The May 2 “fight of the century” wasn’t one for the ages, according to many boxing analysts and fans. But after 12 rounds it did crown a champ, Floyd Mayweather Jr., who beat Manny Pacquiao in a unanimous decision.
The real knockout was pay-per-view, which raked in a record 4.4 million viewers and more than $400 million. Last-minute demand delayed the fight for 45 minutes, but for the boxers and broadcasters it was worth the wait: After each pugilist pulls in over $100 million (a “sweet science,” indeed), cable and satellite services, as well as HBO and Showtime, will profit from fans willing to fork over up to $100 to watch the match.
Meanwhile, the TKO (technological knockout) goes to Periscope and Meerkat, the nearly new video live-streaming services that are the latest digital disruptions to media models. And maybe more: These applications may also upend the sports-media industrial complex itself, as well as Hollywood, advertising and perhaps even the next “fight of the century” — the 2016 election campaign.
Periscope in particular was used by a few fight fans to avoid the steep pay-per-view price. Viewers holding up smartphones to screens streamed the telecast live, and even though the clarity was compromised, the price was right. Some streams were shut down mid-round, but others popped up in a game of free-streaming Whac-A-Mole. Twitter, which owns the app, appeared to want it both ways. It took down dozens of live streams, but that seemed discordant with CEO Dick Costolo’s tweet that Periscope was “the winner” of the night.
If so, it could be a loss for sports leagues and outlets that pay for broadcast rights. Media revenue is integral to and integrated in the symbiotic business models of leagues, teams and networks, and has a stake in stadium and arena financing that often involves public funds. So while Periscope and Meerkat aren’t yet on as many screens as Facebook or Twitter, they’re on the radar screen of sports-media leaders.
“We’re obviously very sensitive to anything such as that, for someone to be able to live-stream is something that concerns us, because we believe that infringes upon our rights,” said Mike Dimond, senior vice president and general manager of Fox Sports North. Dimond believes that an eventual industry response “will be a united front. We’re long-standing partners not only with our individual teams, but with the leagues as a whole, and I think there will be a consensus on how the response will be.”
Conversely, there’s no consensus on how live-streaming election events will, or won’t, impact politics. But “it’s almost like we can map our history of democracy on changes in technology, because they really impact how we engage with campaigns and ultimately how we vote and who we vote for,” said Lindsay Hoffman, associate professor and coordinator for research in technology and politics at the University of Delaware’s Center for Political Communication.
Some seminal examples: Ike’s jingles, which ushered in the TV era that tilted political power from parties to candidates; JFK’s cool debate demeanor eclipsing a nervous Nixon, reinforcing the importance of imagery; direct mail funneling fundraising dollars to parties and politicians; cable news intensifying the nonstop news cycle and “Crossfire” culture; talk radio ratcheting that up further, and the advent of the Internet, which has had as big an impact on politics (and everything else in society) as television.
Hoffman’s hunch is that while live-streaming may be consequential in 2016, it’s actually a 2012 Internet innovation — microtargeted ads — that will “only become more powerful, because now we are going to have candidates with the illusion of intimacy sending me an e-mail to my name about issues I care about.”
Other earlier innovations may also increase their impact, said Jennifer Stromer-Galley, a Syracuse University associate professor and author of “Presidential Campaigning in the Internet Age.” Up to 40 percent of campaign media may be spent on digital and will “go to where the public is: Facebook and Twitter.”
Some candidates may embrace live-streaming and directly address voters via Periscope and Meerkat. But the bigger impact might not be about building up, but knocking down candidates by exposing “snafus, gaffes and revelations about candidates’ character,” said Stromer-Galley, a University of Minnesota alum.
Indeed, this may prove to be live-streaming’s significant effect: a candidate mistake, spiraled first in social media and then mainstream-media news outlets. Ask Mitt Romney, whose “47 percent” comments at what was thought to be a private fundraiser damaged his campaign. Or then-Sen. Barack Obama, whose “cling to guns and religion” quote clanged four years earlier. Those awkward assessments were recorded and replayed and played by news outlets. Live-streaming may accelerate and amplify future gaffes.
This open environment may mean more closed candidates. Exit the era allowing the earthy Harry Truman. Enter the political version of “The Truman Show,” a movie about the nonstop filming of a man’s life. How can this not change who runs for office?
“We’re creating a different kind of candidate, that maybe isn’t the most expert in policy or legislating, but has expertise in communicating effectively and creating the experience of being a leader,” Hoffman said.
Stromer-Galley observes and wonders: “They’re never in a place or space where there is not some risk that what they say will be recorded, or taken out of context, or retweeted in a way that is not flattering. … Who would want to live in that spotlight?”
Who indeed? After all, boxers know to not let down their defenses, lest they expose themselves to a sucker punch.
John Rash is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. The Rash Report can be heard at 8:20 a.m. Fridays on WCCO Radio, 830-AM. On Twitter: @rashreport.