The Ring is proud to present “The Boxing Esq. Podcast with Kurt Emhoff”. Emhoff, an attorney based in New York City, is a top boxing manager who has represented over 10 world champions in his 20-plus years in the sport.
Listen to episode 26 with Cliff Rold here.
His guest on this podcast is Todd duBoef, president of one of the leading promoters in the sport, Top Rank. They spoke about Top Rank’s recent signing of Tyson Fury and the heavyweight landscape. They also spoke about the mechanics of the ESPN deal, the programming strategy for ESPN and ESPN+ and what’s going on with their shoulder programming.
Additionally, they got into the state of the game, collaborating with other promoters and the possibility of a boxing league.
Below are a few excerpts from the interview:
On how technology has evolved since he started at Top Rank in 1993:
“It’s a story for all of sports, right? It’s a story for all people that are in the content business. The ability to not stay status quo, the ability to be nimble, the ability to look and see what opportunities or trends that are moving towards and seeing how that can work within your business model. I would say I think a lot of this changed drastically when we made more of a commitment taking over and doing a lot of in-arena elements that we felt were needed to modernize our sport. People were paying top dollar and we had to give people a superior experience that they were getting at an NBA game or an NHL game or a UFC event or, you know, whatever it was. We had to enhance that experience. And also, as the digital era came on, you know, we were kind of snobs from boxing’s perspective and we believed, “Oh, you have to be having an article in the New York Times and you have to have articles in USA Today.” And we really didn’t value across the board the power of the .com world. When Yahoo and espn.com started launching, we didn’t take note of it. We started to have to really shift and use those avenues to attract a new fan base. And we did so early on and we did partnerships with Yahoo where we would show the non-televised undercards on pay-per-view events, driving awareness to all of our events. We tried all these different clever things 15 years ago when the digital era was just starting. And that really helped us kind of stay closer to the younger demographic and trying to stay more relevant.
On the indefatigable Bob Arum:
“He’ll never retire as he said, ‘boxing is his hobby’ and we don’t want him to retire. So it’s all good. I mean, I can’t imagine. He is truly the iron man of this business. He is incredible. I mean, no matter what, he wants to go to every one of our fights and he’s there from the first fights sitting there in his seat. He’s incredible.”
On promoting Tyson Fury:
“The (Schwartz fight) promotion has just been absolutely terrific. This new shift over to ESPN has just given us all the assets and the tools to expose and give guys the platform to really shine. And with Tyson Fury, that personality is as large as anything in all of sports. When people talk about he’s one of the great stories in boxing, I say “no, he’s one of the great stories in sports.” He’s a wonderful, wonderful, wonderful, storyteller. He’s got a great personality. He self deprecates. I mean, I got hooked on him when I heard that Joe Rogan podcast. I’m like, oh my God, can we, what we could do. I wanted so many people to see this guy, to hear his voice, to let him touch you and feel you. It’s through a platform like ESPN and this guy he’s incredible. What he did yesterday at the press conference and an impromptu grabbing the mic and taking over before anybody’s there, like calling up Tom Schwartz. Come on up here Tom. So it was like I was watching like Jimmy Kimmel show or something. It was like, what’s going on? This guy’s got a late night talk show. He’s fantastic. Absolutely fantastic.”
On the heavyweight landscape:
“You know the beauty of the heavyweight landscape right now and even if you rewind it to before the Anthony Joshua loss to Ruiz, you basically had a definition of three pillars that were there regardless of the titles or not the titles. Because we all know what happens with that and it’s a bunch of nonsense. But we had three big pillars, and that’s a rare moment that you get, especially in the heavyweights. There is a cycle that occurs when you have heavyweights in pairings. The sport and that division rise very heavily. You have Joshua and Fury both from the UK and Wilder from the US, that’s kind of like the perfect storm. You’re not just having them all from the US, your having global appeal. You’re, again, as we talked about, you’re having a UK presence that has a robust media market and you got guys that can talk smack, right? So it all worked. It’s no different than Holyfield, Lewis and Tyson. No different from Ali, Frazier, Foreman, and even Norton. When you have more than one, it really works. And, we love the fact that you have these dynamic personalities in the most marquee, highest division in the sport that the fans love inherently, heavyweights. People love heavyweights. Regardless if they’re coming from America or not, you have heavyweight matches that appeal to everybody. So we just think this is just the beginning of a great run for the sport and a great run for the division.”
On Top Rank striking the deal with ESPN:
“We collectively had an ‘Aha’ moment. Right. We were just like, you know, we got to keep the sport going. And what I saw was I had other sport envy. I was seeing all these other sports on the platforms that were really driving interest across the country, driving the interests with companies, driving interests globally. And we were siloed in a platform that had been very successful for us – largely HBO. But at the end of the day, we were kind of marginalized to a premium platform. I had envy. I felt like the sport that we were missing out on what everybody else was getting, right? You’d walk into a bar and ESPN was flipped on and everybody was watching whatever ESPN fed to them. And it wasn’t boxing. And so the rise of football, the bigger rise of NBA, the rise of MLB, the rise of NHL – all these properties just kept getting bigger and bigger and bigger, more robust, more engaged fans. And we all kind of felt like, hey, we were kind of sliding down a slope of this niche of this hardcore boxing fans, that Hispanic pay-per-view universe. We were just a little siloed into a multicultural universe. We weren’t that relevant. We were only putting shoulder programming on like (HBO’s) 24/7 when we wanted you to buy for $60. We weren’t having shoulder programming like roundtables or we weren’t having the journalists or the talk shows talking about boxing. And I think it was all about all these things came together and it’s like, how do we get there?
And I think the big moment for all of us largely was we always timed our big pay-per-views around the six o’clock (ESPN) SportsCenter. So that our weigh-in on the big pay-per-views, we’re timed with that slot so we could be on SportsCenter. And I’m like, why are we timing this around them? Why don’t we just join them? But I had to change the mindset. I mean, we all had to change the mindset and we were fortunate enough to have a CAA and EMC on their side. I preached to them, I gave them our numbers, I showed them what our ratings were and how robust that was and said, listen, let’s go to the marketplace. We believe there’s something there. And we got to convince everybody that has always said no to us for 20 years that maybe you can say yes. There’s an opportunity here. We couldn’t have done it without that type of support and having people with great credibility and running actual data and showing how we can stand up with the ratings and how robust the business really is.
“And I think we’re just seeing the beginning of what this new partnership looks like.”
On the current strategy as to what fights go on ESPN or ESPN+:
“We work with ESPN and their programming team on what they would like as well as what we think is the best on that night. We loved the DTC (direct-to-consumer) product. We think it’s a great product that gives us flexibility to take a lot of stuff international that doesn’t make us so date and time specific to be restricted to ‘hey, there’s a Saturday block right after football and right before SportsCenter’ or something like that. So you have flexibility with DTC. We’re learning in the process. I think everybody is learning in the DTC business and where are people going to be buying when they’re not watching on television or what time zone do they like to watch it in?
“And is it going off at 12:30, too late in the morning? Should it come off at 11 pm eastern time? So we’re learning all about that. We’re trying to balance the two. We’re not trying to make it, you know, I think one of the problems that existed a little bit and as great as HBO was, they had an After Dark and they had a World Championship and there was basically a class system, right? If you’re on one, it’s the minor leagues, if you’re on one, you’re in the major leagues. And we didn’t want to create that, right? We wanted to make it seamless between the two. So it’s indistinguishable that there’s a minor league or major league because of the platform. So we’re trying to do the best we can and we’re working hand in hand with ESPN and ESPN+ on those time slots and those events then will sit on those platforms.
“Lomachenko and (Anthony) Crolla was a Friday night in LA and it was the first anniversary of ESPN+. Crawford and Horn was a Saturday. That basically was one month into ESPN+ as their big launching pad. (Crawford) then comes back and peaks at 2.8 million viewers against (Jose) Benavidez in the fall. So it all is working. We’re looking at them as not separate platforms, as much as one. There is no class system. We don’t want there to be a class system and we want both of them to be balanced and very accessible for all the fight fans and also there’s a complimentary nature to the two of them. They work off each other perfectly and you’re seeing undercards on (ESPN) + and main event on ESPN. ESPN 2 has the undercard, the non-televised portion on Saturday night. And then we’re going to +. So we’re using all of the platforms back and forth to feed each other. And I think we’re doing a good job, but we’re working hand in hand with the programming heads at ESPN.”
On the ever-evolving shoulder programming at ESPN:
“So like I said previously this is like a petri dish, right? And we’re checking out what’s going to work and not work and that’s what we’re kind of all doing. I think one of the things that, like you said, you loved my line, “keeping the lights on all the time.” We really wanted a linear show. And to have Max Kellerman have that linear show is a big win for the sport of boxing. We had the prospect show. We’ve had the Ring Science show with Andre Ward. This season we’re trying a bunch of different samplings out. And I say this season, the end of the season will come for us at the end of July and we’re going to be looking at what we’re doing. And we’ve been really fine tuning a lot of the live stuff and going balancing back and forth between the platforms.
This year, coming up, which I say in the next couple months, we are going to be seeing more of what our shoulder programming strategy is going to be, where it’s going to be, how it’s going to be shown. Do we just do it around the fights? Do we do it constantly? You know, shining the light on all of these great young talented fighters that get exposure of their camp lives. We had a wonderful heavyweight roundtable show the other night where our whole ESPN (announcing crew) talked about the heavyweight division in a very throwback, you know, Italian restaurant type of feel. So we are now really digging in on testing out some different stuff and we’ve tested out a lot of stuff and I think in the next couple of months we’re really going to see a really nice strategy. But obviously with the cornerstone of that being Max’s live show on linear.”
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