Freakonomics Takes A Look At The State Of Boxing

The fine folks at Freakonomics — you know, the blog based on the book by an economist who applied the theories of his science to “the hidden side of everything” — have turned their attention to the Sweetest of Sciences. In this entry, they survey some students of the fight game about why boxing is no longer as popular as it once was in its long-ago golden age.
The answers are not particularly surprising, but they are smarter than some of the usual mainstream media tripe out there. I recommend reading the entire entry, which attributes the state of the sport today to the lack of boxing stars on Sportscenter; the transition from one ethnic/regional set of stars (black) to another (Hispanic/Eastern European); increasing competition from other sports; insufficient marketing; the emphasis of bad news stories in boxing over good news stories; the proliferation of multiple title belts that make it hard to determine who’s the champion; the need for a better scoring system; the perception of corruption; and the brutality of the sport.
Actually, I agree with all of them and have frequently mentioned each except for A. the black-to-Hispanic/Eastern European transition, B. the problems with scoring and C. boxing’s brutality. On A., I’ve never previously examined the changeover from black boxing stars to Hispanic/Eastern European talent. It’s an excellent point. Basketball not so long ago went through something similar with the emergence of the Dirk Nowitzkis of the world. There are still plenty of black boxing and basketball superstars, but anytime a new group of athletes comes on the scene, it stands to reason there might be a down period. In the new issue of Ring magazine, Kelly Pavlik made the point that white boxers are ascendant. Scoop Jackson makes a similar point about the decline of black boxers here, even though I’d disagree with some of his conclusions. This subject probably warrants a whole ‘nother blog entry. On B., I disagree with the scoring system explanation. Nine out of 10 people I know who are only casual boxing fans find the scoring system confusing — I explain it in the “Boxing Basics Tutorial” link for that very reason — but none of the suggestions I’ve seen are any better. And on C., the rise of mixed martial arts explains away any notion that people are hung up on brutality.
The invitation for comments on the Freakonomics blog entry may produce yet more explanations, so it’ll be worth checking back. The group surveyed failed to mention anything about the fact that few major boxing events are on network TV/basic cable, or even name-check the proliferation of pay-per-views, both major, major impediments to boxing’s continued comeback, in my estimation. MMA’s rise may or may not be a reason for boxing’s decline. I’m not convinced, but it’s one potential factor the Freakonomics blog left out. This Chicago Tribune column makes a case for boxing skewing older and MMA skewing younger, but every time I show someone a boxing match in the crucial 18-34 male economic block, they’re interested. Some are into MMA, while some are into boxing only.
I think that leads back to the more nebulous “one person at a time” argument advanced by one of the people surveyed by Freakonomics. The Freakonomics entry itself starts with the fact that nobody’d heard of Antonio Margarito prior to his welterweight (147 lbs.)-belt winning brawl against Miguel Cotto. But you know what? That fight turned out pretty big pay-per-view numbers, according to estimates from Top Rank, the promotional outfit that put on the show. Top Rank’s Bob Arum believes the show broke 400,000 buys, and maybe could bust the half-million mark. In an ideal world, people would be watching that fight on the networks or basic cable. But Margarito-Cotto made the Sportscenter highlights, dinnit? And how’d that happen? Word of mouth, and word of mouth alone. Good fights will bring that word of mouth. It’s a great start — surely the most important part — and an art the boxing powers-that-be have basically mastered for the last year and a half. If only they could figure out the rest.

About Tim Starks

Tim is the founder of The Queensberry Rules and co-founder of The Transnational Boxing Rankings Board ( He lives in Washington, D.C. He has written for the Guardian, Economist, New Republic, Chicago Tribune and more.