Boxing's Labor Problem
May 1, 2015
8 Min read time
Floyd Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao at a press conference ahead of their fight. Photo: Prizefights.com
In the past six weeks, professional boxing has experienced an influx of money that would give any sporting industry a major shock. Saturday’s welterweight fight between Floyd Mayweather, Jr. and Manny Pacquiao, the two most popular boxers of the last decade, will easily be the highest grossing single bout of all time, even according to its most conservative income projections of $300 million. On top of this, former pop music mogul Al Haymon has raised $425 million from a $40-billion private equity fund to consolidate the sport’s athletes under a single promotional company and brand, Premier Boxing Champions (PBC). Boxing, longtime domain of the blue-collar fighter with the hardscrabble life story, has suddenly become the playground of the one percent.
But the rising tide is not lifting all boats. In the pay-per-view model that has become the norm in televised boxing, a few superstars like Mayweather and Pacquiao can cash in on their celebrity status by selling their skills to viewers directly, and make the kinds of money that ranks them among the most highly paid athletes in the world (first and eleventh, respectively). But income for most boxers remains much, much lower. Headliners on premium cable networks like HBO and Showtime can make over a million dollars for one fight, but the average pay for an undercard television fighter, or a non-televised fight with so-called “club fighters” is quite low, by some accounts around minimum wage. Boxers work with promoters as independent contractors or freelancers, negotiating wages through managers one fight at a time based on a myriad of factors, including record, career seniority, recent performance outcomes, opponent, television fees, casino or venue fees, and so on. The persistence of the pay-per-view model over the past thirty years may be due to its appeal to the ultimate aspirations of the club fighter and the young amateur boxer: they accept the lower wages and uncertainty of this marketplace for the hope of striking it rich one day.
Boxing, longtime domain of the blue-collar fighter, has suddenly become the playground of the one percent.
In the shadow of Mayweather-Pacquiao, the advent of the PBC series proposes a future for professional boxing beyond the pipe dreams of pay-per-view by turning fighters out of the freelance marketplace and treating them as employees. The new organization would continue to work with local promoters to skirt the “firewall clause” of the Ali Boxing Reform Act of 2000, which made it illegal for managers (like Al Haymon) to also serve as promoters. But for boxers lucky enough to join PBC on a contract there promises to be a semblance of job permanence: the company has purchased enough air time on NBC, CBS, ESPN, ABC, Spike TV, and Bounce TV to run two to three shows per month for its fighters over the next three years. As Bill King reports, its ultimate goal is to secure a lucrative American television rights deal on par with those made in recent years with the English Premier League, the U.S. Open tournament, and Formula 1 racing. Think of it as the pro wrestling business model: free weekly television events would become a promotional tool for one or two annual pay-per-view shows.
But the gamble to change the economic model of pro boxing is not just a problem for PBC’s well-heeled stakeholders in private equity: it is also a labor problem. What will happen for workers in a volatile industry suddenly consolidated under a single corporate brand? What will the lives and careers of individual athletes look like with potentially only a single buyer of their talent? Can a profession like boxing ultimately appeal to what Studs Terkel once called the “smug respectability” of the public as a corporate product homogenized to downplay its brutality?
The early returns on the question of money for PBC fighters show positive signs: the purse amounts awarded to fighters for the March fights on network channels NBC and CBS were up fifty percent in some cases from the amounts they might expect for premium cable events. Even if these numbers are inflated above market rate, as rival promoters believe, they seem to favor the fighter above all. But labor conditions, in boxing as in any occupation, are more than just money, after all. There are also the practical, quality-of-life measures of health insurance, pension, career stability, on-the-job safety—as well as that intangible quality that labor writer Selig Perlman defined as the worker’s ideal of “self-determination.”
Along these lines, PBC has sought to foster a new culture around its boxing brand. Their initial efforts to promote fighter safety, for example, appear to be vastly more progressive than those of the promotional companies that currently run the show. The company requires mandatory drug testing of all boxers in its televised cards by the United States Anti-Doping Agency, the national organization in charge of testing U.S. Olympic athletes. In an early press release, PBC also announced that it has ordered mandatory participation for its contracted boxers in the ongoing study of boxer brain injuries by the Cleveland Clinic Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health. Both efforts are completely novel. Without federal government oversight or a league entity bending their fingers, few individual fighters, managers, or promotional companies have gone out of their way to explore the causes of brain damage and other potential fatality risks in boxing. PBC is using its large stable of boxers to pool the risk of knowing potentially harmful information that could shorten a fighter’s career (and earnings). In these pursuits, the corporation seems to be doing the work of a labor union preemptively.
Yet if recent lessons from sporting safety reforms help explain anything, the prospect is not wholly encouraging for the individual boxer. PBC has modeled itself on the success of the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC), the dominant corporate entity governing the much younger combat sport of mixed martial arts. In addition to buying out promotional rivals, UFC marketed its major reforms to the sport’s rules and safety regulations through exposure on network television, as David Carter writes in Money Games: Profiting from the Convergence of Sports and Entertainment, as part of a coordinated plan to persuade states to overturn bans on the sport in the late 1990s. After using the improvement of injury statistics from the rule changes to draw more fighters and viewers into the sport, the organization has come under criticism for its low base wages and its apparently arbitrary distribution of wage bonuses. The economy for both combat sports reflects a familiar principle of capitalism: management’s investment in workers extends only to their ability to continue to work. Like its sister monopsony, PBC is leveraging potential employee risk (and the data that comes from studying that risk) to guarantee corporate profit.
Team sports have dealt with these power struggles with labor unions. However, the barriers to unionizing individual sports like boxing are large for many reasons: lack of solidarity from team camaraderie, lack of time with other athletes due to the irregular schedule, rapid and unpredictable turnover in promotional agreements, and tradition. Boxing also has a singularly paternalistic culture that comes from the hierarchy of manager and promoter relations. Local attempts in the United States to form labor unions and pension funds for professional boxers have run aground on these basic problems. (Trade unions in boxing have had more success in Great Britain, where a central body, the British Boxing Board of Control, governs the sport.)
Then there is an existential question: does boxing’s inherent danger undermine one major goal of labor unions in collective bargaining? Recent studies over the long-term effects of concussions on NFL players have raised questions about the viability of football as a sport. The NFL Players’ Association negotiated a massive outlay of $100 million for brain research in its 2011 collective bargaining agreement with the league. Likewise, trade unions in heavy industry, mining, and other dangerous occupations historically negotiated safety policies for occupational hazards they deemed to be improvable—that is, incidental rather than essential to the core tasks of the profession. Boxing is unique in this respect among occupations and among sports: its fundamental objective is physical damage to another fighter. It is not clear that there could be a possible consensus position, even among fighters and trainers, on what might be a permissible level of physical abuse for a fighter to take over a night, or over a career.
For now, an organized union of professional boxers that works for labor reforms and basic life improvements for its members seens unimaginable. This may be because there has been no single, centralized adversary against whom to struggle. “The trade union,” Joseph Schlossberg writes in his classic The Workers and Their World, “cannot help fighting a single enemy. Its attack is aimed against the individual foe only.” The fantastic success of the Major League Baseball Players’ Association, by some accounts the single most powerful union in the United States, came partially from the political boon of a well-defined enemy: the reserve clause, a longstanding standard contractual clause that bound a baseball player to his team in perpetuity. From this rallying cry, the MLBPA was successful in securing the rights of free agency and minimum salaries to all professional baseball players in the 1960s, as sporting historian Steven A. Reiss writes, through the creation of a legal structure of grievance procedures.
Until now, professional boxing has had no obvious injustice, no reserve clause of its own, that has been able to serve as the impetus for collective action by individual boxers. But the promise of new money, a new system, and the labor problems that come with these, may change that. Al Haymon, who has been criticized in the past for his cavalier attitudes to boxing tradition, may have established in Premier Boxing Champions the bogeyman that a real labor movement needs.
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May 01, 2015
8 Min read time