Why fight promoters see fistfuls of dollars in Macau
Macau has long overtaken the US gambling Mecca in gaming revenue, and now aims to rival it as a combat capital - with promoters confident of lucrative future
Bob Arum is a not a man taken to doing things by halves. Over a career in boxing that extends across five decades, the New York-born promoter has helped put the names of a collection of the sport's greats up in lights, among them Muhammad Ali and Manny Pacquiao.
A passion for the sport still drives the man now, at 81 years of age, and it flares in his eyes as he talks about his latest endeavour, one that may just decide the fate of boxing itself.
"Obviously, China is important for any serious business person," he says. "It's a country that is just beginning to sample what we in the west are used to - like professional boxing. If it is done right, this will be the premier audience for the sport of boxing in the world."
The plan so far seems to be working. Zou has fought twice in the professional ranks, against the Mexican Eleazar Valenzuela in April and his compatriot Jesus Ortega last Saturday night, and he's picked up unanimous points victories both times.
Question marks might remain over just how far the 32-year-old Zou will go - he seems to still lack the power needed to be a successful pro and he struggled to see out fights that were held over just four and six rounds respectively.
But as a two-time Olympic gold medallist and three-time world amateur champ, he has a massive and established fan base across China, a fact reflected by the wild support he has received in Macau.
The fights were broadcast free to air in China, to a potential audience of between 100 million to 300 million viewers, and they were also beamed back to the traditional boxing heartlands of North and Latin America where the boxing community is keeping a keen eye on developments.
"There was a tremendous amount of interest generated by Zou Shiming's first fight in April," says Robert Ecksel, editor-in-chief at US-based Boxing.com "It was tempered by varying degrees of scepticism in some quarters, mostly because he was turning pro at such an advanced age. But for the most part, due to wily old Bob Arum's promotional savvy, when Top Rank's Yoda said jump, the boxing media jumped and treated Zou Shiming's entry into the pro ranks as nothing less than the Second Coming.
"If Las Vegas, the de facto Mecca of Boxing, is exotic, Macau is infinitely more so, and boxing's internationalism is embedded in its DNA."
Arum has tried his hand at promoting large events in these parts before, of course. But he seems to have learned some valuable lessons after the "High Noon in Hong Kong" debacle back in 1994, when - after much fanfare - a line-up of fights, including a heavyweight bout between Herbie Hide and Tommy Morrison, were cancelled after people arrived in town only to find no one had any cash.
And that's something Macau certainly has loads of. The gaming industry has now long since left Vegas in its wake: its annual revenues of an estimated US$36 billion are around six times that collected by the city in the desert.
Fighters who come to the enclave also escape the tough taxes the United States government pulls out of their purses - taxes which hit at around 40 per cent. While for boxers starting out in the pro ranks, such as Zou, that might not be a major concern, consider the case of Pacquiao, who will fight in Macau on November 24.
The man who lays claim to being the highest paid athlete in the world - he took home an estimated US$52 million last year - can expect between an estimated US$25 million to US$30 million for his fight against American Brandon Rios.
And as the end of his storied career looms - after titles across a record eight weight divisions and presumably a walk-in to the sport's Hall of Fame - the 34-year-old Filipino fighter understandably wants to make as much as he can before he hangs up his gloves and concentrates full-time on his fledgling political career.
Pacquiao's trainer Freddie Roach, who is also overseeing Zou's pro career, says the decision to take the fight against Rios to Macau was simple common sense.
"There used to be Vegas," says Roach. "Every single casino you go into over here seems to be Vegas on its own. We've never seen anything like it and you can see why the sport wants to come here. It needs to come here - there's just not enough money in the States. The taxes in America make it difficult for anyone at that level to make money and it seems this is a place where you can certainly do that."
It's a point, of course, that's not lost on Arum, who spared no expense in bringing a little of the Vegas-style pizzazz to the fights in Macau which came complete with pounding music, laser light shows and a procession of scantily clad and stunning ring girls. It seems such a long way from the dark days of the Cultural Revolution and its ban on the sport, which lasted until 1986.
While the first two "Fists of Gold" cards were sent free-to-air in China, the promoter spoke last weekend of plans to work out a pay-per-view deal with a broadcaster in China, charging - at first, he said - around US$5 per fight card. Given the potential viewership, the returns would be staggering.
"The money men recognise that China, with its huge population and emulation of the West, is a vast untapped market for boxing," says Ecksel. "Much as Arum recognised the rise of Hispanic culture in the Americas before anyone else and acted accordingly, he is now, in constant trendsetting mode, doing the same vis-a-vis boxing in China."
Boxing's popularity in its traditional markets has been on the wane over the past few decades, hit by lacklustre cards, controversial decisions, and by the rise of Mixed Martial Arts.
That sport has also moved to grab a foothold in China by staging bouts at the CotaiArena in the Venetian Macao-Resort-Hotel, with the UFC Macau 2012 held last November attracting an estimated 25 million viewers on the mainland, including 2.2 million who picked it up via live internet streaming.
The UFC will now stage regular events in Macau and in Singapore while it is producing a Chinese version of the UFC's hit reality series The Ultimate Fighter with Liaoning Satellite TV which reaches more than 830 million viewers across the country.
"Macau being the 'Las Vegas' of Asia and Las Vegas recognised as the 'fight capital of the world', it's only natural that Macau develops as a destination for fight sports," says Mark Fischer, managing director of UFC Asia.
"Macau is a key Asian entertainment hub, providing a gateway not only to greater China but to all our fans in Asia. We see China as an enormous potential market for the UFC given the obvious market size and growth, deep traditions in martial arts, and rapid growth in UFC awareness and following over the past few years. All our fan following and viewership figures have more than doubled in China over the past three years."
Fischer believes such is the potential for growth across China that there is more than enough room for organisations from all corners of the fight game.
"Growing the base of fans for any martial art, whether that be boxing, wrestling, or sanda, is beneficial to the UFC as our sport encompasses all these disciplines," he says.
"A fight fan is a fight fan and if another organisation is working to develop fans in this area, the UFC is sure to benefit over time. Looking at it another way, a rising tide lifts all boats, and the UFC is the biggest boat in the sea of fight sports today."
Any competition between rival codes would certainly be welcomed by a Macau government keen to expand the city's attractions and to promote itself as more than just a centre for gaming.
A spokesperson for the Macau Government Tourism Office said more than 50 per cent of visitors to the enclave stayed for just one night so the city's leaders were keen to engage with promotions and activities that "encourage a longer length of stay".
"Tourists travelling to Macau are expecting more on their trip. Those events not only drive more visitor arrivals, but also help to broaden the tourism offerings which help to bring Macau into a more diversified and attractive destination," the spokesperson said.
And regardless of all the talk about "potential", the buzz in the CotaiArena last weekend was palpable - as it was in April at the first "Fists of Gold" event and that was not lost on Pacquiao, who was in town last weekend as the roadshow for his November 24 bout got under way.
"I think this is a perfect start for promoting boxing in China and I am proud to play a part in that," he says. "It's going to have a big impact on boxing both in China and in Asia. If they can start bringing big fights to Macau, fans can come here from all over Asia whereas before they might not have been able to afford to travel to see them. I think Macau is the perfect place for this."
For Andrew W Scott, CEO of the Macau-based World Gaming Group of media and gaming services companies, the rise of the city as a host for major fights is simply a case of a natural progression.
"Everyone knows Macau long ago surpassed Vegas in terms of gaming revenue, but to stake a genuine claim as a truly world-famous international tourism and leisure hub, Macau needs to capture its fair share of big ticket non-gaming attractions," he says.
"For decades there's been a certain kind of magic when you say the name 'Las Vegas', and slowly but surely that magic is also being attached to the name 'Macau'.
"The world's biggest boxing and MMA fights have long been part of the Las Vegas brand. If they start being fought in Macau instead of Vegas, it further cements the shift away from the US and towards China."
Macau Fight Landmarks
November 10 2012
The Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC), the biggest MMA promotion, makes its Asia debut in Macau with a 10-fight card in front of 8,000 at the Venetian CotaiArena.
April 6 2013
China's Olympic champion Zou Shiming announces his arrival in the professional ranks with a flashy, unanimous victory at the CotaiArena in the 'Fists of Gold' promotion in front of a capacity crowd of 15,000
May 8 2013
Philippine hero Manny Pacquiao announces he will launch his comeback in Macau in November. Pacquiao will battle former WBA lightweight champion, American Brandon Rios, at the 15,000-seat Venetian CotaiArena. "We think it opens a tremendous market in China because it enables us to do pay-per-view there in ways that we haven't done before," says promoter Bob Arum, adding Macau had beaten Singapore for the right to host the fight. The fight will be held on November 24. "Macau has been described to me as Las Vegas on steroids and it would make sense to have future title fights in Macau," says Arum.
July 11 2013
The UFC announces a multi-year deal with venues in Macau and Singapore to stage mixed martial arts events in the region starting from next year. The UFC said it would hold events at The Venetian in Macau and Singapore's Marina Bay Sands from 2014, and produce a Chinese version of its reality show The Ultimate Fighter. "The event in Macau was a tremendous success and I think it was an eye-opener for both the fans and the UFC," says Asia managing director Mark Fischer. "We'll be bringing at least one live fight event to the Singapore Marina Bay Sands, with the first one coming early first quarter next year. We'll have well-known fighters on the main card but we want to fill the card with more Asian fighters."
July 27 2013
Zou Shiming wins his second professional fight at Fists of Gold II with a unanimous decision over teenager Jesus Ortega at the Venetian CotaiArena in his second pro fight.