fewer than DAZN needed to be economically viable under its business model.

Can DAZN USA be salvaged? The network has yet to find a sustainable formula for the United States and has failed establish the foothold that it expected to achieve with boxing.

On June 29, it was announced that Simon Denyer was leaving his role as chief executive of DAZN Group (which oversees DAZN's global operations) and would be replaced by James Rushton, who previously had been DAZN's chief revenue officer. John Skipper remains as executive chairman of DAZN Group. Skipper is senior to Rushton.

Skipper and Rushton have been putting together a plan for the future and are considering what one DAZN insider calls "big changes" to DAZN's business model in the United States. Any plan will be subject to approval by Len Blavatnik, who is also the source of DAZN's financing.

Blavatnik has been reported by the Bloomberg Billionaires Index as being worth approximately $25 billion. He has funded DAZN from its inception, having invested well over one billion dollars in the enterprise. Midway through 2019, there was industry talk that he was unwilling to put any more of his own money into DAZN. On October 24, Bloomberg.com reported that Goldman Sachs was trying to raise $500 million in private investment on DAZN's behalf. In November, the ante was upped to one billion dollars. The fundraising effort was unsuccessful.

All indications are that Blavatnik has now committed to putting more money into DAZN. He's wealthy and ambitious enough to stay the course a while longer. Let's not forget; he's wealthier than Lorenzo and Frank Fertitta (who build UFC into a colossus) ever were.

That said; the numbers for DAZN only add up (for the short term, at least) as long as Blavatnik is willing to keep losing money. And billionaires don't like throwing good money after bad. They throw good money after good. That's one of the reasons they're billionaires. To date (like the institutional investors in Premier Boxing Champions), Blavatnick hasn't gotten his money's worth out of DAZN.

At this point, Blavatnik's strategy might be to build DAZN's other platforms throughout the world, keep DAZN USA alive, and cut his losses down the road by selling the entire network to an entity that wants to get into sports video streaming worldwide without having to start from scratch.

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DAZN is now trying to increase its presence beyond the nine countries that it's already in by developing a global English-language app that focuses on boxing. The plan was first announced on March 2, 2020, and was expected to launch simultaneously with Canelo Alvarez's ill-fated Cinco de Mayo fight earlier this year. In discussing the venture, DAZN executive vice president for North America Joseph Markowski explained, “The vast majority of our boxing agreements are global rights. This is a huge strategic opportunity for us to commercialize the rights we’ve always owned. We’ve traditionally sold to international broadcasters, so we’ve sold to Sky Sports, we’ve sold to FOX Australia. There’s significant, incremental commercial and corporate value in us going global. We’ll take our boxing content and make it available globally."

DAZN's plan for a global English-language app was put on hold by the coronavirus pandemic. It resurfaced on July 8 when the network sent an email to potential users who'd previously expressed interest in the app, asking if they'd like to participate in a test of the new app before it officially launches.

But there are unanswered questions. For example; will this new streaming service be sold exclusively on a monthly and annual subscription basis or will there also be pay-per-view events?

And more worthy of note; worldwide in 2019, soccer was the most-watched sport on DAZN in the network's nine markets, logging in at 314.6 million hours. Boxing (22.6 million hours) ranked fifth, behind soccer, baseball, motor sports, and football. Will the sweet science engender enough worldwide interest to make DAZN's new English-language app a success? Consider the fact that India has 1.34 billion people. But there were only 2,000 buys for the rematch between Deontay Wilder and Tyson Fury in all of India. There's a reason these markets are untapped.

The launch of DAZN's worldwide English-language app and everything of import that DAZN hopes to accomplish in the United States during the remainder of 2020 will be dependent in part on Canelo Alvarez.

Absent extenuating circumstances, DAZN pays Golden Boy $40 million for each fight card headed by Canelo. Golden Boy pays Canelo $35 million of that. This leaves Golden Boy with $5 million plus the live gate and other revenue streams to pay Canelo's opponent, each of the undercard fighters, the host site, and other promotional expenses. What's left over is Golden Boy's profit.

With no meaningful live gates projected for the foreseeable future, it's more difficult than before to satisfy everyone's financial demands with regard to a Canelo fight. Depending on who one talks with, Canelo either has or has not agreed to a pay cut for his next fight, which may or may not be against Callum Smith on September 12 in conjunction with Mexican Independence Day Weekend.

There was a time when fight fans descended on Las Vegas for Cinco de Mayo and Mexican Independence Day weekends. But that's not the case during a pandemic. Also, if Canelo does fight on September 12, DAZN will be competing for media attention with whatever is left of Major League baseball, NBA basketball, the start of the NFL and college football seasons, and a possible pay-per-view event built around a boxing exhibition between Mike Tyson and Roy Jones.

Meanwhile, DAZN is moving forward without a Canelo fight firmly in place. Its July 24 fight card at Fantasy Springs Casino in California was a disappointing start. The bouts ranged from dreary to horrible. In five fights, the underdog won one round.

Two of the fights were particularly ugly. In the third bout of the evening, Seniesa Estrada (18-0, 7 KOs) squared off against 42-year-old Miranda Adkins, a 50-to-1 underdog from Kansas who claimed a 5-0 ring record. As of this writing, none of Adkins's reported opponents has ever won a professional fight. She had no idea what to do in a boxing ring and got hit with six of the seven punches that Estrada threw. The slaughter ended seven seconds after the opening bell with Adkins lying unconscious on the canvas. Golden Boy and the California State Athletic Commission share the blame for allowing the fight to happen. It was disgusting.

Ortiz vs. Vargas (a 40-to-1 underdog) was ugly in a different way. Vargas was game but didn't have the skills or power to compete with Ortiz. It was a predictably brutal beatdown that was allowed to go on long after it should have been stopped.

Looking ahead through the end of August, a second Golden Boy fight card at Fantasy Springs headlined by Jorge Linares vs. Javier Fortuna is scheduled for August 28. The rest of DAZN's live boxing programming through August 31 will be provided by Matchroom.

The Matchroom shows will start with three events contested on August 1, August 7, and August 14 in the backyard of the promotional company's headquarters in Brentwood, England; a site that was once the home of Barry Hearn (founder of the Matchroom empire) and his family. The scene will then shift to Tulsa, Oklahoma, on August 15 before returning to Brentwood on August 22.

How good will the fights be?

Eddie Hearn (Barry's son and Matchroom's current managing director) has been outspoken about what fight fans are entitled to see:

*  (In an interview on the "Ak and Barak Show") “Top Rank and ESPN shows are running non-competitive fights and a lot of the times with fighters that don’t have significant profiles. You’ve only gotta look at the ratings that are being produced by ESPN and Top Rank. It’s horrible for the sport. It’s giving people an excuse to say, ‘Boxing’s dead!’ Boxing’s not dead, when you get the product right. When we come back, we’ve gotta make sure we get the product right.”

* (To Chris Mannix on a Sports Illustrated podcast) "We have to create the best fights, the best schedule that we can. And that’s why, when I talk about the easy fights and the fights that might not be so compelling, it’s really time to give those the big elbow and say, ‘I’m sorry. That’s not gonna happen.’ I don’t wanna bring boxing back with weak fights. If we return with boxing and we rush it back with poor-level content and bad quality fights, it’s gonna do ourselves more damage in the long run, especially against the bigger sports.”

* (To Ron Lewis of Boxing Scene) "I don’t want to come back with Fighter X against a guy no one is interested in. We need to come back with a compelling schedule. Now is the time to deliver more value for money than ever."

But most of Matchroom's fights on DAZN in August will be of limited interest in the United States. The August 22 card headlined by Dillian Whyte vs. Alexander Povetkin coupled with the rematch between Katie Taylor and Delphine Persoon is an attractive offering. Apart from that; Matchroom's Tulsa card was to have featured Julio Cesar Martinez against an overmatched McWilliams Arroyo. Then Martinez fell out because of illness, leaving Cecilia Brækhus vs. Jessica McCaskill as the main event. Matchroom's other headline fights on DAZN (Sam Eggington vs. Ted Cheeseman and James Tennyson vs. Gavin Gwynne on August 1; Terri Harper vs. Natasha Jonas and Chris Billam-Smith vs. Nathan Thorley on August 7; and Felix Cash vs. Jason Welborn on August 14) might strike a chord with some boxing fans in the United Kingdom. But they'll be generic boxing as far as American fans are concerned.

The more significant steps in terms of DAZN's effort to rebuild its subscriber base in the United States are expected to come in the last four months of the year.

Gennady Golovkin vs Kamil Szeremeta is on the drawing board for this autumn. That's a perceived mismatch viewed as a necessary stop on the road to Canelo-Golovkin III. Devin Haney vs. 38-year-old Yuriorkis Gamboa will likely focus on the issue of how early Haney stops Gamboa (who lasted into the twelfth round against Gervonta Davis last December). Ryan Garcia vs. Luke Campbell (if it happens) would be an entertaining match-up. Danny Jacobs against a non-threatening opponent is in the planning stages for November. If things go as hoped, Canelo and Golovkin will face off in conjunction with Cinco de Mayo Weekend next year.  But Canelo-Golovkin III is in danger of moving past its sell-by date.

Moreover, these fights might halt the erosion of DAZN's subscriber base. But they're likely to accelerate its cash flow bleed.

Meanwhile, there's uncertainty everywhere. No one knows how Major League Baseball and the National Basketball Association will evolve in the weeks ahead. No one knows what kind of a football season there will be this autumn. Similarly, no one knows if and when Tyson Fury vs. Deontay Wilder III, Anthony Joshua vs. Kubrat Pulev, or Fury-Joshua will happen. And if Fury-Joshua does happen, would DAZN play a role? To do so, it would have to deal with ESPN in the United States and BT in the UK. That means, by definition, there would be a pay-per-view component.

Let's not forget what DAZN promised that it would deliver to subscribers from the start - frequent pay-per-view-quality fights for one low monthly price.

The pandemic gave DAZN and the rest of boxing an opportunity to reset. Going forward, license fees for fights are likely to be cut substantially throughout the industry. It's no longer a fighters' market. But to date, there has been a lot of talk and little action. And the fact that the sweet science has been unable to move into the void created by the absence of other sports speaks for itself.

Richard Schaefer used to analogize boxing to an "undervalued stock." There are times now when the boxing industry as a whole seems like a company that's under questionable management. Rather than come back strong, boxing has come back weak. It's taking an exciting sport and making it unexciting.

That's the environment in which DAZN is operating today. It was struggling to survive in a booming economy. How can it succeed now? There's more intense competition in the streaming video market in 2020 than there was when DAZN launched in the United States two years ago. And DAZN still lacks a platform other than itself to draw prospective viewers and promote DAZN fighters.

After two years, DAZN hasn't built a single star. Ring announcer Michael Buffer might be its most recognizable regular presence. But Buffer's contract (which is jointly financed by DAZN and Matchroom) expires on September 1, and he's likely to ease into a well-deserved retirement at that time.

Canelo Alvarez is still the most marketable fighter in boxing. But how marketable would Canelo have become if he'd been with DAZN from the start?

One also has to ask whether there's a large enough market for the content that DAZN is offering at present. The numbers generated by DAZN, ESPN, and FOX suggest there aren't that many hardcore boxing fans in the United States. And incorporating Bare Knuckle Fighting Championship boxing into DAZN's portfolio (which was announced on July 24) adds little to the mix. BKFC's biggest event to date was the June 22, 2019, fight between Paulie Malignaggi and Artem Lobov. Other than that, it has struggled to reach 5,000 pay-per-view buys for any card.                                         

Where will the additional subscribers necessary for DAZN's survival come from? DAZN needs more diversity in its sports line-up if it's going to succeed in America. But given its recent problems, it will be harder than ever for DAZN to buy a meaningful league package when these rights are put up for bid. Indeed, this past week, it was reported that DAZN is canceling its MLB "whiparound" show.

As recently as a year ago, everyone in the boxing industry had its eye on DAZN to see what would happen next. Now DAZN is often little more than an afterthought in conversations about the future of boxing. There's a lot that still has to be decided internally at the network. Right now, no one - including senior management - knows what will happen next.

And a thought in closing . . . Last year, despite its shortcomings, DAZN gave boxing fans in the United States better fights than any other network and did so at a reasonable price. It would be a shame to lose that. 

Thomas Hauser's email address is thomashauserwriter@gmail.com. His most recent book – A Dangerous Journey: Another Year Inside Boxing  – was published by the University of Arkansas Press. In 2004, the Boxing Writers Association of America honored Hauser with the Nat Fleischer Award for career excellence in boxing journalism. He will be inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame with the Class of 2020.

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