In 1980, the Washington area made two contributions to boxing -- Ross Fields and Sugar Ray Leonard.
In 1985 . . . ?
"You ready?" asked Shelly Finkel, the rock promoter who is handling the Thomas Hearns-Sugar Ray Leonard bout. "If he's around three years from now, Sugar Ray Leonard is looking at a $30-40 million payday.
"They expect across the country by the middle 1980s that 20 million homes will be wired for pay television," Finkel said. "If half of them tune in and they pay $10 each, that's $100 million. You take the costs off and the profit off, and you give $10 million to your opponent, and he (Leonard) gets the lion's share. For a kid like Sugar Ray, coming out of the Olympics in 1984, the market potential will be staggering."
But he's not going to make it fighting in his own home town. Washington is not destined to go down in history as the fight capital of the country. "I think it's going to be very difficult to have any major type national interest fights at Capital Centre," said Jerry Sachs, the president of Capital Centre. "The economics are such that it doesn't make any sense."
Washington is too valuable as a closed-circuit market to become the site of a major championship and too valuable as a television market to be blacked out during a network fight.
Washington is the eighth-largest television market in the country, with 1.85 percent of total U.S. households with televisions. If Baltimore, the 14th-largest market, were added to Washington, the area would rank fifth in the country.
"The networks are not going to black out Washington," said Mike Trainer, Leonard's lawyer. "So how are you going to be able to sell tickets? That rules out your major markets. It pushes you to smaller areas. That's why Las Vegas is so perfect."
The same principle holds true for closed-circuit fights, because, Sachs said, "the Washington area has such a high per capita spendable income."
So, people like Trainer say, "Why take away from one of your major markets by putting it here live? Put it in Timbuktu, where it is really an attraction."
Or Syracuse, as Trainer did with the Leonard-Larry Bonds fight.
Relatively small arenas, such as Capital Centre, cannot compete with Las Vegas or the Houston Astrodome as indoor facilities. "They price us out of the market," Sachs said. "Boxing promoters are looking at the large indoor football or baseball facilities to take events to where they can get large capacities or large grosses. In Las Vegas boxing draws people into the casinos and the hotels are very interested in that."
Sachs says Capital Centre could not match the gross of a larger facility, such as the Astrodome, without charging an average of $100 or more a ticket for a championship fight.
But the economics of the situation don't make lesser cards any more attractive. Sachs estimates that it would cost the Centre $55,000 to put on a good nationally ranked boxer in a 10-round fight, with an undercard of club fighters. In order to break even, the Centre would have to sell 8,000 seats at an average of $7-8, Sachs said. "Today, people are not looking to see average fights. They see pretty good fights on TV."
If Gillette Friday night fights are boxing's past, then pay and cable television are the future. "Purses are going to get huge with pay TV," said Bob Arum, head of Top Rank Inc. "It boggles the mind.
"Ten years ago, the highest-paid fight was the Ali-Frazier fight in 1971 where each got $2.5 million," Arum continued. "Then you go to 1980 where Sugar Ray Leonard got $10 million for one fight, double what Ali and Frazier got combined. . . That's a good barometer (of where purses are going)."
Network television has been effectively priced out of the market for the top fighters. Leonard, who was created by the networks, now is too rich for their blood. Trainer said, "There will not be a lot of prime-time fights with big-name fighters."
According to Arum, the most any network has ever paid for a prime-time fight is when ABC paid $5.25 million for the second Ali-Spinks fight.
Herb Gross, vice president and director for sports programming at CBS, said, "The limit we can just break even at is $2 1/2-3 million. Unless we're prepared to take a bath, it's going to go to cable."
For those fighters who do not have the right stuff for pay television, there is regular cable. "Cable needs software (programming)," said Bert Sugar, editor of Ring magazine. "Cable needs boxing."
Right now, ESPN is the only television network with a regular, weekly boxing program. "It has shown more fighters in the last year than all the networks combined," Finkel said. "In the past, boxers either starved or made a fortune. Cable television will give regular fighters a chance to make a living. Cable has created a middle class in boxing."
Even the District stands to make money from it. According to York Van Nixon, the chairman of the D.C. Boxing Commission, because of a 1975 law the city now receives 10 percent of the fight revenues collected at each cable outlet in the city. "The commission is predicting the city will get $2-3 million a year," from cable eventually, Van Nixon said.
This does mean there will be no fights on network television. Trainer expects to see an increase of amateur tournaments and "no-name" bouts on the tube. After all, as Gross said, "If you want a good rating, put on boxing. It's the only thing that's almost guaranteed."
As Teddy Brenner, a matchmaker for Top Rank, says, "Nobody likes it but the people. . . Boxing didn't go dead (in the 1950s-60s) because of oversaturation. It was the boxing scandals. That's when the networks started to shy away."
And that's when young boxers started to shy away from the gyms. Since 1976, since Leonard, they have begun to come back. According to Bert Sugar, there were 12,500 boxers worldwide in 1976 compared to more than 25,000 now.
Still, Trainer maintains that boxing "is not a very popular sport. If you had a son, would you want him to box? It's the last thing they have in the schools. Because people don't raise their children to be boxers, the abuses that appear healthwise probably will go unchecked. It doesn't scare anyone. It's not going to happen to anyone in their family."
Even though few promoters look to Washington as a site for their fights, they do look to Washington for help in regulating their industry. Some people in boxing believe that the influx of money into the sport may finally accomplish what eight deaths in 1980 could not. "There has to be (a governing body)," said Arum, "the money is so huge.