Brand Strategy

How Top Rank Boxing is fighting to rebrand the sport for the masses

The boxing promotion and production company is aiming to knock down some barriers to access for viewers and advertisers alike.
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· 5 min read

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If there’s one thing that many people have been able to agree on over the centuries, it’s that it’s fun to watch two people punch each other.

Boxing is one of the oldest sports in the world, and among the first to draw mass crowds, according to Morgan Dewan, the chief brand officer of boxing production and promotion company Top Rank Boxing, which produces fights, facilitates brand deals, and represents about 60 fighters, including World Boxing Council heavyweight champ Tyson Fury and Olympic gold medalist Vasiliy Lomachenko. But in the modern era, boxing seems to have gone the way of the flip phone, skinny jeans, and side parts. It’s just not as popular as it used to be.

For some viewers, that may be because the sport is complicated to follow. There’s no dedicated league, but there are up to 17 different weight classes in men’s professional boxing alone that athletes might compete in. Beyond that, there are four different governing bodies that hand out championship belts.

“If we’re trying to get casual sports fans to come in and try our product, we have to simplify some of this or provide context or education,” Dewan told Marketing Brew.

In an effort to bring in more viewers and court more advertisers, Top Rank is embarking on a mission to rebrand the sport of boxing.

One-two punch

Boxing is somewhat of a cottage industry, Dewan said, with most people who work in the industry having grown up around the sport or worked in it for decades. Dewan comes from a more traditional sports background, having worked for Bleacher Report, Turner Sports, and Spurs Sports & Entertainment, the company that owns the San Antonio Spurs.

Part of her mandate at Top Rank, where she started in February, has been to bring a “beginner’s eye to the sport,” she said. To that end, she spends much of her time thinking about how storytelling around fighters could help boxing connect with a wider audience.

“There’s the action that’s in the ring, but the connection to boxing and the connection to the fighters becomes so much more powerful when you understand their backstories,” Dewan said.

The action and the backstories have traditionally been more challenging for casual consumers to access, as fights are typically shown on pay-per-view. That’s something Top Rank has been working to change. In 2017, it signed a four-year deal with ESPN (which has since been extended to last through August 2025) that puts dozens of Top Rank fights on the network and on ESPN+.

That media rights deal with ESPN is Top Rank’s biggest revenue stream, Dewan said, and it also helps get stories in front of more audiences, since it provides Top Rank with a platform for “shoulder programming,” which includes content focused on the lives of up-and-coming fighters and incumbent champions.

Throwing hands brands

Shoulder programming can also attract another audience: advertisers. For brands that might not be ready to appear next to actual fighting in the ring, supporting adjacent content, like ring walks and training videos, is a potential alternative. That programming is “way more brand-safe for brands who might not want to stick their whole foot into a combat sport right out of the gate,” Dewan said.

That strategy seems to be working. In early 2021, sponsorships for Top Rank matches on ESPN were “very minimal,” CRO Brian Kelly, who joined the organization that April, said. But more than two years later, the number of brand partners is up 342%, and up 75% compared to last year. In all, sponsorship revenue is nearing eight figures in 2023, he said. Partners have included Bud Light, Sony Pictures, Paramount, and AutoZone, Kelly said.

Top Rank’s audience, which according to Kelly skews heavily toward Hispanic viewers and younger Black men, can be a selling point for some of those brands, he said. Another perk: Boxing sponsorships tend to be less expensive than some other sports, he said, and it’s a relatively uncluttered environment, which can be rare even in newer sports like pickleball.

“A lot of these leagues have 15, 20, 25 official marketing partners, categories getting broken out by subsets, and it becomes very, very crowded, whereas [in] boxing, we want to be more selective,” he said.

Marketing champs

Going forward, Top Rank’s efforts to reintroduce boxing to new audiences may include taking a page out of the books of influencers, like YouTubers turned boxers Logan and Jake Paul, and Tommy Fury, who appeared on Love Island.

While Dewan said Top Rank isn’t looking to sign boxers because of their social media skills, they’re looking to get their own athletes up to speed. Top Rank offers social media classes to help its boxers with ways to make themselves more marketable, she said.

Building a marketing strategy designed to attract new audiences while also keeping hold of longtime fans is a “fine line to walk,” Dewan said, but it’s one many leagues have had to navigate in order to move their sports forward.

“Sometimes you’re going to have to do things that feel redundant, or that the hardcore fans don’t like as much, but you have to be willing to test and try, and also tell yourself it’s not that serious. It’s sports. There’s a seriousness about aspects of it, but we have to keep having fun and experimenting…in order to grow the sport collectively,” she said.

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