Professional Fencing: The Next Big Sport, or the Next Washout?
Women fencing against men. Multi-colored, logo-cluttered uniforms. Lights, cameras, action! Welcome to the Professional Fencing League.
The PFL hosts its first tournament next year, but there’s no TV coverage, few sponsors and just a hint of glitz. Prize money isn’t expected to top more than a few thousand dollars.
Still, about 150 fencers, including nationally ranked amateurs and at least one American Olympian, have signed on with the new league, breaking ranks with the U.S. Fencing Assn., the governing body of amateur fencing in the United States. Twelve PFL tournaments are scheduled for 1998.
The league has been in development for two years. But for all the planning, it’s money making chances are still untested, and it can’t ensure that professional fencers will retain their Olympic eligibility.
Professional fencing is the brainchild of Alan Blakeborough, who runs the enterprise from his Knights of Siena fencing academy in this town about 150 miles north of New York City.
“When I first asked about this, I thought ‘I’m sure somebody’s tried this and it failed miserably,”’ Blakeborough said. “No one had even tried it.”
Since the PFL doesn’t need USFA sanction, Blakeborough has taken a few liberties with some of the sport’s traditions. White fencing uniforms are out. Colors, designs, artwork and especially corporate logos are in.
Also, men and women will go blade-to-blade in the PFL, perhaps for the first time in any professional sport. The division still exists on the amateur level.
“You want to talk about battle of the sexes? It doesn’t get any better than this,” Blakeborough said. “The weapon is the great equalizer. You have to stand right in front of the other person with that weapon, and if you don’t know how to wield it, they’re going to make shish kebab out of you all day long.”
But the rules of the sport itself will be maintained, Blakeborough said.
“The one thing that we promised fencers is that we won’t change fencing. How it is perceived and how it is marketed, that will change,” Blakeborough said. “We aren’t going to make people swing from chandeliers. Nobody’s going to be jumping over tables. This won’t be the World Wrestling Federation.”
And most importantly, fencers could make a few bucks in a sport that has often drained their wallets even as they increased their international standing.
“Quite frankly, to really fence at a high amateur level, you need a ridiculous amount of money,” said Justin Meehan, a 12-year amateur and highly-ranked epee fencer from Long Island. “It’s a tremendous personal investment.”
Professional fencing would have a tremendous battle to win any substantial commercial backing, according to Jim Andrews of IEG, a Chicago-based company that tracks sports sponsorship.
“You’re asking the company to get involved in something that has no track record,” Andrews said. “Fencing is a niche sport. It has a small potential fan base and a small participant base. And this isn’t a new basketball league, where it’s a known quantity. You’re asking sponsors to take kind of a double risk.”
Backers say the PFL would at least give professional fencers a tax write-off and perhaps a decent living as the league grows. But as the rules stand now, it would prevent a fencer from earning Olympic gold.
An amateur fencer cannot accept money for fencing. And according to the USFA and the FIE, the international fencing federation, that rule won’t be changed soon.
“This isn’t on our agenda, and it’s not on the FIE’s agenda,” said Michael Massik, executive director of the U.S. Fencing Association. “Until the FIE rules on it, fencers who participate in this league can’t go to the Olympics.”
Blakeborough contends that the USFA has tried to block his new league, Massik, however. said a professional presence could only help fencing.
“The more exposure the sport gets, the more people participate, and the better things are,” Massick said.