Overachievers: Boxing must counter-punch UFC on social media, right now!
Boxing is perhaps the most storied of sports.
Ernest Hemingway and Norman Mailer wrote about it.
Rocky, Raging Bull, Million Dollar Baby and When We Were Kings all won Oscars and, more importantly, average more than 8/10 on the public vote at the seminal IMDb.
Can any other sport claim such depth of storytelling?
The reasons are numerous. Boxing is saddled with obvious and emotive narratives involving class, race, corruption and struggle.
However, the crucial difference is what is at stake.
A single, crushing defeat can ruin a career at any stage. Meanwhile everyone has the so-called “puncher’s chance” of winning a fight in a heartbeat.
Boxing is also the modern sport touched least by time. Whether it is Joe Louis, Muhammad Ali or Anthony Joshua, the setting, the dress, the techniques and the drama is still pretty much the same.
Perhaps the most major change is the number of governing bodies. The WBC and WBA started in the 1960s and 70s, the IBF and WBO developed two decades later. There have been half a dozen more fringe bodies since then, only the IBO has any gravitas. Anyone remember the last IBA, WBU, WBF heavyweight champions?
This alphabetti spaghetti has caused a problem with the public as the context has been lost. Ring Magazine formed its own title to cut through the clutter.
It has all been a bit of mess.
An unintended, until now, largely unknown consequence has been the inadequate adoption of social media.
We need a little comparison between combat sports to uncover it.
Back in 2011, UFC incentivised their fighters to grow their followers with a pot of $240,000. A decade or so earlier, WWE were contracting their wrestlers to post X times in the morning X times in the evening and reply to X many fans. While you can argue the credibility of it as a sport, WWE’s development on digital and social media is exemplary.
Returning to UFC, back in 2015, fully 93% of their fighters were active on one of the major social media networks meanwhile, in the same year, their Twitter, Instagram and Facebook content had reported given Reebok, one of its partners, $2.4m worth of engagement in less than a year.
Now let’s consider my February 2018 figures comparing the pound-for-pound top 10s in UFC, boxing and WWE.
They show the pugilists being beaten to the punch. The boxers average a following of 2.25m. That is less than half of the UFC fighters and almost a third of the WWE wrestlers.
In each list there is a stand-out star – Anthony Joshua, Conor McGregor and Roman Reigns. But two boxers have no presence at all.
Yes, you can say that UFC and WWE are focused on the US, where social media is a promotional tool, whereas the boxing list is truly global. Joshua and Canelo Alvarez have comparable or better following than fighters in the other disciplines. But then American Terrence Crawford, a strong contender for the pound-for-pound crown, has only 410,000 in total. Likewise Andre Ward, the recently retired super-middleweight supremo.
I’d venture that McGregor’s ability to transcend the sport and take on Floyd Mayweather in a boxing match was based on a marketability defined, to a major extent, by his social media personality. Something he has backed up in traditional media and his press conference.
Posters advertising boxing cards used to be designed a lot like old theatre posters. It was a list of names with the stars in the biggest typeface trailing down to the fledglings in small letters down below. Very often they would also list the boxers’ phone number under their name. Part of their purse was determined by how many tickets they could shift, personally.
This further fragmentation of the market on top of competing governing bodies and promoters is not conducive to early adoption of a relatively new area such as social media. Too many competing interests, too many potential gatekeepers to slam the door on change.
However WWE and UFC are single entities. If the sport was played with a ball they could take it home with them.
They have used their advantages in centralisation, organisation and incentivisation selling themselves superbly and outperform the more pluralist pugilists.
For long-term fans such as myself, boxing’s recent renaissance is very welcome. However, even the world’s leading sports have had to adapt their messaging to all types of new media. So if anything, boxing needs to be more organised, more efficient and more engaging in order to gain ground.
We are in an era of young, entertaining fighters who are prepared to go head-to-head without the previous jockeying for position.
This is no time for boxing to rest on its laurels.