Saudi money is helping make big fights, but spells trouble for boxing’s future in the U.S.

Turki Al-Sheikh (C) of Saudi Arabia poses with Anthony Joshua (L) and Deontay Wilder (R). Wilder and Joshua will fight in separate bouts on a Dec. 23 card in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.

In 2017, a Gallup poll revealed that football was the favorite sport of Americans, with more than three times the popularity of basketball. Football was the favorite of 37% of Americans, with basketball No. 2 at 11%, baseball No. 3 at 9% and soccer No. 4 at 7%.

Only football, it should be noted, actually gained over 15% of the vote, while mixed martial arts wasn’t an option. Those who wanted to vote for MMA had to do so in other, which cumulatively got 5%.

Among the sports listed, boxing was tied for eighth at 1%, along with golf, volleyball, gymnastics, motorcross, ice/figure skating and rodeo. The poll was conducted annually from 2004 through 2008 as well as in 2013 and 2017. Boxing had 2% of the vote in 2008 and 2006 and 1% in all other years polled.

That’s roughly been the case since the Eisenhower Administration. Boxing, baseball and horse racing were generally regarded as the country’s three most popular sports from the 1920s through the 1950s. Those days are long gone now, and boxing is a fringe sport for all but a handful of days a year when there is a major bout that captures the public’s attention.

It’s been a great year for the sport in terms of putting together the best fights — 2023 will be remembered for the numerous title unification bouts that were finally made — but it hasn’t really translated into profits for promoters, television ratings or in the sport’s popularity.

But a new trend, if it continues, could potentially quash what interest remains in the sport in the U.S.

The sport’s dalliance with Saudi Arabia is relatively new. Matchroom Sport brought a heavyweight title fight between Anthony Joshua and Andy Ruiz to Saudi Arabia in 2019 and there have been a handful of high-profile bouts there since.

The Saudis are looking to diversify their economy and make tourism a significant portion of it, as they understand that with each passing year, the world will be less reliant upon oil. They’ve built lavish hotels and an incredible tourism infrastructure and have spent mind-boggling sums to attract elite acts in sports and entertainment. Boxing has been, and will be for the foreseeable future, a big part of that.

During what they’re calling “Riyadh Season,” the Saudis hosted the Tyson Fury-Francis Ngannou boxing match on Oct. 28 in Riyadh. They’ll host a blockbuster card Dec. 23 with many of the world’s greatest fighters on it, and on Feb. 17, they’ll cap this run with the undisputed heavyweight championship bout between Fury, the lineal and WBC champion, and Oleksandr Usyk, the IBF-WBA-WBO champ.

Britain's Tyson Fury (L) and Ukraine's Oleksandr Usyk (R) challenge each other during a press conference, in London, on November 16, 2023, ahead of their undisputed heavyweight world championship contest, taking place on February 17, 2024 in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. (Photo by Daniel LEAL / AFP) (Photo by DANIEL LEAL/AFP via Getty Images)

Britain’s Tyson Fury and Ukraine’s Oleksandr Usyk will fight for the undisputed heavyweight world championship on Feb. 17, 2024 in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. (DANIEL LEAL via Getty Images)

From a competitive standpoint, it’s great that the Saudis have been able to get these fights made, particularly Fury-Usyk. It’s a significant bout in the history of the sport for the undisputed title. Boxing, though, has been a mess since roughly 1960, even though there have been periods where the talent level was high and the quality of the bouts was terrific. It’s one of the most mismanaged sports in the world, and to be honest, it’s hard to see what sport is even close to as badly run as boxing.

It’s being kind to say that from a business standpoint, the sport is a mess. It’s a laughingstock, really. The NFL is the most significant league in the U.S. and commands the most interest. Despite that, it spends millions annually on marketing and trying to grow its brand. How can boxing compete against that with no money, no plan and no buy-in from the athletes?

But it hangs on despite all the problems and has a handful of big nights a year. If, though, the big fights that were once held in Los Angeles, Las Vegas, New York, Dallas, Houston, Miami and San Antonio suddenly regularly wind up in Riyadh, that’s going to be the death knell for the sport in this country.

The time difference will kill it. Riyadh is eight hours ahead of New York and 11 hours ahead of Los Angeles. So when Fury and Usyk walk to the ring in Riyadh in February, it’s going to be in the middle of the day on a Saturday in the U.S., when people are out doing weekend activities.

Given the lack of marketing and promotion that hampers the sport, moving the fights to a difficult time for them to see will all but kill what little interest there is.

So while on the one hand it’s great that the Saudi money will make Fury-Usyk happen and on Dec. 23 will present a card that features Wilder versus Joe Parker; Joshua against Otto Wallin; Daniel Dubois against Jarrell Miller; Dmitry Bivol versus Lyndon Arthur; Jai Opetaia against Ellis Zorro; Filip Hrgovic versus Mark De Mori; Arslanbek Makhmudov meeting Agit Kabayel and Frank Sanchez taking on Junior Fa, it’s not all great if it spikes interest in the sport in the U.S.

The Fury-Ngannou pay-per-view did awful, and it’s hard to see how the Dec. 23 card that doesn’t have that one bout that will make people want to buy will do much better, particularly that close to the holiday.

At its best, there is nothing like boxing. Think of Hagler-Hearns, Ali-Frazier, Foreman-Lyle or Corrales-Castillo.

But out of sight, out of mind applies here. With the fights happening a world away and the television start time poor for the largest cities in the U.S., it’s bad news for boxing’s interest in the States if Saudi Arabia’s interest in the sport continues.

Author: ZeroToHero

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