Boxing’s Not-So-Golden Age

When HBO and Golden Boy Promotions went their separate ways earlier this month, to the tune of a thousand violins, it was noted by many that boxing now has two separate leagues. Golden Boy fighters will fight on Showtime, while boxers with the other big promoter, Top Rank, will fight on HBO.

The Tim Starks piece I linked to before is a rather painful list of the new arrangement’s drawbacks: An even worse relationship between the two firms, an even further decreased likelihood of seeing fighters from the two camps face each other and reduced options for up and coming boxers, not to mention consumers.

There’s a better analogy for what’s happened than separate leagues, though. It takes into account the personalities involved — the megalomaniac bosses and the prima donnas in the ring. Boxing in 2013 works like the Hollywood studio system of the 1920s, 30s, 40s and 50s.

During that time, five major studios and three smaller ones owned virtually everything to do with the movie business. They controlled the actors, the sets, the crews and the distributors.

The comparison is instructive on how boxing works today, but also might provide some clues as to how the current, less than ideal structure can be dismantled.

The level of direct ownership may not be as high in boxing as it was during the studio system, but the level of control is becoming stricter all the time. Consider: Golden Boy, strictly speaking a promoter, now has a virtually exclusive output deal with Showtime, a broadcaster/distributor. They might put on a fight at the Barclay Center, a venue they exclusively control, from the roster of fighters they own, who are managed by Al Haymon, almost all of whose fighters are with Golden Boy.

Patrick Connor argued last month (in an awesome piece that you should definitely read) that boxing, an anti-trust superstar, is ripe for government intervention. As the paragraph above makes pretty clear, boxing is operating on a cartel system. Not a cartel like the kind they have in Mexico, even if boxing can be seedy, but an association of independent actors who have built an oligopoly, at least at the higher levels of the sport.

The Golden Boy/HBO de-merger makes, say, a fight between top junior welterweights Danny Garcia and Brandon Rios impossible (even if it was highly unlikely before). Under the studio system, things were much the same — which is why James Cagney (Warner Bros) and Clark Gable (MGM) never appeared on screen together, for example.

The studio system worked well for the studio bosses, but not so much for the paying public. One of the key techniques of the studios, and the one that eventually brought them down, was called “block booking” — selling films to theatres in a bundle. That meant that theatres were forced to buy a bunch of “B Movies” along with the blockbusters they wanted.

In that piece I referenced before, Tim said that “HBO and Showtime won’t have the same kind of negotiating position to make the best match-ups.” Essentially, without other places to look for quality match-ups, the networks are going to have to take the promoters’ cast offs, their B-Movies. It’s already happening — would lightweight prospect Terrance Crawford really be fighting on HBO against Breidis Prescott, as he did this past weekend, if the network had a lot of other options?

Block booking was what brought the studio system down. In a move that Patrick Connor would no doubt approve of, the federal government brought an anti-trust suit, known as the “Paramount case,” against the five biggest studios and won.

From there, the system slowly crumbled. Howard Hughes’ RKO pictures folded up their theatre business, forcing the other studios to follow suit.

Unfortunately, I don’t think we can count on the federal government to get involved in regulating American boxing in any serious way. Lawmakers have bigger fish to fry. Every time momentum has built for government intervention in recent years, like in the aftermath of Timothy Bradley’s disputed win over Manny Pacquiao, it has come to nothing.

What the Paramount decision does show is if one of the networks was to break with the promoters, then perhaps they could force a change in the industry. Mind you, that’s easier said from that outside than it is done from the inside. There are some big and fragile egos in this business.

A brighter ray of hope comes from the role Hollywood stars played in the studios’ downfall. Let’s cast Floyd Mayweather as Bette Davis and Adrian Broner as Olivia de Havilland for a moment, and not just because it’s a funny image.

Davis became increasingly frustrated by the roles Warner Bros cast her in and fled to Britain in 1936, breaking her contract with the studio. She had to face the legal music eventually, though, losing a case in the English High Court.

Six years later, Olivia de Havilland brought a similar suit against Warner Bros with the support of the Screen Actors Guild. She won and the ruling had far reaching effects on the way that the studios dealt with stars.

Now I’m not suggesting that Mayweather should move to England, though I’m sure a cup of tea and a crumpet would do him a world of good. What I’m advocating is a healthy independence between the sport’s biggest stars and the promoters and networks.

If Mayweather and Pacquiao had insisted on their long desired match up three years ago, to the point of threatening their promoters with legal action, would we have gotten the biggest fight in history?

Mayweather, as one of the two biggest stars in the sport, has the ability to do virtually whatever he pleases from a business point of view. He knows that, but instead of agitating against the system, he has thrown his lot in with Golden Boy — enormously strengthening their hand. The HBO/Golden Boy break-up caused by his six-fight deal with Showtime is at best a superficial change to the way the sport works.

Broner, as Mayweather’s heir apparent, may have the opportunity to change the game in the future. With his current contract with Golden Boy reportedly due to expire this month, he’d do well not to lock himself down for too long with whatever deal he signs next. He’s studied Mayweather in the ring; let’s hope he learns from his master’s mistakes outside of it.

Hollywood eventually had to accept that actors were more than just employees, they were a key part of the business model. It would only take one superstar fighter standing up against the promoters to force the boxing business to recognise the value of the men who actually get in the ring and bleed for our entertainment.

Despite the weaknesses of the studio system, today we know the 30s, 40s and 50s as the golden age of Hollywood.  The film industry was lucky to enjoy an abundance of home grown talent, alongside brilliant émigrés from war torn Europe. Before television, radio was its only real competition as a mass diversion. It’s difficult to overstate the prestige of the silver screen in that age.

That’s where this analogy fails – in the 21st century the sweet science has no such structural advantages. Nobody thinks we’re living through a golden age of boxing.