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Boxing: The time is nigh for small promoters in New York

When it comes to boxing New York City has long been one sport’s hallowed grounds. Some of the biggest and most consequential fights including the first of the Muhammad Ali-Joe Frazier trilogy were held at Madison Square Garden, adding credence to the building’s moniker as ‘The World’s Most Famous Arena.’ Even as the sport moved towards casinos over the last three decades New York City and MSG were still seen as a marker for boxers to show they were the elite in the sport. That clout has buoyed local promoters in bringing in talent and building their identities.

That may have changed for the worse on August 31st.

On that day the New York State Athletic Commission, in a meeting that took less time than some smoke breaks, unanimously voted to adopt health insurance provisions which were part of the April bill that legalized mixed martial arts in the state. Those provisions included a raise of basic health coverage from $10,000 to $50,000 and more consequentially a requirement for promoters to get insurance bonds of $1 million for each fighter in case of head injuries. That insurance bond has boxing promoters and fans in the state worried about the prospects of the sport in the future.

The main reason for the concern mainly falls on how boxing cards are structured. While television audiences can see boxing cards being as short as one fight and as long as four fights the reality is cards are normally six to 11 fights long depending on the scope of the main event. This means promoters have to spend between $12 and $22 million in the insurance bonds alone. This is before taking into account other expenses like production, ring construction, ring models, security, sanctioning fees, and the purses of the fighters.

The impact of this policy has already been felt as Lou DiBella, arguably the biggest boxing promoter in the state, citing the insurance bonds cancelled a September 24 Premier Boxing Champions card that was supposed to be held at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center, which has become the more recent boxing hotbed in recent years in the tri-city area. Also, a rematch fight between World Boxing Association ‘regular’ middleweight champion Daniel Jacobs and Sergio Mora was held last Friday in Reading, PA rather than in Brooklyn where Jacobs is from.

The insurance bonds are dealing more of a blow to local promotions. Star Boxing according to a report from Mitch Abramson of The Ring Magazine made their case before the commission that the bonds were unaffordable. The promotion, which handles Long Island natives like welterweight Chris Algieri and light heavyweight Joe Smith Jr. still have two dates in Long Island scheduled this year. However, those dates can go away thanks to the vote on Wednesday.

A possible alternative is the Turning Stone Casino in Verona since it’s run by the Oneida Indian Nation. It has hosted fights like the 2015 Fight of The Year candidate between junior welterweights Lucas Matthysse and Ruslan Provodnikov. The location and the size of the venue may be more appealing for small promoters. However it still pales in economic comparison to New York City.

There is still likely to be boxing in the city as both MSG, and Barclays Center have dates on hold for boxing events in December, but those holds are being done by much larger groups like Golden Boy Promotions who might be able to afford the insurance bonds. The cards, even if it’s coming from a company as large as Golden Boy, have to be big enough to get the money for the bonds. That may mean hiking prices for tickets and merchandise, an issue that is already plaguing sports in general as it is driving the average consumer out.

Small promoters are needed in general for the sport to survive in various regions. They help give local fighters chances to work on their trade and keep local venues in business. In New York, which has a rich history of fighters ranging from Sugar Ray Robinson to Mike Tyson, it has been a launching pad to bigger things. Should the insurance bonds stay as they are promoters like Star Boxing, who would like to capitalize from Smith Jr’s upset knockout win over Andrzej Fonfara, will have to move their operations out of the state? That means dealing with new regulations along with local politics in a new area on a full-time basis. Otherwise, small promoters in New York will have to adopt the business model of Main Events, a promotion that while having light heavyweight kingpin Sergey Kovalev on the roster no longer has a base of operations in New Jersey outside its’ corporate office.

Economics plays a factor in both cases. In the case of Main Events, it saw Atlantic City never fully recover from the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy and therefore making it no longer feasible to be the local base for fight cards. When it comes to New York promoters, it’s seeing measures that on principle are good for the sport especially after the brain injuries suffered by heavyweight Magomed Abdusalamov in 2013 driving all but the biggest fish away.

The NYSAC knows this is an issue and wants it addressed, but it doesn’t want to implement that change. Rather the NYSAC wants any changes to the insurance bond to be changed by the body that implemented it in the first place, the New York State Legislature. There are three problems with the solution coming from Albany. First, it’s the optics that can appear from being ‘on the wrong side of athlete safety.’ Second, it’s the fact the insurance bond was mainly drafted as a poison pill measure to keep MMA illegal. Lastly, it’s the fact that this means county on an entity that as recently as 2015 has seen the leaders of both the Democratic-controlled State Assembly and the Republican-controlled State Senate be convicted on corruption charges.

Boxing as a sport has been resilient over the decades but has seen itself become a niche product at the same time. Losing New York as a venue for local fighters and promoters will only cement that status further. While the NYSAC made its bed with the insurance bond due to negligence, it has to lobby lawmakers to make sure the sports doesn’t become what it’s turning into in places like Las Vegas.

That is a place where only the elite can operate at the expense of the little guy.

Robert D. Cobb
Founder, Publisher and CEO of INSCMagazine. Works have appeared and featured in places such as Forbes, Huffington Post, ESPN and NBC Sports to name a few. Follow me on Twitter at @RobCobb_INSC, email me at robert.cobb@theinscribermag.com

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