Social media influencers led by Jake Paul draw eyes, and dollars, to boxing

By Adam Stern
Jake Paul moved to 3-0 with his win in April at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.getty images

As Stephen Espinoza sat down with influencer-turned-prizefighter Jake Paul this spring to negotiate a deal to air his fights, the Showtime Sports president wanted to know if this was a stunt or not.

 

Showtime is a standard bearer of boxing broadcasts, and Paul is the brash 24-year-old YouTube star who has more than 50 million social media followers and has become the face of the influencer fighting trend over the past 18 months. Paul’s older brother, the similarly famous Logan Paul, has also been fighting in buzzworthy bouts, but unlike Jake, Logan’s have largely been exhibitions, like his recent one with Floyd Mayweather.

Several other celebrity and digital-influencer boxing events have popped up over the past year, despite skepticism among some in the fighting world — both stakeholders and fans — who believe the trend is making a mockery of a once venerable sport.

Regardless of the debate, the Paul brothers and other key players in the space have turned the trend into increasingly sizable business opportunities.

Jake Paul is now licensed as a professional boxer and is undefeated at 3-0, fighting in fully sanctioned bouts. But before Espinoza made the significant investment into Paul, he needed to know if he was serious about the opportunity in front of him.

“As we started talking to him, it was very clear that Jake’s intentions were to develop a long-term boxing career,” Espinoza said. “It’s unusual for us to get involved with a boxer at such an early stage in their career. But then again, this is a unique situation.”

As the Cleveland-born Paul gets ready to fight former UFC star Tyron Woodley on Aug. 29 at Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse in his hometown, his budding career has become one of the hottest and most controversial topics in all of combat sports.

With a dearth of modern-day boxing superstars in America, and because Paul’s fan are so passionate, his fights have instantly generated impressive business metrics that are as good or greater than some of the biggest fighters in the world.

That’s caught the eye of the traditional boxing and combat sport executives like Espinoza, who summed things up succinctly at the Paul-Woodley prefight press conference last month, telling the assembled media: “We weren’t the first one to the party, but we know a good party when we see one.”

The concept of novelty fights also has caught the eye of traditional sports marketing players like Wasserman, whose boxing arm announced a deal in June to form a new promotional company that will put on celebrity fights.

Terms of Showtime’s deal with Paul, announced earlier this year, have not been publicly disclosed. But Paul’s adviser, BAVAFA Sports founder and former UFC executive Nakisa Bidarian, told Sports Business Journal that the deal is for multiple fights. Sources said Paul is set to earn low eight figures per fight — a money level that is almost never seen for a fighter who has only had three sanctioned fights.

Before Showtime, Paul was associated with DAZN and Triller Fight Club, the latter of which being the upstart combat sports promoter owned by the social media app Triller and rapper Snoop Dogg. Triller has helped fuel the influencer boxing trend in recent years with several events of its own.

Paul’s upcoming fights could be important indicators as to how sustainable the trend can be. Celebrity boxing has been an attraction for decades, but add in the social following of today’s superstars, and the concept has fresh legs.

“We want to be a one-stop destination for all kind of combat sports,” Espinoza said. “We’ve built a long reputation with high-level championship boxing … and this is another genre within the sport of boxing. Is it championship-level fighting? Not yet, but it could get there. And it’s a good complement to all the other combat sports we have.”

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The current pattern is largely viewed as having started with Logan Paul’s fight versus British YouTube star Olajide Olayinka Williams Olatunji, better known as KSI, in England in 2018. The event aired on a pay-per-view YouTube channel, and the fighters were introduced by legendary boxing announcer Michael Buffer. The event reportedly garnered 1.3 million PPV buys, making it the largest non-pro PPV match of all time.

Jake Paul's social media following

YouTube: 20.5 million

Instagram: 16.6 million

TikTok: 14.5 million

Facebook: 5.8 million

Twitter: 4 million

Jake Paul’s first fight was in early 2020 before the pandemic started, and it generated little buzz in the U.S. But when Paul knocked out former NBA player Nate Robinson in November as an undercard match put on by Triller to a Mike Tyson-Roy Jones Jr. main event that ended in a split draw, Paul’s win became the story of the night on social media. That night turned into one of the most buzzworthy matches boxing had in all of 2020, and while part of that was due to the Tyson-Jones fight, another part of it showed that Paul could bring significant attention to the fighting world.

Paul’s third and most recent fight was a knockout of former UFC fighter Ben Askren at Atlanta’s Mercedez-Benz Stadium in April, which was the main event of the evening. Paul said afterward that the event did 1.3 million PPV buys, though UFC President Dana White — who has gotten into a public war of words with Paul — disputed that figure and said Paul was “full of shit” for saying the event did so well.

Other examples of the influencer boxing trend include the “Social Gloves: Battle of the Platforms” event this year that pitted YouTube stars versus TikTok stars; the Celebrity Boxing property that pitted former NBA player Lamar Odom versus singer Aaron Carter in June; and the Bare Knuckle Fighting Championship, which included a couple influencers fighting each other in a broader event in July that also included traditional fighters.

In some cases, the biggest hits have come to the bottom line. Billboard recently reported that the Social Gloves event lost at least $10 million and is now dealing with investors, including NBA superstar James Harden, who are trying to recoup their money. Page Six reported that Harden is attempting to recoup around $2 million.

Triller Fight Club is taking unique approaches toward influencer fights. For example, it held a new monthly event called TrillerVerz for the first time last week at Hulu Theater at Madison Square Garden, where it combined boxing and a rap battle between iconic hip-hop groups Dipset and The Lox into a singular event that sold out its 4,800-seat configuration. Triller is also doing bouts with legendary retired fighters, such as the Tyson-Jones bout as well as one next month that will see Oscar De La Hoya come out of retirement and fight Vitor Belfort.

All of Triller’s boxing events have been profitable, founder Ryan Kavanaugh told SBJ, and he credits that to the company taking a “four-quadrant” approach where it melds sports, music, fashion and culture programming that appeals to both older and younger people.

Kavanaugh said Triller saw a lack of connectivity between combat sports and younger generations. “For us, by putting together music, fashion, culture and sports, it’s a way of trying to engage that younger audience – and it’s been working.”

The four-hour Tyson-Jones fight night featured everything from Snoop Dogg being a commentator to a match-up of sports legends with Tyson and Jones, as well as influencer boxing with Paul. The show featured musical performances from rappers Lil Wayne, Wiz Khalifa and DaBaby, and had sponsorship from brands like cannabis technology app Weedmaps. The PPV cost was $50.

Other traditional boxing promoters are now catching on. For example, Lou DiBella, the boxing promoter who also is the president and managing general partner of the Richmond Flying Squirrels minor league baseball team, plans an event later this month called “Take Me Out To The Brawl Game” at the Flying Squirrels’ ballpark that will feature boxing and a rap concert.

Heading into the Paul-Woodley fight later this month, Espinoza said ticket sales are strong but that he’s been particularly struck by strong sponsor interest. He said the interest spans both traditional and non-traditional boxing sponsors. The only announced partner to date is Barstool Sportsbook, which is expected to be heavily involved with the broadcast on Showtime.

Espinoza noted that what makes Paul so unique is how he’s developing his career as a professional fighter. Typically, a fighter builds his way up in the sport with little notoriety until he starts winning regularly, and only then does he build a fanbase that can deliver impressive returns for an event. But with Paul, Espinoza noted, “He developed an audience, the following, the persona, the self promotion – and now, he’s trying to reverse engineer that into a boxing career on top of it.”

Paul has a fairly big body, with a 6-foot-1-inch frame that holds around 190 pounds, and Espinoza said he “has definitely shown enough skills and promise that we’re willing to take the ride with him.” In terms of comparisons to other people who have ever been able to pull off such a feat, Bidarian, Paul’s advisor, could only point to Brock Lesnar, the WWE wrestler who went onto have a UFC career.

“One thing about the Pauls – they’re bonafide athletes,” said Mike Weber, COO of Fite TV, which is owned by Triller and will stream the Paul-Woodley event alongside Showtime’s linear TV offering. “Are they seasoned boxing veterans? They’re getting closer, but they’re certainly not going to embarrass themselves. They’re very credible guys.”

Paul’s next bout is Aug. 29 against Tyron Woodley (right). getty images

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Still, not all broadcasters are sold on the influencer boxing trend. Bill Wanger, Fox Sports’ executive vice president and head of programming and scheduling who oversees boxing, told SBJ that he thinks it’s “a little bit of a flash in the pan.” Fox has rights to the Premier Boxing Champions property.

“These guys have tremendous followings, no doubt, and some of them have skills, but you’re talking about amateurs versus professionals — and it’s tough to see a long-term path with that genre. But they’ve certainly had some successes, so more power to them,” Wanger said. “We’re into professional boxing versus the amateur exhibitions.”

Bidarian said he and Paul have started mapping out other fights as they put together the blueprint for a long-term career. Paul has said he wants to fight UFC star Conor McGregor, and that talks have already begun. The Woodley fight will cost $60 for the PPV access.

Bidarian, who has former stops with UFC as well as Fertitta Entertainment, said he’s helping Paul build out a well-rounded career, complete with a charitable foundation that will use boxing to combat bullying, and a promotions company, Most Valuable Promotions, which will produce or co-produce his fights.

Paul is also becoming a backer of other fighters, making several comments in media interviews accusing UFC’s White of under-paying his fighters and also publicly supporting boxer Amanda Serrano, who will appear in a fight on the undercard of the Cleveland event this month.

Bidarian said at this point, numbers will bear out that Paul is already in the Top 3 of the biggest draws in boxing in America. Still, there’s work to be done and challenges Paul will have to overcome. He has admitted that many in combat sports would like to see him lose, and Bidarian is particularly focused on trying to get Paul mainstream sports media coverage to help legitimize him. It appears to be working, as outlets like ESPN have provided extensive coverage of Paul’s rising boxing career.

But true to his origin, Paul has also been focused on giving social media followers access into his life. He has more than 16 million Instagram followers, and in a recent video that got more than 1.7 million views, he showed off one of his sparring sessions. He has 14.5 million followers on TikTok, where he showed off a different video showing him training for the fight that had nearly 350,000 likes.

“The sky is the limit at this point,” Espinoza added. “He’s got a huge built-in audience, he’s demonstrated the ability to bring that over to his boxing endeavors, which is something in itself that his audience travels with him — all the ingredients to be successful outside the ring are there.

“And in terms of his long-term future within the sport, that’ll be determined by how he develops in the ring.”

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