29th April 2017
In Focus: Wladimir Klitschko: good guys, bad guys and the complicated world of promoting a boxer
By James McKeown, Head of Global Marketing at UCFB
Does it pay to be the bad guy in sport? This is a question that sports marketing professionals often wrestle with and it is particularly appropriate to boxing, where fighters rely on grabbing the public’s attention in order to secure themselves a payday.
This weekend sees the most anticipated fight of the year take place inside Wembley Stadium, home of UCFB Wembley, when Britain’s Anthony Joshua takes on Wladimir Klitschko for three world heavyweight belts in front of 90,000 people.
In my former life working in sports agencies, I was fortunate to work with a range of characters in the world of boxing, including Klitschko briefly when he toured the UK to promote his bout against David Haye. These two were a fascinating contrast in personality; Klitschko, the respected, understated champion versus Haye, the headline-grabbing, brash Londoner seeking his belts.
The way that the business of boxing is set up means that individual fighters have much more scope to influence their income positively or negatively than, for example, a professional in a team sport whose main income is usually a set annual salary. The public interest in any given fight directly translates to money in a boxer’s pocket via TV viewership and ticket sales, so promotion is a fundamental part of any top boxer’s career.
So which of the these types of media personality – let’s simplify them to ‘good guy’ and ‘bad guy’ – should an athlete take on in order to fulfil their financial potential in boxing, and perhaps wider sport? The answer is not so simple.
Dr. Klitschko – the boxing academic
Klitschko could in no way be described as a bad guy. He is almost the antithesis of a stereotypical boxer. An incredibly smart and articulate man, the Ukrainian, who usually calls Germany home, speaks four languages. Aside from being a master of ‘the sweet science’, he earned his PhD in Sport Science in 2001. He enjoys chess and has long been committed to humanitarian causes, lending support to UNESCO over the years and vocally supporting his older brother and former boxing champ Vitali in his political career. He was a pleasure to work with, friendly and respectful at all times.
Unfortunately – and his mild, measured manner may have contributed to this – Klitschko has often been criticised for being ‘boring’. His boxing style didn’t do him many favours in the popularity stakes either – a fairly calculated, technical boxer, he would slowly grind opponents down with his rock hard jab, usually winning an unspectacular fight in the latter rounds.
Despite his enormous success in the ring (Olympic champion, long-time world heavyweight champion), he never won over mainstream sports fans outside Germany and Ukraine, especially in the key hunting ground of the United States. After some interest from US pay per view TV early in his career, he was largely forgotten between 2008 and 2015, when he didn’t fight in the USA at all.
In terms of marketing himself, did Klitschko’s good, uncontroversial nature lead him to miss out on millions? Could he have been a superstar who transcended sport globally? Did he not ‘play the game’ right?
The answers to the above are 1. Probably 2. Possibly 3. This depends on your perspective and values.
What’s important to Wladimir Klitschko is not necessarily the same as what is important to many other sports superstars. He and his brother have long run their own promotional company, K2 Promotions, with a firm and dependable businessman as their chief dealmaker, Bernd Bonte. They never cared for a loud ‘hype machine’ type promoter. In fact, after visiting legendary but controversial promoter Don King at his house early in his career, Klitschko was immediately put off by his gut instinct that King was untrustworthy. He has done things his own way and built a successful business.
David Haye – the talented, savvy troublemaker
As good as a polar opposite in terms of media persona is David Haye. His occasional antics in the press should not be confused for ignorance though – this man is no mug. With my agency working alongside him to promote a few of his fights, I admired his media savviness. If he wasn’t born a natural talker, he sure learned the craft well.
He is wise to the risks of boxing. He always made public his intentions in the sport to win world titles, secure himself financially and then retire when he was 30 (he would later come out of retirement).
He knew that he needed to make a big splash both in the ring and in the media in order to rise quickly through the ranks and fight the biggest fighters, for the biggest payday. He was often a marketer’s dream to work with.
I credit Haye’s promotional – and troublemaking – skills with securing him a Klitschko world title fight sooner than many thought he deserved one.
After first signing on the dotted line in 2009, Haye proceeded to wear a t-shirt depicting him holding both Klitschko brothers’ decapitated heads at one of their pre-fight press conferences. Klitschko called it “unspeakable,” but the fight immediately became must-see TV in Germany and in the UK.
As his career has gone on and Haye has suffered a few setbacks along the way in the ring, he has kept up his vocal nature and stirred much controversy along the way. Despite some negative backlash, many would suggest that Haye’s ability to consistently sell out arenas and generate large TV audiences against sometimes mediocre opponents is down to his gift of the gab.
So nice guys finish last financially?
David Haye – let’s call him the bad guy in this context, but don’t forget he donated almost £100,000 to coma victim Nick Blackwell – has probably exceeded what would be expected financially from someone with a similar boxing CV. A mixture of his outgoing and occasionally menacing personality, marketing brain, ability to play on the public’s emotions and undoubted business savvy has got him there.
Many ‘nicer’ world champions don’t earn nearly what he has to date. Joe Calzaghe, the slightly shy and softly-spoken but highly accomplished British boxing great who finished his career undefeated at 42-0, proved hugely frustrating for his globally recognised promoter, Frank Warren, to sell. The Welsh warrior arguably secured less than a handful of top-notch fights, all in the final years of his career, often because the big names of boxing did not see him as a good ‘payday’.
But where does Anthony Joshua fit in? The 27 year old has certainly captured the British public’s admiration and is possibly en route to global stardom after only 18 fights and less than five years as a pro. He and his team have carefully portrayed him – and he is widely acknowledged – as being a good guy, living a relatively humble life with his mother after overcoming a few indiscretions in his youth. He recently gave his first boxing coach a car as a thank you present. Being marketed as a nice guy has not stunted his income so far. He will make at least £15m from his Wembley megafight with Klitschko, and he has 13 sponsors bringing in further millions. Marketing website The Drum outlined how he could become boxing’s first billionaire.
It remains to be seen whether Joshua secures the world’s attention over his career, but all signs are positive with both Showtime and HBO showing this one in the USA, quite a rare feat.
The bottom line is that there are options for a boxer when approaching how they wish to promote and portray themselves in their career, depending on their priorities. Whilst there are many nuances to a person’s personality, a fundamental fact is that generating headlines is an integral component of your job description if you wish to succeed financially in this sport. Success in the ring will lead to some of that, and having an understanding of marketing and media yourself or through a talented team around you will do the rest.
Although not the richest or most famous man in boxing, I am sure that when Wladimir Klitschko decides to hang up his gloves, he will be able to sleep easily knowing that he did everything in his own dignified way. And let’s be frank, he is not a poor man – ‘Dr. Steelhammer’ has featured on Forbes’ 100 Highest Paid Athletes list and has exciting career options ahead of him upon retirement.