My latest shipment of contraband goods arrived today: a set of about 30 Shane Mosley fights and 20 Zab Judah fights, on 21 DVDs in plain white sleeves, most of them duplicated from HBO telecasts -- without permission from HBO, of course.
I'm not proud that I solicit products from the digital underground to perform my job. I stopped downloading music illicitly years ago and began paying for it on iTunes and Amazon. Every week I ignore the guy I see selling bootleg DVDs of new movies.
But if you really need videos of Shane Mosley's greatest hits, what's a guy to do? There's no legal way to do it. At least a dozen Web sites offer thousands of classic fights -- just Google "boxing DVDs" to find them.
Although the guys behind these sites hawk pirated content from some of the planet's biggest media companies -- Time Warner (HBO), Viacom (Showtime) and Disney (ESPN) -- this black market is a little different from the music-stealing scene that grew around Napster.
The boxing DVD underground exists, in large part, because there is no legal market for boxing DVDs. You can't walk into Target and buy a box set of the Arturo Gatti-Micky Ward trilogy. You can't put Oscar De La Hoya versus Felix Trinidad in your NetFlix queue. You may be able to buy a licensed DVD of a Super Bowl game or any UFC title fight, but you can't legally get a DVD of the "Rumble in the Jungle" or the "Thrilla in Manila."
My latest supplier -- I promised not to use his name, so let's call him Video Mack -- supports his collecting habit by offering copies of fights via those little Google text ads. Video Mack has about 5,000 fights in his library.
"I sell or trade about 10 career sets a month, so I would say I distribute about 120 career sets a year around 6,000 fights," he calculates. "It's not like I'm cheating [the networks]. I still purchase every single pay-per-view that HBO or Showtime offers. I would gladly buy fights from HBO or Showtime if they sold them on DVD. The quality would be slightly better than what I get from my DVD recorder."
Most underground DVD dealers consider themselves collectors first. They seek hard-to-find videos, trading via online bulletin boards such as boxingforum.com. They create artful DVD menus on their discs (though sometimes they copy other bootleggers' menus to complete career sets).
Why the rightful owners of boxing's video history are leaving the market to pirates is a good question. Promoters like Don King, Top Rank, Main Events and Oscar De La Hoya's Golden Boy are sitting on valuable libraries. The potential lucre of boxing video was made clear in 1998, when ESPN bought the 16,000-film boxing library of the late Bill Cayton for a reported $100 million.
Bob Arum, whose Top Rank library includes Muhammad Ali, Roberto Duran and Marvin Hagler fights, made a deal with TV network Versus in 2006 to air classics from his vault.
But the economics of TV don't work for DVDs.
"Even though there is a market, it's not big enough," says Ross Greenburg, president of HBO Sports. "Legitimate businessmen have to release a video the old-fashioned way, with professional packaging and duplication and marketing. If it costs you $50,000 to release a DVD, and you're only going to sell 1,000 units, do the math. It doesn't work."
In a business based around mega events that make millions in one day, the video aftermarket can seem like small potatoes to fighters and promoters.
"You tell them [those involved in the fight] the numbers, and they don't believe you," says Brian Kweder, an executive at ESPN Classic. "They say, 'what do you mean it's only worth $5,000 -- or $1,000!' That makes no sense whatsoever to them, but it's the reality."
And that's besides the convoluted rights issues for boxing video. There may be numerous rights holders in a single boxing match, explains Kweder, who, as senior director of programming and acquisitions at ESPN Classic, obtains rights to rebroadcast boxing for "Classic Night at The Fights."
"You have the promoter of the actual fight," Kweder said. "The promoters of the fighters. You're dealing with the networks. And, at times, we even have to deal with the fighters themselves because they hold some stake in the fight."
Typically, the network owns its broadcasters' audio and its on-screen graphics, while the promoter owns the video. That's often why when you watch a "classic" rebroadcast of a fight, you may hear the call by Bob Sheridan or Dave Bontempo, instead of Jim Lampley and Larry Merchant. These secondary announcers are hired by promoters to call the international feeds of fights, and a promoter will resell that audio along with the video. In some cases, the cost and complexity of rights means that blow-by-blow announcing is added after the fact, with commentators doing their best to make it sound live. (ESPN Classic recently did a deal that lets it air Showtime Championship Boxing matches with the original announcers.)
The rights and economic issues obviously don't deter DVD copiers.
And, other than getting bootleg DVDs banned from eBay, the boxing industry has made no concerted effort to shut them down.
"We've shut down a few, but it's very difficult," says HBO's Greenburg. Golden Boy hasn't done much to crack down on bootleggers -- or to monetize its own library, even though De La Hoya is one of the few boxers who own the rights to all of their professional fights.
But if a video payday does come for promoters, it will involve technology that's newer than DVDs.
"The Internet changes everything," says Dave Itskowitch, Golden Boy's chief operating officer.
Online video comes with risks and rewards. YouTube is intermittently scrubbed of copyright violations, but fight videos routinely show up illegally on sites around the world (pacquiaovideo.com is even designed to look like YouTube). Collectors who look to trade at boxingforum.com are often directed to sites like Megaupload.com, where they can upload and download full-length videos of many fights for free.
Still, some promoters are moving ahead with their own online plans.
This year, Don King launched donkingtv.com, offering free (for now) live fights and a small selection of past bouts. Joe DeGuardia's Star Boxing is working with gofightlive.com on live and archived fights that aren't being shown on any TV network. In June, Frank Warren and Microsoft will launch the Queensberry Fight Network, which will offer pay-per-view and 2,500 on-demand fights, operating on Vista Media Center computers that can hook up to TV sets. (ESPN2 "Friday Night Fights" are rewatchable online at ESPN360.)
Meanwhile, DVD pirates keep filling their shelves -- and customer orders.
"All collectors who sell or trade are aware of the copyrights that HBO and promoters hold," says a boxing DVD seller who runs an elaborate Web site. He figures he fills more than 400 orders a year.
"Personally, we are in many ways doing them [networks and promoters] a favor," he says. "Boxing fans, especially new ones, want to see old fights. There's nowhere they can go except to collectors such as myself. You could say we help keep the sport alive."
Don Steinberg, a winner of the Boxing Writers Association of America's award for best column in 2005, covers boxing for The Philadelphia Inquirer.