Fights in Front of Fans Test Boxing’s Business in the Pandemic Era

Gervonta Davis, a fighter nicknamed Tank, is honored to have a live audience.

Davis, an undefeated 25-year old boxer from Baltimore, will face Leo Santa Cruz with two world titles at stake on Saturday night. It will be the main event of the first major boxing card with live spectators since the coronavirus pandemic reshaped the dynamic of live sports.

Davis will fight even harder, he said, knowing that up to 10,000 people at the Alamodome in San Antonio will have spent money and ventured out during the outbreak to watch him.

The fight represents a two-pronged strategy for making money in boxing during a time when seemingly nothing is normal about live events or sports on television. Selling tickets and broadcasting the fight on pay-per-view are both business decisions — made by Davis’s backers at Mayweather Promotions — to generate revenue to finance the pay guarantees that star fighters command. The promoters argue that Davis is the sport’s next star (he is 23-0 with 22 knockouts), and that putting him on pay-per-view signals that he is an elite fighter worth the price of admission.

But with a glut of live programming driving viewership down across many individual sports, and an economy still hobbled by the pandemic, asking fans to pay $75 for a boxing broadcast is also a gamble.

“It’s always a bit of a leap of faith,” said Stephen Espinoza, the president of Showtime Sports. “There’s a sizable chunk of this country that’s under economic pressure. That’s obviously something that makes a pay-per-view harder.”

A rival promoter, Top Rank, took a different approach two weeks ago when Brooklyn’s Teófimo López won a 12-round decision over the Ukrainian star Vasyl Lomachenko in a lightweight title bout. Viewership on ESPN peaked at 3 million, but there were no extra costs for TV viewers outside of their ESPN subscriptions. But there also were no paying spectators at the fight in Las Vegas, where the card was staged essentially on a closed TV set inside a resort.

Inside the Alamodome on Saturday, organizers have said they will enforce measures meant to mitigate the risk of spreading the coronavirus. In a building that seats more than 64,000 people, attendance has been capped at 10,000. Spectators will be required to wear masks and undergo temperature checks, organizers said, and sit only with people in their party.

Inside the ring, promoters expect Davis, the World Boxing Association champion at 135 pounds, and Santa Cruz, the W.B.A.’s 130-pound champ, to stage the kind of high-stakes, high-action main event that, in normal times, could have sold out an arena.

Santa Cruz is a forward-moving volume puncher whose father and head trainer, José, survived Covid-19 while battling multiple myeloma. At one point, Leo Santa Cruz said, doctors were so sure José would die that they summoned Leo and his siblings to say goodbye. But José recovered and will attend the fight.

“My brother is the one holding the mitts, but it’s still my dad right there,” Santa Cruz said. “Family always wants the best for you.”

Still, Davis is the fight’s A-side: a fast, elusive power puncher with his own compelling back story. His coach, Calvin Ford, started coaching at a boxing gym in Baltimore after serving a 10-year prison sentence. Davis started training with Ford as a grade-schooler, but the boxer’s circle now includes celebrities like Drake and mentors like Floyd Mayweather.

Normally those story lines, and two aggressive fighters, might combine to support ticket and pay-per-view sales. And Davis’s promoters point to his string of sold-out fights in cities like Baltimore and Carson, Calif., as evidence that they needed to open Saturday’s event to paid spectators.

The difference now is that those fights took place before the pandemic disrupted live sports, and forced limited crowds in the rare instances when they were allowed. San Antonio is in Bexar County, which has averaged 201 new coronavirus cases per day over the past two weeks, about 10 cases per 100,000 residents, but the promoters got approval for thousands of fans anyway.

Davis last fought in December, earning a 12th round technical knockout against Yuriorkis Gamboa, a veteran fighter from Cuba.Since then, live events and industries that require physical gathering, like bars and movie theaters, have struggled amid government restrictions, and the economy has had difficulty rebounding.

And the boxing pay-per-view market was already under pressure. February’s heavyweight rematch between Tyson Fury and Deontay Wilder attracted a reported 850,000 pay-per-view buys, plus 300,000 more online sales. Those figures more than doubled the reported number of buys for their first fight, but still fell short of the 2 million buys the fight’s co-promoter, Bob Arum, had predicted.

Espinoza acknowledged the pandemic had altered the household budgets of boxing fans. And, he said, restrictions on public gatherings have meant that the usually thriving market for theaters and sports bars has “all but disappeared.” Even a lack of large social gatherings is expected to hurt sales.

“Pizza and beer and the cookout, that’s part of the fabric of the pay-per-view event,” he said. “There is, in this scenario, an unpredictable amount of risk.”

While Saturday’s featured fight may not turn its winner into a pay-per-view mainstay, it does feature two champions jockeying for position in one of boxing’s busiest weight ranges. Davis and Santa Cruz will compete for two W.B.A. belts. Next week, the World Boxing Council lightweight champion, Devin Haney, will fight Gamboa. And López won three other belts by defeating Lomachenko.

But Davis said that he considers himself the real champion — and not just of the 135-pound division.

“This is going to set me to a whole new level,” Davis said of facing Santa Cruz. “To me, I’m the No. 1 boxer in the world already. I just gotta prove it.”

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