Some food for thought. Last week, the Guardian’s report on the “special exhibition” between the Hall of Fame boxer Floyd Mayweather and the celebrity YouTuber Logan Paul, was the second most-read story on our entire website. Millions read it, shared it, devoured it. A million Americans also paid $49.99 to watch on pay-per-view. Beforehand Mayweather had described it as “legalised bank robbery”. And it was. Yet people still willingly stuck their hands in the air and handed over their cash.
It is easy to sneer. But picking over the bones of the fight with the US sports agent Leigh Steinberg, who is often credited as the real-life inspiration for the Oscar-winning film 1996 Jerry Maguire, it was clear there were lessons for traditional sports too. “Of course the fight was largely about people loving novelty,” Steinberg tells me. “Remember when Bobby Riggs played Billie Jean King? It’s fish out of water, it’s man bites dog. But I can’t stress enough how they did a remarkable job of making people really care.”
That’s the first lesson right there. Say what you like about the contest but it had narrative, hype, personalities and jeopardy. For purists, it is enough for the best to go head to head. Casual fans need more. Too often I have heard media-trained stars talk about “executing my race” or “taking one game at a time”. It is the sporting equivalent of the Geneva conventions, designed to give nothing away. But without buzz, how can a sport fly?
“It helped that Mayweather is as good a salesperson as there is in boxing, and I say that having worked with Lennox Lewis and Oscar De La Hoya,” Steinberg adds. “But it also shows something else, the growing power of social media to drive eyeballs to an athletic event.”
That’s the second lesson. As Charlie Beall of the digital consultants Seven League – whose clients include the NBA, the Football Association, Barcelona and Juventus – can and should do more with “creator networks” such as Twitch, TikTok and YouTube.
“We often use the analogy of hunting versus farming,” Beall says. “Big sports with massive fanbases like to farm their audience. They can sell big TV deals, sponsorships and demand high ticket prices. But if you farm for too long, it becomes a diminishing and lazy resource. So you have to keep hunting newer and younger audiences. And if you’re not engaging them on the channels where they’re spending a lot of their time, you as a sports property start losing relevance among that target audience.”
That’s the third lesson. It is notable that the Spanish streamer Ibai recently broke the sports streaming record on Twitch by hosting a boxing event, which attracted an average audience of 1.1 million viewers during a four-hour broadcast. And that the Brazilian Twitch streamer Gaules now hosts NBA games on his own channel. Meanwhile Paul was able to leverage his 23 million YouTube subscribers to make millions against Mayweather.
The fourth? While it is often assumed that young people have lower attention spans, Beall says that is a lazy stereotype given how long they stay on the likes of Twitch, Minecraft or Roblox. It’s just that with social media, live streaming and more, they have greater competition for their time. Shorter formats such as T20 cricket, help. But sport also has to wrestle with the fact that it’s not about holding the audience’s attention for a full 90 minutes, but ensuring it has sufficient audience interest that when a big moment happens they swarm there. “That is where the platform Buzzer is very interesting,” Beall says. “They’re trying to direct audience attention to major moments as and when they’re happening.”
A fifth and final lesson is about sports finding novel ways to increase their audiences while not upsetting traditional fanbases. Novelty can work – if Usain Bolt raced the NFL star DK Metcalf, for instance, it would surely do huge PPV numbers. However Racing for Change’s Rod Street says many sports are unconvinced that events such as Mayweather v Paul “build a meaningful connection between the sport and a new audience, or are just a PT Barnum-style curio”.
Instead Street believes the answer is to combine top-tier events, such as racing’s British Champions Series, with new formats, such as the Racing League to attract young and tech‑savvy audiences. “But the competition in this space is beyond fierce,” he says. “Every sports executive I speak to is trying to reach that same audience.”
Incidentally, Steinberg reminds me that the infamous Tyson v Lewis brawl nearly scuppered their fight. “I negotiate what at that time would have been the biggest fight contract of all time and we head to the press conference,” he says. “When Tyson was on his meds he was pretty good, but off them he was a bit crazy and not really safe. So I’m standing in the wings watching Lennox, and Tyson runs over, tackles him and they go rolling around on stage. Later we went upstairs to Lennox’s room, and he pulls up his pants and there’s blood running down his leg. And he says: ‘Oh my god, the geezer bit me!’
“We had to give him a tetanus shot from the hotel doctor – and everyone was paranoid because they thought if the story leaked the fight would have to be cancelled.”
Of course it did leak. Yet, ultimately, it was just more fuel on the pay-per-view fire.