When two men square up in a Los Angeles boxing ring on Saturday it promises to be one of the year’s biggest fights. With ticket prices of up to $725 at the 21,000-capacity Staples Center and a home audience of millions via media outlets such as Sky Sports, it will also be among the most lucrative.
But this is no prize fight. The competitors are not even known for their boxing. Logan Paul, a 24-year-old LA resident, and KSI, who hails from the English town of Watford, are “YouTubers” whose gaming, songs and antics have won them more than 40m subscribers on Google’s video-sharing platform alone.
They are among a new wave of social media celebrities who have gained mass global followings among “Generation Z” — the cohort born since the mid-1990s that followed the millennials — yet are virtually unknown to anyone older.
“A year and a half ago I had no idea who Logan Paul and KSI were,” said Adam Smith, head of boxing at Sky Sports.
The fight, for which they have been certified as professional boxers, is a rematch of a tied amateur contest in the UK last year that sold out the 15,000-seat Manchester Arena. More than a million fans paid £7.50 to watch the official live stream on YouTube, with many more accessing it via illegal streams.
That was with limited coverage in traditional media, and with the boxing world paying more attention to a contest the same night at London’s O2 Arena.
“I asked my 12-year-old son who’s going to win,” said Mr Smith. “He said KSI, and I didn’t know what he was talking about.”
This year more media groups have got in on the action and the fight has been hyped with a torrent of coverage in the press and on TV. Saturday’s face-off will be broadcast on Sky Sports Box Office as well as sports streaming service DAZN and will be promoted by Matchroom.
“Its probably going to be the biggest fight of the year” said Tim Crow, a sports marketing consultant. “It’s guaranteed to have a very big audience and a lot of the people who watch won’t traditionally watch boxing.
While last year’s event was pay-per-view only, the YouTubers’ management have opted for a different model in some markets, with Saturday’s fight to be aired by subscription services DAZN in eight countries including the US, Brazil and Germany and FITE TV in 75 countries including its biggest market, Japan.
“We hope that executives and major professionals see that these guys are here to stay,” said Jeffrey Levin, Mr Paul’s manager. “Big boxing promoters are actually giving them the time that they deserve.”
Sky Sports, DAZN, FITE, Matchroom and representatives for Mr Paul and KSI declined to discuss financial details.
DAZN, the sports media group owned by billionaire Len Blavatnik’s Access Industries, believes the fight can boost its subscriber base, which is estimated to be in the millions.
“The beauty of it is that it’s a completely brand new audience . . . this could be a significant moment of subscription growth for us,” said Joe Markowski, DAZN’s executive vice-president for North America.
DAZN is pushing to become the world’s dominant platform for boxing. Last year it struck an eight-year, $1bn deal with promoter Eddie Hearn’s Matchroom to stream 16 fights a year as well as a $365m agreement to screen Mexican boxer Saul “Canelo” Alvarez’s next 11 fights, one of the biggest deals for a single athlete in sports history.
Sky Sports is charging £9.95 for Saturday’s fight, a discount to the usual £19.95 for blockbuster bouts as it seeks to showcase its service to a new group of consumers.
“It’s a very different world for us to be getting involved in,” said Mr Smith. “This is a real opportunity for us to engage an audience that may not know much about boxing.”
The first match had 1.1m paid views despite high levels of piracy and hacking.
Liam Chivers, founder of the digital talent management group OP that represents KSI and the mastermind behind the broadcast deals, believes this year’s contest will generate “millions” more than the first because of the involvement of groups such as DAZN and Sky Sports, which have expertise in combating pirate sports streaming.
“This time nothing impacts the return on pay-per-view. We’ve been given this huge budget of several million to go and make this.”
Paul and KSI are in line for a windfall from the fight, which they have been promoting heavily on their social media channels.
Both are already wealthy, cashing in on ad revenues from their billions of YouTube views while also selling their own clothing lines. Paul earned an estimated $14.5m before taxes and fees in the year to June 2018, according to Forbes, which estimated KSI’s net worth at $5m even before the pair’s first bout in August last year.
Paul’s recently released boxing documentary The Maverick, named after his fighter alias, was viewed 4m times within two days. In his own take on the “trash talking” familiar between boxers ahead of a big fight, he has also posted videos with titles such as KSI MADE ME CRY and KSI STOLE MY DOG to ramp up the rivalry.
“It’s bringing a lot of new fans into boxing because the power of these YouTubers with their millions of fans means that they bring an audience with them,” said Mr Crow. “This isn't the sort of gimmick that a lot of people claimed it was after the first fight.”
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