Sagging economy leaves boxing fans on the ropes about buying fights

NEW YORK -- Roberto Gonzalez loves boxing.

He has been passionate about the sport since he was 12 years old and started watching fights with his father in the living room of their Brooklyn, N.Y., home. As a kid, he was hooked on Muhammad Ali and Roberto Duran and Esteban DeJesus; he'd catch them all on free television.

But now, at the age of 52, he is finding it increasingly hard to keep up with the sport he loves. In the current economic climate, frivolity takes a backseat to reality.

"I have to make a sacrifice just to see a fight," said Gonzalez, a maintenance supervisor at New York City College of Technology. "Because I love boxing, sometimes, yes, I'll do it. But I can't do it every time. I don't make a lot of money and to pay $50 for a pay-per-view fight, well, even if I have some friends over, that's a lot for us."

Gonzalez might resort to cramming his friends into his modest apartment to defray the costs of the upcoming pay-per-view fight between Oscar De La Hoya and Manny Pacquiao. But with the economy reeling, he is not so certain he will order the fight.

"In the past, yes, I wouldn't miss it," said Gonzalez. "But now, I just don't know. I don't know if I can afford it. I mean, I grew up watching fights for free every weekend with my dad. And those were great fighters, great fighters. I could watch Muhammad Ali on television. I still love boxing, but it's harder to love it now."

On Wednesday, in an attempt to stimulate the economy, the Senate approved a $700 billion plan that would allow the government to buy bad mortgage-related securities and other devalued assets held by this country's troubled financial institutions. A vote in the House could come as early as Friday.

Will any such bailout be forthcoming for the boxing fan?

At the top of boxing's food chain, it appears to be business as usual. The De La Hoya-Pacquiao fight has already sold out the 16,000-seat MGM Grand Garden, generating a gate of $17 million. (Dan Rafael has reported that many of those tickets were corporate purchases.) Still, experts are predicting at minimum, 1 million pay-per-view buys for the fight and it could become the highest-grossing fight in boxing history.

"I think you have to look at this fight like it's the Super Bowl," said Golden Boy CEO Richard Schaefer. "And when it comes to the Super Bowl, irrespective of the economy, the Super Bowl is still going to sell out because it's an event. This fight is an event and a huge sporting event will usually be a sellout no matter what the economy is doing."

Tickets for the November showdown between Joe Calzaghe and Roy Jones Jr. -- a matchup that easily could have rivaled De La Hoya-Pacquiao five years ago -- have been selling well for Madison Square Garden. The cheapest tickets, at $150, are already sold out and while the remaining tickets range from $250 to $1,500, they are selling well.

"Tickets are selling briskly," said a source close to the Jones-Calzaghe promotion. "The fight is pacing better than Jones-Trinidad and Klitschko-Ibragimov did at this point. International sales are doing pretty well. To say the economy is having an effect, well, I can't really say that."

Still, the economy is hitting the fan -- if not the elite fighter -- the hardest.

"I definitely feel that it takes money to be a boxing fan these days and it's probably the most expensive sport to be a fan of," said Emmanuel Verivakis, a 28-year-old from Astoria, N.Y. "Pay-per-views have practically split boxing's fan base in half with one half being 'haves' and the other being the 'have-nots.' All the premium fights cost upwards of $50 to view and with around one good pay-per-view per month that a loyal boxing fan has to follow, it can become quite an expensive habit."

"If a championship fight was $50 and I was excited about the event I probably would be OK with paying the $50," said Rudy Havelka, 40, from Boca Raton, Fla. "But I have to tell you, I am sick and tired of paying so much to watch professionals make millions when it is our affection that is driving the revenues. And I think seats to a live event should have an affordable cap for fans. There are so many more revenue streams for the athlete -- television rights, advertising -- that I think they can put a cap on some of the seating."

Some fans have simply kicked the habit.

"Right now, with the way things are, I wait until the HBO replay to watch pay-per-view fights," said Lou Vagnuolo, a 43-year-old electronics supply manager from Huntsville, Ala. "It's ridiculous how much they want for pay-per-view. The funny thing is, I can afford to watch but I feel like I am wasting money to see something I can see in a week for free. I just can't justify that."

"I think it's much too expensive for the product they are putting out now," said David De Silva, 55, a security guard in Brooklyn. "For the money they are asking, the fights aren't competitive or they are putting on fights with guys who are over-the-hill. I won't buy pay-per-view fights."

But Verivakis said he will either gather with friends at someone's home or head to a bar to watch the De La Hoya-Pacquiao fight. The fight party has become part of the culture of boxing, much the way the tailgate party is in football. Some promoters cringe when they hear tales of 20 people gathering in one home to see a fight, wishing instead for the old days of closed-circuit television when each consumer bought an individual ticket.

Golden Boy's Schaefer, though, loves the idea of fans coming together for a fight.

"Sometimes it's good to stay at home with family and friends and for a modest fee you can watch a great event," said Schaefer. "You get together, you barbecue, you have a party. I think that's great. A fight is a good reason for people to get together and maybe take their minds off a bad economy or anything else."

The modest pay-per-view fee will probably run more than $50. But Schaefer has come up with some creative ways to alleviate the financial burden. Two of the sponsors for the De La Hoya-Pacquiao fight -- Tecate beer and Cazadores tequila -- are offering rebates that could knock $30 off the fan's pay-per-view bill.

"I think anyone who puts together a pay-per-view event in these times would be ignorant not to worry about the economy," said Schaefer. "That's why we looked into the rebates."

Boxing is a sport that evokes great passion from its fans. Perhaps it is the mano a mano nature that draws fans in and builds the foundation of loyalty they display to the fighters and the game itself. Even in hard times, there are fights some fans simply could not bear to miss.

For Verivakis it would be Floyd Mayweather Jr. against Antonio Margarito. For Vagnuolo, it would be Kelly Pavlik against Bernard Hopkins or Mayweather against Pacquiao. But ask them to forsake a high-level event and go to a club show and most balked at the idea.

In times like these, the middle class is often hit the hardest and the same holds true in boxing. The small promoter is feeling the squeeze, too. Bob Duffy, who promotes about five shows per year in New York City, Long Island and New Jersey, believes most fans don't realize what goes into promoting a local club show. But without club shows, which feed and develop fighters, pay-per-view cards wouldn't exist.

"There are so many expenses," said Duffy. "Aside from paying the fighters and the site fee, you have to pay referees, judges, ring announcers, security for your venue, two ambulances, three doctors. You have to rent a ring and pay someone to set it up."

In the end, it runs Duffy about $55,000 to put on a show. He has often said he's not in the game to get rich, but he continually runs shows because the boxing bug bit him years ago. Last week, on Long Island, he ran a dinner show and took $15 off the price of the top tickets just to make the event more affordable for his fan base. The fans responded. He sold just over 1,000 tickets, which was close to a sellout.

"I had the right formula," he said. "You have to use local fighters. We had Tommy Rainone and Chris Algeri; they are ticket sellers on Long Island. You have to have a local flavor to your card or you'll fail."

In an attempt to make the club show more feasible to promote, some states are offering pro-am events, which mix amateur and pro fights on the same card. In that scenario, only half the fighters on the card get paid and the other half -- the amateurs -- get better experience and exposure. The pro-am card is still illegal in New York, but Duffy is hoping to argue the benefits before the New York State Athletic Commission soon.

"Right now, New York State requires the promoter to guarantee 30 scheduled rounds of boxing," he said. "But if three of those fights were amateur fights, at, say, three rounds each, that's nine rounds I don't have to pay for. Having pro-am cards would help the promoter and it would help the consumer because there would be a larger pool to draw fights from, fights that could be more competitive."

Gonzalez, the maintenance worker, has been to only one live card, and it was years ago -- longer than he cares to remember. Gonzalez went to the Garden to see former featherweight champion Juan LaPorte fight. A native of Puerto Rico, Gonzalez had to see LaPorte in action. But times change and when his countryman Felix Trinidad and Miguel Cotto were selling out boxing's mecca, Gonzalez couldn't attend.

"I used to walk over to Gleason's Gym from my apartment and pay $2 to watch fighters train," he said. "Now, I don't even do that much anymore."

It doesn't mean he loves the sport -- or his heroes -- any less. It just means, like many Americans right now, he is having a hard time finding ways to do more with less.

Robert Cassidy is a contributor to ESPN.com.