Whither goest the sport of boxing these days?
How about to a country where it was banned in 1959 and not allowed back until 1986? That would be China.
This is promoter Bob Arum's grand plan. He has had many over six decades of promoting the sport, and most have worked out. Arum is the New York lawyer who promoted the first fight he saw, was Muhammad Ali's promoter, and, at age 81, has slowed down about as much as a freight train running downhill.
Much is at stake, much more than usual, when Arum and his Top Rank Promotions send out superstar Manny Pacquiao against Brandon Rios in November. This fight will not be in a Las Vegas casino, the norm for the big fights the last several decades, but in an even bigger casino in an even bigger country, the Venetian Macao on the Chinese island city of Macao.
Arum is testing the waters. He sees U.S. boxing pay-per-view as fished-out waters and China as a place where nary a net has been lowered.
"The good news [in the U.S.] is more homes are buying," Arum says. "The bad news is more homes are buying."
He means that, with bigger TV screens and a post-recession, price-conscious consumer, the pay-per-view business has increasingly become an invite-your-neighbor-and-split-the-costs scene. Where five once watched in one living room, 10 do now.
Arum doesn't stand still. He could have gone along nicely and profitably, but his eyes got bigger when they focused on China, and he resented the lack of vision by his usual Las Vegas business partner, MGM Grand.
"They could have locked up Pacquiao with a long-term contract," he says, "but they didn't have the sense."
So, the fight will be held in a casino half a world away, on a Sunday day schedule (Nov. 24) that will still put the telecast back to the usual 6 p.m. Pacific time Saturday (Nov. 23). It will be carried live in the U.S. on Arum's cable partner, HBO; it will be on free China television because there is no pay-per-view TV in China (yet), and fingers will be crossed.
Mark Taffet, HBO's pay-per-view vice president, admits he has no way of knowing how it will sell.
"We've never done anything live from that distance," he says. "I have nothing to compare it to."
Arum and his business partner, chief executive Ed Tracy of Sands China Ltd., which operates the Asian portion of Sheldon Adelson's worldwide gaming and development business, are confident.
"China is a burgeoning middle class," says Tracy, who calls Macao "Las Vegas on steroids."
Arum, always working his calculator a couple of years ahead, says that pay-per-view in China could, in the not-too-distant future, command the equivalent of $5-$6 per buy.
"You do 20 million in sales and that's $100 million in revenue," he says, not the least bit coy about where he is heading with all this.
Then there is Pacquiao, who has won titles in eight weight classes and was, for years, considered unbeatable. Then he lost his last two fights, making the Rios fight perhaps his first must-win.
Tracy sees the sports side of this potential business disaster.
"Fans would see this as three and out," he says of a Pacquiao loss.
Pacquiao doesn't disagree. His jaw gets firm just talking about it. His loss might leave an even larger hole in his future political plans than the one left in Arum's pocketbook. When Pacquiao lost to Timothy Bradley, the only people who saw it as a loss were the three sight-impaired judges. But when he lost again last year, knocked flat on his face and out by Juan Manuel Marquez, brows furrowed in boxing.