In keeping with boxing promoters past and present, Kalle Sauerland isn’t shy of making a bold statement.
“For me, this is a massive deal for the industry in terms of bringing in the largest sports agency into boxing. That alone, from a business perspective, is ginormous,” he tells SportsPro.
The 44-year-old is, of course, referring to Wasserman’s acquisition of Team Sauerland last month, a move that sees the creation of a new dedicated boxing division within the agency which will now handle everything from athlete marketing to fight cards.
Sauerland, whose father Wilfried founded the eponymous German promotional company in 1978, has several reasons to be smiling about the deal, which Boxing News reports commanded a multimillion pound sum. The backing of Wasserman, which represents more than 2,000 clients across 42 sports, means the stage is set for Sauerland to not only stand toe to toe with other powerhouse promoters but, as he puts it, go to “a whole new level”.
Not that he was actively chasing external investment.
“You could call it a lockdown deal,” Sauerland explains. “We got a call off Wassermann at the London office and we went back and forth and prepared a little something because we were never geared for a sale as such.
“At the beginning, we weren't sure what sort of partnership it would end up being. We had time to look at it and really see what it could do. You could look at it as a straight acquisition but it's beyond that. The idea is to really create something very new in boxing and that came about through nine months of discussions and us really learning about the Wasserman business and them learning about our business.
“What boxing is now is far off the days of being a classic promoter and doing your own shows. A boxing promotion company is a multitude of different things now especially with the development of OTT platforms and the way that promoters work. In old times you didn't see many co-promotions. Now, I think maybe five per cent of big events are actually promotions by a single promoter.”
Wilfried Sauerland (left) founded Team Sauerland in 1978
Sauerland, who will front Wasserman Boxing, is no stranger to co-promoting events. Alongside his brother Nisse, his career has seen him work with the likes of Evander Holyfield, David Haye, Mikkel Kessler and George Groves, to name but a few, across mainland Europe and further afield. However, he says his insistence on working “from top to bottom” on a country-by-country basis, requiring extensive local contracts as opposed to “global deals with global platforms”, wasn’t sustainable.
“We saw that to do this long term with a sustained impact, we didn't have the infrastructure and no promoter on planet earth can say that they have that. It's simply not there,” Sauerland continues.
“Wasserman has 1,200 employees, 30 offices. When you talk about employees, you're talking about some of the highest-level people in sport with a huge amount of knowhow. We've thrown curveballs at the UK for many, many years but we couldn't sustain that effort in the UK. We were simply too stretched.
“We were doing Germany, Scandinavia, Eastern Europe, Russia, things in the US. We never saw ourselves as a UK stable because we weren't. We were more European, I would say. That's something that will change now, not just with the UK but certain markets that we target. We will be able to have a sustained impact on that market and not just simply sign individual business cases.”
Sauerland doesn’t just refer to himself as a promoter but also an entrepreneur, mainly due to the single-mindedness often needed to get deals over the line. That can be a lonely existence. The glitz and glamour of fight night only comes after countless hours spent at the negotiating table. Once the bell sounds, boxing becomes a very simple sport. It’s everything else around it that creates complexity.
In recent years, Sauerland has also found himself competing in a crowded market, with the likes of Matchroom, Top Rank, Queensbury and Golden Boy all jostling for space. In the UK alone the market has come roaring back, epitomised by the 80,000 who flocked to Wembley in 2014 for the Carl Froch versus George Groves rematch. The attendance, a British post-war record until beaten by Anthony Joshua’s knockout victory over Wladimir Klitschko in 2017, was in stark contrast to the early 2000s, which Sauerland refers to as a “barren landscape”.
Wasserman has more than 2,000 clients on its books across 42 sports, including Premier League winner Jamie Vardy
Today, the likes of Sky Sports, BT Sport, Channel 5, BoxNation, IFL TV and even Dave, better known for repeats of Top Gear, have all broadcast fights in Britain. DAZN is also making more inroads, having reportedly secured a nine-figure deal with Matchroom for exclusive UK and Ireland rights to Eddie Hearn’s stable.
All this added competition could breed innovation. Sauerland is keen to state that it’s an exciting time in boxing, a feeling undoubtedly helped by having an agency with the size and scope of Wasserman in his corner.
“If you look at the US market, in 2017 you had HBO and Showtime and that was pretty much it,” he says. “I would guesstimate – and it's a pretty bloody good guesstimate – that the market had a value of US$70 million per annum plus pay-per-view on top.
“Those numbers, they trickle down. It's a Christmas tree effect. It's not just in the US. You're telling me that there isn't going to be an ESPN global eventually? You're telling me DAZN hasn't gone global? Well, they have. And there will be others to follow. We haven't even touched on the likes of Amazon, Facebook and others like that.
“You've suddenly got players with very strong financial numbers and they're all going into new markets. It's very exciting times but it's very difficult to read as well.”
World champions David Haye and George Groves are among the high-profile boxers to have been promoted by Sauerland
In terms of what to expect from Sauerland and Wasserman’s in the coming months, a bumper card featuring Chris Eubank Jr is being targeted for late July or August, depending on Covid restrictions. There’s also the Tyson Fury versus Joshua juggernaut to navigate, though a date for that bout is still not confirmed. Events of that magnitude are what Sauerland is striving for, as is adding established fighters and top prospects to a roster that currently includes three-time cruiserweight world champion Mairis Briedis and hotly tipped heavyweight Filip Hrgović.
“Judge us by what we do in the next six to nine months,” Sauerland says. “The announcement was an acquisition, then Kalle goes out and says that the industry will change and this that and the other. You can put that down to promoter talk. I'm a fan of talking the talk but then also walking the walk.
“To give you a little bit more meat on it, from a classic point of view, you look at it as, ‘right they're going to go after broadcast deals, new markets’. Absolutely. But we're also going to go after talent. I'd say the third pillar is we're also going to have a very different approach to a classic promoter in the delivery of content for the media market. That's something that I've always tried to do with our product.”
You've suddenly got players with very strong financial numbers and they're all going into new markets. It's very exciting times but it's very difficult to read as well.
For Sauerland, Wasserman’s acquisition – and its transformative potential for boxing – has parallels with the World Boxing Super Series (WBSS) he helped set up in 2017. Billed as the ‘best of the best’, fighters compete in a knockout format to be crowned the world number one in their division. Having wrapped up its second series last year, which included a prize fund of US$50 million, WBSS is now firmly planted in the boxing psyche. It’s a far cry from the competition’s unveiling in New York almost four years ago, with Sauerland saying the general consensus amongst those gathered ranged from “what the hell is this?” to “it'll never work”.
Sauerland seems satisfied that WBSS doubters have been proved wrong.
“We've broken pretty much every record,” he says with a broad smile. “We've promoted from Tokyo to New Orleans, from Jeddah to Moscow, all over planet earth. This [deal with Wasserman] is for me very similar in a way. All we've announced is a business decision, more or less, but the amount of talk in the industry about it is flattering. It's got a lot of people guessing and really guessing very wrongly.”
The WBSS was launched in 2017
Crucially, Sauerland stresses that WBSS is putting on the fights that fans want to see, something he aims to continue with Wasserman. His mischievous grin returns when asked if other promoters need to do more to get the best bouts signed.
“I think that the WBSS has had rub-off on the industry. It's set the bar very high,” he says. “If you look at 2019, the last normal year in boxing, I think WBSS promoted eight events and two of those made the top five fights of the year, including the final between Naoya Inoue and Nonito Donaire. You look at how many fights a normal promotional stable puts on – 15, 25, something like that, and that speaks for itself.
“If you put together the best against the best, yep, you're going to have to put your hand in your pocket. But I do believe you'll reap the rewards. That's something that I think has had a knock-on effect because broadcasters say: ‘well hold on, WBSS serves us up this and you, in 25 fights, haven't managed to put one in that top five. So what are we actually buying here?’”
Promoters are partial to verbal sparring and while Sauerland may be having a jovial pop at his rivals, he’s well aware of the pressure to satisfy broadcasters with eye-catching matchups.
“Sport lives off 50-50s,” he continues. “The Premier League doesn't live off Manchester City versus Burnley, no offence to Burnley. It lives off Manchester City versus Liverpool, and that's coming from a Tottenham fan.
“It's not rocket science. If you toss a coin it's exciting but if you know what side it's going to land on, or it's a one-headed coin, it's not so interesting.”
Sauerland believes sport “lives off 50-50s” and plans to put on more high-profile fights with Wasserman’s backing
One upcoming fight that should thrill, on paper at least, is Saul ‘Canelo’ Alvarez’s unification super middleweight contest against Billy Joe Saunders on 8th May. Around 60,000 are expected at Texas’ AT&T Stadium, the biggest crowd for a sporting event in the US since the first lockdown.
After months of action behind closed doors or at limited capacity, the frivolity of a Cinco de Mayo weekend could be just the tonic. Reflecting on the last year or so for boxing, Sauerland’s views mirror those held across wider sport – the richest names have been left frustrated but their plight is nothing compared to those lower down the pecking order.
“At the top end, not much has changed. The pandemic has obviously reduced activity but in general boxing has continued to move because top-end fighters are also very big media rights and the media market has been craving for content in that time. So boxing in that sense delivered,” Sauerland explains.
“What worries me is the development of young fighters who've had a year, 15 months of very uncertain times. They haven't been done any favours by any government grants or anything like that. And I'm not even talking about fighters who've had their tenth or 12th pro fight. I'm talking about those who are due to have their pro fight. You can't survive 15 months like that.
“As a boxer, you're going to have to get other work and look at other things. I just hope that there's not too many that have walked away from the sport and that we don't feel that effect later.
“But at the same time I think boxing has done a terrific job of working together. You see some interesting events being put on between promoters who don't normally work together and that's a positive.”
Sauerland is evidently relishing the prospect of the boxing merry-go-round truly getting back up to full speed in 2021. He hails the completion of last year’s WBSS as “a great team effort” even if it was “hell” to reorganise due to the mix of travel restrictions and international fighters, which involved getting a Cuban living in Miami and a Latvian over for a fight in Germany. He says the current state of play today is “very, very interesting”.
Sauerland describes Triller Fight Club’s approach as “beautifully bizarre”
Sauerland’s enthusiasm is shared by many more involved with the sport. Matchroom, Queensbury and Top Rank have the golden goose of Fury versus Joshua, but other promoters new to the fight game have entered the fray.
The most notable has been Triller Fight Club (TFC). The partnership between video social app Triller and US rapper Snoop Dogg plans to reimagine boxing as ‘four-quadrant entertainment’ through enticing fights, celebrities, musical acts and leaning heavily on social media.
TFC’s first fight card of 2021 was headlined by YouTuber Jake Paul’s first round knockout of former Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) athlete Ben Askren. Paul himself claims the event did 1.3 million pay-per-view (PPV) buys, meaning it would have generated approximately US$65 million. The TFC approach has left many hardcore boxing fans feeling perplexed and repulsed. Yet the money-spinning spectacle was always going to spark that.
“Six months ago, no one had heard of Triller. Now it’s on everyone’s tongues,” notes Sauerland, who was speaking to SportsPro the day before the 17th April TFC event.
“I would call it a beautifully bizarre approach. You can't make it up. I think what they're doing is bringing a type of Hollywood production into boxing. It starts with the commentators, it ends with the way that it's staged in terms of them renting these huge venues which they turn into a film set.”
If you put together the best against the best, yep, you're going to have to put your hand in your pocket. But I do believe you'll reap the rewards.
These matchups, which have been labelled in some circles as ‘freak fights’, look set to continue with hall of famer Floyd Mayweather’s bout against Jake Paul’s brother Logan. Mayweather may be 44 years old and coming up to four years since retirement, but the fight, which is landing on Showtime on 6th June, remains a total mismatch. That, though, is far from the point.
“From a production level, it's fantastic what they're doing,” admits Sauerland. “I've been very vocal about Logan Paul calling out Floyd Mayweather and I find something like that ridiculous. But if a YouTuber wants to pick up a pair of gloves and actually train for a boxing fight in a proper manner I have nothing against it.
“To be fair to the Paul brothers, they do seem to be at least taking the sport quite seriously in terms of their training and stuff. I just knock it when I hear ridiculous names getting banded about. If the fights are against other novices I think that's fantastic in a way because they do bring fresh eyeballs to it.”
Eddie Hearn (left) is one of several promoters competing with Sauerland to dominate the boxing market
Love it or loathe it, TFC seems here to stay. The company has already snapped up promotional and broadcast rights for unified lightweight world champion Teófimo López’s fight against George Kambosos Jr, which is pencilled in for 5th June. That commitment was strengthened earlier this month when TrillerNet, TFC’s parent company, bought combat sports streaming platform FITE. The service, which claims to have more than ten million users and four million registered sports and entertainment fans, will now become the exclusive global digital distributor of all TFC events.
“I find it fascinating what they're doing with FITE,” Sauerland says. “That is a really shrewd move and potentially there's a phase two of their game plan that we don't see yet.
“At the end of the day, that part is great for boxing because they're fresh. They have fresh ideas and we might not all agree with some of the ideas but we'll watch it for some reason.
“I will watch the event because I want to see Regis Prograis fight, but my son probably will buy the event because Jake Paul is on it. My daughter might watch because Justin Bieber is singing. What they've done fantastically is get a reason for everyone to watch, so I can see what they're doing and I think they're doing a great job at that. It's one hell of a show that they seem to be putting on.”
TFC being able to attract both the boxing and Bieber enthusiast all forms part of Triller co-owner Ryan Kavanaugh’s masterplan to “go after an audience of a couple of hundred million people”. That would be unprecedented for boxing. Even so, Sauerland has been in the business long enough to know if it’s feasible or not.
“They can make a real go at that niche,” he says.
When boiled down, compelling people to watch is at the core of any sport’s purpose. Sauerland hopes Wasserman’s involvement will usher in an “adventurous future” for boxing as he bids to “repackage” how the sport is shown. Whatever form that takes, fans are set to be given plenty more reasons to tune in.