If you’re a sports fan, last week was quite the week to be a fan. We’re hitting the beginning of Summer so most sports are rather beginning to rev’ up the excitement or are culminating with fantastic finishes. And that’s exactly what happened last week, where no less than five major championships were rather claimed or reclaimed across the entire sports world.
The latest one to be won was on Saturday. Terrance Crawford, boxing’s undisputed Lightweight and Junior Welterweight Champion was facing Welterweight Champion, Jeff Horn, who gained his title by beating megastar Manny Pacquiao. Crawford was the odds-on favorite to win. He’s easily one of the more talented boxers in the post-Mayweather/Pacquiao era. He’s just as fast, crafty, packs a punch and isn’t at all easy to hit. Eight of his last 10 fights have ended early and this would prove to be no exception. For someone who went 12 rounds with a hard-hitting fighter known for exciting knockouts in Manny Pacquiao, Jeff Horn was clearly out of his league. The fight was just a clear display to see how above and beyond Crawford is in the sport. I should know.
A bit of background, I’m a boxing fan from way back. Like many guys my age and environment, I grew up with boxing Pay-Per-Views being as big of a deal as the Super Bowl in my household and extended network of family and friends. Whenever Mike Tyson, Sugar Ray Leonard or a “Sweetpea” Whitaker had a fight, it was an event. Through the 1990s, those events centered on the heavyweight division and the Evander Holyfield-Riddick Bowe trilogy. By this time, my passion was lit. I wanted to continue to see the never-ending soap opera of returning champions and insurgent contenders. However, my family didn’t.
By the late 90s, Mike Tyson was a shell of himself and the title was undisputedly held by British-born Lennox Claudius Lewis. He was a tough guy for American audiences to follow. Though he was black, he was wasn’t American. He stood straight up. Coming off an era where Tyson mauled most of his opponents in minutes, Lewis was more methodical. You had to appreciate his craft. But if that wasn’t bad enough, the reign that followed the British, but black Lennox Lewis, was the Ukranian (actual) doctors Vitali Klitschko and his brother Wladimir Klitschko. Names you probably would spell wrong if you weren’t a fan. American audiences that drove boxing for decades were disinterested in the Klitschkos. And for a while, I could not understand why. No, they were not Mike Tyson with a slew of early round knockouts, but don’t get it twisted, they were called “Dr. Steelhammer” and “Dr. Ironfist” for a reason. Ninety percent of their fights ended early. They were every bit of the knockout artist as Tyson was. And that’s what people are drawn to in combat sports, beating the holy-hell out of your opponent, but boxing, lead by the popular heavyweight division waned in popularity in the 2000s. In it’s place sprung up another combat sport, Mixed Martial Arts and Dana White’s promotion UFC.
Which leads me back to Saturday night and my drive to go watch the Crawford-Horn match. I hoped to go to my local sports bar and see if they would have a stream of the fight and when I walked in, the bar was sparsely populated. It wasn’t as full as I’ve seen on most Sundays during football season, not even as much as a Monday or Thursday. But everyone was glued to the screens above watching the UFC Pay-Per-View with Holly Holm and Meghan Anderson. I did not stay long. They weren’t showing the boxing match I wanted to see and I’m not a MMA fan. Honestly, I think the action is often much more slower and aesthetically unpleasing than boxing. Again, we watch these sports to see someone get knocked the heck out. There’s not only no guarantee of that in MMA but some don’t even see it as a focus.
So I left. However, not before I heard a bit of a ruckus from the crowd gathered when Holm took a couple of solid shots to the face. And it just made me wonder, “if these guys are excited by someone taking two solid shots in the face in an octagon, why wouldn’t they be excited for one of the best champions absolutely destroying his competition in the ring?”
I wondered… but in reality, I knew. I can look at those in the bar and the competitors on the screen. Of course it isn’t at all universal, but the popularity of a sport has been endemically linked to the make up of those competing within it. It took me back to a few days prior, the first championship won that week, the Stanley Cup in the NHL. Washington Capitals, perennial playoff losers were playing the Vegas Golden Knights a team that was literally in uncharted territory since they took the ice last October as an expansion team. When the Capitals won the series clinching game 5, I noticed my social media accounts light up with a litany of updates about the win. And many of them were from friends who I never knew to post anything about hockey or sports at all. Again, it wasn’t universal, but the majority of those updates were from friends that were white. Meanwhile, the night following the NHL finale and the night before the Crawford title match, the NBA ended their season with the Golden State Warriors beating the Cleveland Cavaliers, winning their 3rd title in four years. And the majority of my social media updates on the NBA Finals were from friends that were black.
Now, of course I understand that my social media timelines are fully anecdotal, but they are representative of the audiences that typically watch these sports. Nielsen Media Research tracks demographic data of those watching television programs across the nation. Sports like NASCAR and hockey, which are predominately participated by white males, invariably have audiences that are consistently greater than 90% white, whereas basketball and football, which are two sports with the highest involvement of black athletes, are watched by more African-Americans. Granted, there have been studies from both Florida Atlantic and Penn State that have linked our sports consumption to other factors like wealth, class and accessibility moreso than race, but even each of those have a racial component. It’s easier for a black kid to buy a cheap basketball and go a the park with a hoop than to spend hundreds of dollars at a golf course. Or getting a group of latino kids from the barrio to hit a $.79 ball with a stick is more easier to do than to get those same kids on a frozen lake in Central or South America. However much a sport is accessible to us, socialization still plays a significant role as well. Which is probably want grounded my passion for boxing to begin with.*
That said, if you look at the two sports I started this piece with, boxing and MMA, they’ve seen similar trends in viewership reflected by those participating in it. A recent study of both sports found nearly double the amount of viewers for boxing are black or latino than compared to MMA. And while black fighters have found easier fortunes in other athletic pursuits that are more accessible, many of the top tier boxers are black. Many others are Latino and Eastern European. There are very few white Western European or American boxers with much success in recent years. Such a demographic is far more common in MMA, with fighters like Conor McGregor, Chris Wideman, T.J. Dillashaw, Holly Holm and Stephen Thompson have found success. As a boxing fan, I’d be hard-press to come up with a similar list of fighters in the sport.*
And also, to not be left out of the discussion, Rafael Nadal won his 11th French Open championship in tennis and when asked if women tennis players like Venus Williams, Maria Sharapova and Caroline Wozniacki(names likely bigger than his) should be paid equal to their male counterparts, he noted that their earnings should be linked to viewership. He compared it to modeling where female models routinely make more than their male counterparts because they have a larger following and recently, Women’s tennis has been similar.
Now this week, countries across the world will begin play in the 2018 World Cup of soccer. In a few years, those same countries will be joined by more in the 2020 Summer Olympics. We don’t think this way, but it is not at all uncommon for citizens of their own nation to cheer for their home nation in such worldwide events. Just look at how American boxing fans that flooded pay-per-view buys watching Americans like Mike Tyson and Floyd Mayweather spend less money on England’s Lennox Lewis or Ukraine’s Wladimir Klitschko. Moreover, even within our national sphere of sports, it is not uncommon for fans to cheer for teams local to where they’re from. Virginians on my timeline watched and cheered for the Capitals just as Californians on my timeline cheered for the Warriors. But when those same connections to familiar demographics become racially defined, it’s then more frowned upon. Perhaps it is seen that if I know nothing of the sport but cheer for the black Terrance Crawford to beat the white Jeff Horn, I am in a way endorsing a form of overt racism. But if we do slow down and think about how we connect to sports, we connect with who and what is familiar. And consciously or not, that does include race. And it’s not because we think the opposing or unwatched race is lesser than, but a common connection to who we are and where we’re from is a comfort zone. So if we were to look at it just as with the teams and clubs where we’re located, from a certain point of view our race is also a home team. And you always root for the home team, fan or not.
Update #1: I just saw an interview with L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti, where he mentioned with winning the Olympic bid for 2028 that the city could see a similar effect that it did in 1984 when a surplus in revenue funded the kind of inner city facilities that brought tennis to Compton allowing for successes like Venus and Serena Williams. And with the recent announcement of the World Cup coming to North America in 2026, it’s very possible we could see another such spike in talent and exposure.
Update #2: After a bit of reconsideration, I’ve remember that I do know of an recently reactive Western fighter, former Heavyweight Champion from England, Tyson Fury. After winning the title he celebrated a little too hard and had to quit boxing for a while due to health related reasons… Looking at you Alex Ovechkin.