Boxing needs new Oscar

(Bloomberg) Unified governing bodies, team sport-like standings, the return of Floyd Mayweather and big screen fights in 3-D.

Boxing industry heavyweights are filled with ideas on how to face a future without Oscar ‘Golden Boy’ De La Hoya, the cash cow who’s delivered six of the sport’s 16 highest grossing pay-per-view events ever.

Apart from Mike Tyson, De La Hoya has provided the best pay-per-view figures.

The sport’s first big test of life after De La Hoya comes on Saturday, when Time Warner-owned HBO airs its first PPV match of 2009, a light-welterweight title bout between Manny Pacquiao and Ricky Hatton.

Expectations are modest – HBO execs say they would be thrilled to see the fight flirt with a million pay-per-view buys. At $49.95 a pop. It is priced $5 below Pacquiao’s December drubbing of De La Hoya, which drew 1.25 million customers.

‘A good fight, and a salable fight, but a tougher make without Oscar,’ said long time boxing maven Bert Sugar. ‘He was the ATM of boxing.’

One good sign though is that the $9 million live gate at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas sold out quickly.

De La Hoya made things official two weeks ago with a made-for-TV retirement announcement in front of the Staples Center in Los Angeles.

In reality, the 35-year-old’s career ended five months earlier when Pacquiao battered him for eight rounds in a technical knockout victory that put the Golden Boy in a Las Vegas hospital.

The question for boxing now is whether Pacquiao (48-3-2) can wear the mantle of top dog as well as De La Hoya did. Common sense says no. The Filipino legend’s boxing skills may match De La Hoya’s in his prime, but his media appeal don’t.

De La Hoya-Pacquiao drew fellow celebrities by the dozen; that’s not likely for Hatton-Pacquiao. It’s more a purists fight.

But while De La Hoya won’t be in the ring, his company, Golden Boy Promotions, who are promoting Hatton, the popular British fighter who’s gone 45-1 as a pro.

The firm closed deals with several Vegas casinos to house enough closed circuit space for 20,000 fans, at a price of $50 a head. Add in more than 1,000 restaurants and bars around the US and the fight’s audience grows by another half million or so potential viewers.

Golden Boy Chief Richard Schaeffer is already looking past the coming bout. He’s been trying to convince Anschutz Entertainment Group, the sports and entertainment conglomerate with a double-digit stake in Golden Boy, to put his next big fight on movie screens across the country through its Regal Cinemas chain. ‘That fight, which could include the return of Floyd Mayweather,’ Schaeffer said, would be shown to theatre goers in 3-D.

‘This could get us another whole audience,’ he said. Mayweather, a former champion of five weight classes whose 2007 bout with De La Hoya drew a record 2.4 million PPV buys, is expected to return to the ring this year. Still only 32, he would be greeted with open arms by a boxing industry looking for its next financial windfall.

HBO, for its part, is trying to undo the dilutive effect it caused by framing too many fringe fights as mega events worthy of pay-per-view status, only to see them flop.

Pacquiao-Hatton is the first of what figures to be only a handful of PPV events in 2009, with more fights moved to the company’s regular HBO channel. Boxing has averaged three million viewers on regular HBO this year, a small increase from 2008.

‘We’re bringing boxing back to its roots,’ said HBO Sports President Ross Greenburg, who favours a return to a 1980s model where only big fights featuring the likes of Thomas Hearns, Marvin Hagler and Sugar Ray Leonard were deemed worthy of closed-circuit status. Closed-circuit theatre and arena telecasts were the forerunner of today’s pay-per-view.

Greenburg disagrees with those who see a return to network television as a defining goal that would determine whether boxing has truly made it back.

He points to the interest in HBO’s acclaimed ’24/7′ series – a behind the scenes look at fighters training camps that debuted with De La Hoya-Mayweather and continues with Pacquiao-Hatton.