If Brian Kelly has his way, boxing fans might be tempted to go out and buy some tacos or window shop electric cars in between rounds of the next televised title fight. As the new chief revenue officer of Top Rank, one of the world’s largest boxing promoters, Kelly is charged with building out the organization’s partnership division on the strength of ad buys that leverage content across its social platforms, event sponsorships, branded content experiences and in-arena activations—an integrated marketing approach that Kelly says can expand boxing’s audience reach beyond the traditional pay per view model. “Boxing historically has been looked at as a singular event,” he says. “I want us to change that narrative.”
He has more than a puncher’s chance of winning that fight. Boxing, whose last heyday came three decades ago, is on the verge of breaking through once again—especially with the coveted Gen Z demographic—potentially luring more advertisers that have historically stayed on the sidelines. The sport is benefiting from its appeal with multicultural viewers—including Hispanics—as well as growing global audiences. And now that in-person attendance restrictions are easing as the pandemic wanes, boxing enthusiasts anticipate more big crowds like the 73,000-plus fans that witnessed Canelo Alvarez’s eight-round TKO victory over Billy Joe Saunders earlier this month at AT&T Stadium, the largest indoor boxing event in U.S. history.
Boxing has also become a pop culture force thanks to increased participation rates in popular gym training regimens like CrossFit, as well as the cross-over celebrity appeal of MMA fighters and YouTube sensations like Jake and Logan Paul. The two brothers have been teasing a fight against each other, and Logan is set to fight an exhibition match against pro boxer Floyd Mayweather Jr. next month in a pay-per-view event on June 6.
“You could argue that MMA/boxing gained recognition initially because of the crossover fight between Mayweather and MMA star Connor McGregor back in 2017,” says Chris Simmons, VP of celebrity and influencer marketing at The Marketing Arm, which has a handful of influencer deals with MMA fighters. “Brands such as DraftKings, Triller and others have noticed the rise of both sports, and are following with a watchful eye.”
Brand risks remain
Top Rank is banking on these trends to attract newbie brands. The company has been in discussions with major marketers in the automotive, telecom, quick-service restaurant and travel industries about buying bundled ad packages, which are valued in the mid- to high-six-figure range, according to Kelly, who joined the company in April from G/O Media, having previously served as head of sales at Bleacher Report.
He comes to the table armed with a litany of statistics to support his argument that boxing is on the cusp of breaking out into new territory with brands that have no discernable track record in the sport. The American sports fan’s interest in boxing has grown 16% over the last decade, second in growth only to international soccer, according to third-party polling data referenced by Kelly.
But according to sports marketing experts, boxing is still no sure bet. The sport still carries a considerable brand safety risk for the majority of mainstream advertisers, says Sam Yardley, executive VP of products and services at Two Circles, a sports marketing agency that consults with boxing promoters around the world.
“You might get more dollars from sponsors in existing categories like spirits or beer, but it’s unlikely you’ll see autos, financial services or airlines dive in. An injured fighter [endorsing] your brand is not a very good look,” he says.
Gatorade gets into the U.S. ring
But there are still ways for mainstream brands to play off boxing’s rising popularity without making direct endorsements. Nissan, for example, ran a TV spot for its 2020 Sentra that featured a Latina mom encouraging her daughter to pursue her boxing passion over dancing.