By Steve Kim
When Manny Pacquiao faces Tim Bradley this Saturday night in Las Vegas, he's fighting for more than just the WBO welterweight title or any kind of "revenge" (a strange storyline, given the overwhelming majority of observers had Pacquiao beating Bradley in their first meeting back in 2012). Pacquiao will be fighting for his place in boxing's hierarchy of pay-per-view franchises.
For the past several years there have been two dominant figures in the sport: Floyd Mayweather and Pacquiao. Both averaged more than a million buys per promotion, despite their frustrating inability to create the most anticipated fight in boxing by facing each other. There were two classes of pay-per-view fighters: These two, and then everyone else. But while Mayweather has kept up his winning days and remains undefeated at 45-0, Pacquiao hit a rough patch in 2012, where he was on the losing end versus Bradley and arch-rival Juan Manuel Marquez.
After taking most of last year off, he returned to the ring in late November against the carefully selected Brandon Rios. And after years of incredibly robust sales, this fight -- which took place in a far-flung casino in Asia -- did roughly half Pacquiao's usual numbers. There was a "Macau effect."
"No question," admitted Bob Arum, who has promoted Pacquiao to international stardom over the past decade. "The satellite people, the cable people, told us that we would lose up to 60 percent of the audience by moving it outside the United States, and we did close to 500,000 buys. It was disappointing, but you know, most of that I attribute to the fact that we had three writers over there and we didn't have ESPN there."
Now, while these figures pale in comparison to past totals put up by Pacquiao, the event still produced an inordinate sum for the fighters involved, and must be put into perspective. To explain the pay-per-view business in a nutshell: For every purchase, normally in the $65 range, that money is split between the promotion and the cable/satellite companies. Pacquiao-Rios still generated around $30 million in revenue for the parties involved. You can make quite the living performing on HBO and Showtime, but the real money is in pay-per-view.)
Pacquiao-Rios was the first event distributed by HBO Pay-Per-View in nearly two hundred that was staged overseas. Having a show from China brought logistical difficulties, the most problematic of which was the inability to have most of the usual media outlets cover the event on a daily basis leading into the fight. Organizers tried to combat that by setting up a remote media center from Las Vegas during fight week to drum up interest, but it proved futile.
Arum, the eternal optimist -- or just the consummate promoter -- looks ahead to this weekend hoping for strong numbers. "I look at the first Pacquiao-Bradley fight, where we did a little less, a shade less than 900,000 and I remember how we got murdered with that seventh game of the Eastern Conference … also we lost all that impetus on ESPN because they were plugging the game that they had coming on their own network. And still we did over 900 [thousand] and nobody really knew Bradley that well," said Arum. "So I think now, we have a real good shot to do old-time numbers, like a million-one, million-two."
Bradley is coming off a stellar 2013 in which he defeated the likes of Ruslan Provodnikov, in what was widely considered the best fight of the year, followed by a victory over Marquez. Now considered one of the premier boxers in the sport, he comes in with an infinitely higher Q-rating this time. An indication of Bradley's new-found respect -- or perhaps the slippage of Pacquiao -- is that while he was a 9-to-1 underdog before their initial hook-up, this time around he is a 2-to-1 'dog.
All that said, is it reasonable to expect Pacquiao can double the numbers from his last outing?
"Yeah, because I think that was a complete and total aberration," said Arum, referencing Pacquiao's excursion to Asia. Could the decline in recent pay-per-view tallies be attributed not only to Pacquiao's recent losses, but perhaps public backlash that a matchup versus Mayweather was more myth than reality?
"No, I really don't think that," said Arum. "I think there is a dissatisfaction that they're not fighting each other, and I think you've got to get a special opponent who has something to sell like 'Canelo' [Saul Alvarez] did with his Hispanic base and what Bradley does with his two performances last year and the fact that everyone realized how competitive [this fight] is. If Pacquiao was fighting some sort of no-name guy, everybody would say he'd give him a good fight but Pacquiao would win easy, I think we'd have a malaise there.
"Just like Mayweather did with Robert Guerrero," continued Arum, referencing Mayweather's first bout under the Showtime banner, which reportedly did disappointing numbers, heavily debated throughout the boxing industry, "and like he's going to do with Marcos Maidana [on May 3rd]."
But weathering "the Desert Storm" is just half the battle for the Filipino icon. Most industry observers believe anything above 700,000 pay-per-view sales would be a strong number, an indicator Pacquiao still retains much of his popularity, and a demonstration of his drawing power that would boost his leverage in negotiating with future foes. For Top Rank, it would be rock-solid evidence it still promotes one of the most marketable boxers in the sport. And for HBO -- which has seen Showtime encroach on its dominance lately -- it would mean that after Mayweather's defection last year, they still have a viable and lucrative pay-per-view entity.
Pacquiao isn't just fighting Bradley. He's fighting for his market value.
"That's completely accurate," said Arum.
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Steve Kim began covering boxing in 1996 and has been writing for Maxboxing.com since 2001. He is also a regular contributor for Boxing News. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and he tweets (a lot.)