Tuesday, July 23, 2024

Why the concept of the Saudi Arabia-funded boxing league is great in theory, skepticism remains high

A little more than a week removed from the reporting of news that threatens to dramatically alter the immediate future of boxing’s global landscape, the reaction from most within the industry continues to be split. 

The kingdom of Saudi Arabia’s public investment fund, which has already dominated boxing headlines over the past year due to its massive financial commitment to the heavyweight division, is reportedly in discussions with nearly every major promoter about a deal valued between $4-5 billion that would combine stakeholders into a league beginning in 2025, according to Reuters.

If the news sounds too good to be true, many in boxing have spent the last eight days debating that exact question. Not only does Saudi Arabia and the chairman of its entertainment authority, Turki Alalshikh, appear very serious, they have a seemingly endless supply of funds aimed at giving every boxing fan its very own impossible dream come true.

For those who have lived the endless frustration of following or covering a sport with such incredible highs and such routine lows, all amid a constant and hectic state of disorganization, the idea of a “boxing Santa Claus” like Alalshikh swooping in to deliver each and every gift on your wish list couldn’t come soon enough. Not only does it have the potential to legitimize the sport from the standpoint of organization and presentation, the fact that boxers are lined up to benefit the most from the record-high purses associated with Saudi Arabia’s involvement is hard to deny.  

Saudi Arabia’s “Vision 2030” program, fueled by the commitment of crown prince Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud, has also seen the country spend billions of dollars in various entertainment forums as a way to change the culture of its youth, boost tourism and lessen the nation’s dependence upon oil. All of which have been looked at as positive developments for a nation so synonymous with human rights abuses and the assassination of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018. 

It should come as no surprise that the latter has played a big part in boxing’s hesitancy to sign away its future to such a controversial entity, even though the sport has a history in doing just that throughout previous eras when everyone from the mafia to notorious promoter Don King sought to attain a similar level of monopolistic control. 

For a sport so used to seeing its power players unable to agree upon a lunch order, let alone come to even terms on a plan to further the long term financial health of all those involved, there also remains a high level of skepticism. That doesn’t even begin to get into whether any of this is even legal given such regulatory advancements like the Professional Boxing Reform Act (1996) and the Muhammad Ali Expansion Act (2000). 

There are also those who, rightfully, fear whether Saudi Arabia’s involvement with the sport at this dedicated of a financial level is only temporary and that, once boxing outlives its purpose of advancing (and legitimizing) the nation’s political agendas, things will only return to the default, “wild, wild west” chaos it has become known for. 

But this is still prizefighting, at the end of the day, and it’s still a sport built upon the premise of violently forcing your opponent into submission, whether verbal or of the unconscious variety. And Saudi Arabia offers not only an unthinkable level of cash to dictate exactly how the future is going to go but seemingly do have a responsible plan on how it will get there, which is to say that this doesn’t feel anything like a fly-by-night proposal. 

Heavy research has been done, holes in the business have been identified and solutions on how to get there seem to actively be in discussion. Alalshikh also appears to have a major passion in giving fans everything they have dreamed of while making sure each of the fighters are well compensated, promoted and treated, overall. 

The answers surrounding whether this will actually work, however, are as difficult to fully define as the questions of whether this should even be an option. Boxing’s combat brethren of MMA, for example, has regularly dealt with the fallout of UFC’s iron-clad control over the industry, which has meant huge fights for fans and year-over-year financial records, but chronically underpaid fighters and the death of any legitimate competitors (thus crippling the idea of true free agency).

Even though Saudi Arabia, if anything, has overpaid boxers in comparison to the issues plaguing elite MMA fighters, it still begs the question whether one entity having so much control is ever actually a good thing. Or, whether all of boxing’s leading promoters, many of which have exclusive American broadcasting deals, will actually take the bait and essentially sign over control of their biggest assets. 

The idea of Alalshikh finally putting a ring on boxing’s unwed finger sounds romantic enough and surely long overdue. But here’s to wondering whether an “engagement period,” of sorts, might be the better answer to try and figure out just how feasible a marriage like this can actually be. 

The middle ground, in this case, would be cooperation across the sport on the highest level, with Saudi Arabia fronting the funds and organizing the terms, not for a league but a series of major annual events that would rival what the term “major” already means for similar individual pro sports like golf, tennis and horse racing. 

A perfect world could exist where each of boxing’s biggest promoters carries on business as usual for most of the calendar year, thus allowing it to still fulfill the minimum demands of each broadcasting output deal. But for four or five events per year — the exact number is largely arbitrary — Saudi Arabia could be on the forefront of presenting the kind of stacked and must-see pay-per-view cards that give the feel each quarter like this is the very best that the sport has to offer. 

Which television and streaming outlets would have exclusive authority to broadcast said “major” events could rotate similar to how the NFL’s television package alternates who gets the Super Bowl. And with no hurdles in the way of boxing making the biggest fights possible and the money in place to guarantee such a development takes place, the ceiling to which how far the sport could actually grow would be immeasurable. 

Boxing has long needed an adult in the room to forge some level of professional structure to a sport with such low barriers of entry and such equally high lust for the next big payday. But until the sport’s power players can prove that such a union could actually work, Saudi Arabia might be advised to start slow and patiently build its way toward the idea of one singular entity rather than try and make a promise that this polarizing and flawed sport is unable (or still yet unwilling) to actually pull off. 

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