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Arum Is Hitting It on the Button With Tripleheader Fight Cards

Times Staff Writer

Not one of the fights, on its own, is enough to galvanize a nation. Surely it is not worth $900,000 to find out if super-welterweight Thomas Hearns, back from the middleweight wars, can return to 154 pounds for his fight with an apparently outclassed Mark Medal. Likely Barry McGuigan, as popular as he may be back in Ireland, is not worth $1 million to defend his featherweight title against Steve Cruz. And Roberto Duran-Robbie Sims? A bout of some mystery, perhaps, but not this year’s fight of the century either.

“Just one of the fights alone?” asks Bob Halloran, vice president of Caesars World, partner and host for the event. “Just one of them alone, it’s an afternoon fight on network TV.”

Yet, a curious thing has developed. Lumped together in Monday night’s so-called Triple Hitter at Caesars Palace, these fights have somehow ascended to boxing’s promotional heaven: It’s a closed-circuit card.

Now, closed-circuit no longer means that you have to trundle off to some distant arena to watch fights on a big screen. These days, it’s a kind of catch-all phrase that simply means the viewer must somehow pay extra to see the fight, whether it is in fact on closed-circuit TV or whether it’s on a pay-per-view basis in one’s living room. Increasingly, as something called addressability becomes a technological commonplace, it’s the latter.

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But whatever else closed-circuit means, depending on the technology of cable television in your area, it certainly signifies an event of some magnitude. Is this an event of magnitude? Competitively, probably not. The oddsmakers don’t like it that much. Yet, the collective marquee value of the names on the card is apparently such as to guarantee an event of some import. The stadium will have about 11,000 people in it, and the pay-per-view money in hand has assured a success there.

Promoter Bob Arum, the man behind this shrewdness, may be on some kind of cutting edge here, putting forth relatively inexpensive promotions, which don’t necessarily figure to change the history of boxing, and making money at it at the same time. Arum, who alone has resurrected the art of the closed-circuit promotion (as opposed to simply brokering fights to cable or network TV), marvels that this one seems to be taking off without the benefit of a “reigning superstar.” His past three cards here have all been graced by the magnificence of Marvelous (Expensive) Marvin Hagler, and in interesting matchups, at that.

So, what if you don’t need a Hagler, who commands upward of $6 million, to guarantee a blockbuster? Makes you think.

Not that Arum intends to elevate club fighters into contention with his stable of name fighters and produce giant cards. But as he says, “There’s only so many times your reigning superstar can go to the post.” So on those nights the reigning superstar is not at the post, Arum has something to offer all those home viewers with the little buttons.

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Arum, who says he’s into profits with the pay-per-view money already, has had enough trouble explaining his successes with the closed-circuit shows starring Hagler and Thomas Hearns and others. To explain the success of this? He tries. “In this case,” he says, “It’s the three fights. You have to go with three of them. If you could guarantee the viewer that the McGuigan-Cruz fight would be Hagler-(John) Mugabi in terms of action, that’s enough. You can’t guarantee that. Now, you have three chances.”

Arum, having made mega-cards out of single-bout attractions such as Hagler-Duran and Hearns-Hagler, was testing this out as recently as this spring. Knowing that rematches never rival the original in either suspense or money, he chose to build up another Hearns-Hagler fight slowly by placing them in different bouts on the same card. “With Hagler, you had to have a Hearns,” he says. The money is still rolling in from the distributors of that one.

Arum also understands that some melodrama works. Another reporter observed: “He’s thinking like a writer. He’s got story line in his head.” So what if McGuigan is not yet in boxing’s Hall of Fame. His story of rallying a divided nation inspires a press. And with Duran, 35 or not, all his comebacks are sensational scenarios.

But mostly, Arum is discovering the remarkable potential of pay-per-view TV. “What we’re finding is that the pay-per-view is doing as well as the Hagler-Mugabi show,” he says, “and this is not as strong a show. Sitting in your home with a button, it’s an easier determination than throwing on your coat and driving to an arena. The fight doesn’t always have to be on another level.”

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Certainly you do not tend to be as discriminating when fights come into your living room with a flick of a switch and a charge, down the road, for an extra $15. It’s perhaps why you are willing to rent movies on videotape that you would never make an effort to see at a first-run theater.

So far, only Arum, promoting in the lower-weight divisions, has been able to exploit this potential. And he’s done it well. “My feeling is that the future of the business is in pay-per-view, augmented by closed-circuit,” he says. “If you put a fight on home TV or pay cable, the revenue is limited. There is no real incentive with fixed revenues. It tends to be cut and dried.

“In a pay-per-view event, with only the people who pay going to see it, the revenue is unlimited.” That’s why Hagler was able to make $2 million more than the $6-million purse from his Hearns fight. The money just kept coming in.

This is the upside. On the other hand, it is possible to lose money if the purse structure is out of line. Which means, you could easily pay your fighters more than they’re worth, because you don’t know what they’re really worth until fight night and the viewers start pressing those buttons. “When you do a fight for HBO,” Arum points out, “you’re working with X amount of dollars. It doesn’t get easier than that. You’d be an idiot to lose money. Me, I’m crapshooting.”

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Not much of a crapshoot, of course. Arum usually secures the fighters’ money through sales of the site rights and foreign rights. The pay-per-view money is over the top, which he shares with the fighters on a percentage basis. Still, in the sense he doesn’t know how much money will come in, he is at some risk.

With risk comes reward. With some 3.5 million homes wired for this kind of event, and with a traditional average of a 5% sale, Arum calculates 175,000 buyers. Of the $15 they pay, Arum collects $8 a head. Do your own math, but it tends to work out to a nice profit of $1 million for Arum’s Top Rank company.

Arum works for that money. His caravan of fighters has become a staple of pre-fight publicity. And the TV ads, which he himself writes, are becoming kitsch classics. Fighters in top hats, in the jungle, at the poker table? Who knew he had this kind of imagination.

“Now,” he says, “this is with a base of four million homes (wired for addressability). “What happens when it reaches a potential of 40 million homes and you maintain that same 5%? You get a very nice figure. Right now, nobody else is interested in doing the work we do because the numbers are so small. For a small company like ours, it’s not a bad payday. For a big company, it’s chump change. You have to work. . . . But 40 million homes? Somebody buys my company and the expertise we’ve developed then.”

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Arum more or less hit on this approach after his accounting department discovered what a waste of effort it was to sell fights to TV. “The networks used to pay $300,000 for a good title fight,” he says. “But now it’s down to $100,000 to $125,000. We discovered that for a three-year period, 1983-85, we showed a loss of $50,000, before overhead expenses. That’s silly.”

So big fights are the ticket. But not an automatic ticket. There had always been closed-circuit events, but when superstars like Muhammad Ali and Sugar Ray Leonard faded from the scene, it became harder to sell them. Or so it was thought. Until the Hagler-Duran fight in 1983, there hadn’t been a really successful one since 1980--Duran and Leonard at Montreal. Nothing was big after that. Until Arum, in promoting the Hagler-Duran fight, hit on the Hispanic angle. “The Anglo press didn’t give Duran a chance,” he says. “So we did a whole Latin promotion.” They buy tickets, too, he found out.

For Hearns and Hagler, Arum hit upon the idea of doing The Tour, a kind of presidential campaign for pugilists. It paved the way for the Hagler-Mugabi fight, which Arum says is the “first successful pay-per-view fight without a blockbuster match.” And now one that doesn’t even have the reigning superstar.

Whether this success is simply a technological accident is anybody’s guess. On the other hand, Bob Halloran is more than pleased with ticket sales for the event, indicating that even the real fans must like the event. “We felt we could break even and we have,” he says. “Based on what we’ve paid, we’re very happy. Maybe we wish we paid a little less, but breaking even is good for me.”

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Noting that the card originally was structured around welterweight champion Donald Curry, who later pulled out, Halloran said that these things can get kind of scary. “Without a backup, such as Hearns, there’s no card. We’re very fortunate to have a Thomas Hearns out there.”

Meanwhile, as Arum plots his next marquee card--"How about Curry-Mike McCallum, Duran-James Kinchen and Hearns-Mugabi?"--Halloran is signaling some caution. “With two fighters, it’s scary, wondering about injuries, whatever. With six, it’s a nightmare. I might be hesitant.”

Halloran does wonder, as the potential of pay-per-view continues to be realized, if this might eventually fly into the face of the on-site promoter. “When you have a Hagler-Leonard,” he says, “you’ll sell out, regardless. But five years from now, when addressability is so widespread, will people still pay $500 to sit at ringside?”

In the meantime, Arum will continue to push at this new frontier, putting names together in every possible combination. At least, he’ll push at the frontier as long as we continue to push the buttons.

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