Mayweather vs McGregor: What does boxing's bizarre box office smash signal for the future of sport?

Joe Hall
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Mayweather McGregor money belt face-off
Mayweather and McGregor face-off in front of "the money belt" created especially for this fight (Source: Getty)

The sentiment among boxing’s luminaries has been near-unanimous. “A farce,” scoffed Lennox Lewis; “a circus,” blasted Oscar de la Hoya; “a one-sided onslaught,” forecast Ricky Hatton.

Yet despite the cacophony of derision, Floyd Mayweather versus Conor McGregor — this century’s greatest boxer against a debutant — is expected to be the most financially lucrative bout in history.

If UFC president Dana White’s estimate of 4.9m pay-per-view buys at a US price of $99.95 is accurate, it will propel the supposed mismatch into a stratosphere that only Mayweather’s long-anticipated 2015 meeting with Manny Pacquiao, which scored 4.6m buys, has neared.

Recent pinnacle events between boxing’s best talents do not even come close. Mayweather-De La Hoya a decade ago is nearest at 2.4m buys while Saul Alvarez, boxing’s biggest pay-per-view draw after Mayweather, has attracted just 1m and 600,000 buys for his last two fights.

The fact that boxing’s most commercially successful fight will not see either man secure an established sporting crown raises questions about similar disruption across a sports industry currently awash with conversations about digitised futures, player power, short-form spin-offs and breakaway leagues.

Read more: Unorthodox nature of Mayweather v McGregor expected to generate record revenue exceeding $600m

“We’re coming out of a world where sporting events are prescribed to an audience — ‘this is what you will like and this is what you will watch’ — to one where the audience has so many different ways to view content, create their own, and talk about it among themselves that the model has been flipped on its head,” James Elliott, a former UFC vice-president and now founder of consultancy Room 9, told City A.M.

“Now, traditional media entities are having to pivot and try to figure out what people want to talk about rather than telling them what they need to talk about. This event sits right at the heart of that.”

As hype for Mayweather-McGregor built, neither boxing authorities nor the UFC appeared to have the power or will to stand in the way of the box office bonanza taking place.

Floyd Mayweather Conor McGregor Cash rain money
Dollar, dollar bill: Cash rules everything around Mayweather vs McGregor (Source: Getty)

The Nevada State Athletic Commission, who two years ago deemed a fight between Andre Ward and Rohan Murdock a mismatch due to the former’s 28-0 record and the latter’s 18-1 and refused to sanction it, not only gave 49-0 Mayweather versus 0-0 McGregor the green light but also broke an 11-year rule by allowing the pair to wear lighter eight-ounce gloves, a supposed advantage for McGregor.

“Fans don’t mind,” Carsten Thode, chief strategy officer at sports sponsorship agency Synergy, told City A.M.

“There’s no loyalty to any of the boxing federations that means the fans will discredit this fight.

“Nike did the same thing with their sub-two hour marathon project. It wasn’t sanctioned by anyone, it didn’t fall as part of the athletics calendar. They changed the rules by allowing pacers, adjusting the track. And fans didn’t care, they got behind it.

“It’s an exciting moment in sport, we’re starting to break those bonds and people are starting to question: ‘Hold on, why are we doing it this way?’.”

Read more: Could Anthony Joshua be the first billion dollar fighter?

Yet whether the shockwaves from Mayweather-McGregor will travel as far as the offices of Europe’s superpower football clubs, who have threatened to break away and form a lucrative Super League, or other athletes with disproportionate fame compared to rivals in their code could depend on how they similarly they see their landscapes to that of combat sports.

“I think you have to look at this in isolation, as a one-off,” Steve Martin, chief executive of M&C Saatchi Sport and Entertainment, told City A.M.

Floyd Mayweather Jr. v Conor McGregor - News Conference
Nevada State Athletic Commission executive director Bob Bennett shakes hands with Conor McGregor (Source: Getty)

“It’s out of desperation. There’s no other boxers coming through who can demand the same level of interest and worldwide entertainment.”

Next month’s meeting of Alvarez and Gennady Golovkin — a traditional match-up between two of boxing’s pound-for-pound best battling it out for the lineal middleweight championship of the world — is the pugilism purist’s counter-punch to such a charge.

Read more: Making a mega-fight - Wembley and Matchroom bosses reveal the manpower, months of planning and sleepless nights behind Joshua v Klitschko

“They’re not household names,” counters Martin. “Golovkin’s an amazing fighter but he doesn’t transcend the sport in any way shape or form.”

“The broader context is boxing is in a very strained state with a lack of global depth for talent.

“So I don’t think you’re going to see this wild west mentality across other sports. They’re more structured, you’ve got talent coming through, there’s grassroots policies in place.”

Governing bodies and organisers of established competitions will certainly be hoping so. But perhaps the sheer scale of riches raised by Mayweather and McGregor this weekend could inspire some imitators elsewhere. All Blacks versus New England Patriots, anyone?

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