Desert storm

How broadcaster DAZN piqued U.S. media interest in a heavyweight championship fight in Saudi Arabia that no journalists wanted to attend.

Nobody expected pouring rain at a boxing arena in the desert outside Riyadh. (RM pic: Getty/Nick Potts/PA Images.)
Nobody expected pouring rain at a boxing arena in the desert outside Riyadh. (RM pic: Getty/Nick Potts/PA Images.)

As heavyweight boxers Andy Ruiz, Jr. and Anthony Joshua prepared to commence their walk-ons into the open-air arena in the middle of a desert in Saudi Arabia, the rain started pouring down.

It was just one of many unexpected things that punctuated promotion of the fight in my role as comms VP at sports streaming service DAZN.

Promoting an upstart brand like DAZN was very different to my experiences at the established companies I previously worked for: the NBA, Showtime and Ketchum.

First, consumers need to know you exist. Then they need to know what you offer. Then they need to know how to get the product. By no stretch is it a trivial communications task.

On June 1, we thought we’d got lucky when little-known Ruiz scored the biggest boxing upset in decades and defeated British superstar Joshua at the legendary Madison Square Garden in New York City to become the first heavyweight champion of Mexican descent.

DAZN had exclusive rights to the rematch and made a hefty bid to land the historic event in New York, Los Angeles or Las Vegas. It would be the biggest combat sports event of the year and the media turnout would be off the charts, with more than 200 journalists likely flocking to the fight city.

The planets were aligning perfectly... until promoter Eddie Hearn from Matchroom Boxing announced the official fight location: Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.

Saudi Arabia has generated significant news coverage in the past year around its human rights record, including the brutal dismembering and murder last year of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi at its embassy in Turkey.

Combine this with the fact that Riyadh is an expensive trip for an American media outlet to cover, and the U.S. journalist attendance nearly vanished – with only one reporter planning to make the journey.

And, instead of the fight streaming in late primetime in the U.S., it would take place at 4:00pm ET/1:00pm PT, directly up against the college football SEC Championship. While 4:00pm ET might seem convenient, it’s not when boxing fans are accustomed to watching fights.

For example, when Joshua fought Wladimir Klitschko in 2017, Showtime’s live telecast at 5:00pm ET did smaller numbers than HBO’s delayed telecast at 11:00pm ET. Timing matters.

So much for that stroke of luck when Ruiz knocked out AJ at the Garden…

From a communications point of view, the build-up to the fight is a time to maximize buzz to ensure DAZN met its awareness and subscription targets.

To kick off promotion, the fighters conducted an international press tour in September with stops in Riyadh, London and New York. Knowing we’d only have one day with both fighters in the U.S., it was critical to make maximum noise around the fight announcement but also bank content ahead of time so top-tier media outlets had pieces to run during fight week.

Notably, we worked with Jimmy Kimmel Live to film a comedy sketch with Andy Ruiz and the show’s famed security guard Guillermo, briefed Good Morning America on the stakes of the fight and scheduled fighter/promoter interviews with The Athletic.

While entertainment streamers use their original programming budgets to create major acquisition projects with The Mandalorian or The Morning Show, DAZN takes a different tack.

DAZN puts its original programming in front of the paywall to raise awareness for our key live sporting events. We produced docu-series in the past that highlighted the training camp rigors leading up to a big prizefight, but we decided there was no story more compelling than the original Ruiz vs. Joshua fight - it was a real-life Rocky story.

We partnered with Sylvester Stallone and Balboa Productions to create One Night: Joshua vs. Ruiz, a retelling of the first match through the eyes of Stallone, Mike Tyson, Evander Holyfield, Michael Strahan and others who were watching that evening.

Because Rocky appeals to a much broader audience than just sports fans, we made sure media coverage reflected the story’s allure. DAZN staged a red-carpet premiere in Beverly Hills, hosted an exclusive screening for tastemakers in NYC, and coordinated a multiday press tour for the film’s co-director Deirdre Fenton. We also worked with The Wall Street Journal to place an anchor story describing our strategy behind the project.

If only one U.S. journalist was making the trip to Saudi Arabia – The Athletic’s Mike Coppinger – we needed to generate further coverage in America. Since travel cost was a major hinderance, we worked with a variety of U.S. outlets to secure attendance from international correspondents stationed closer to the Middle East, including The Wall Street Journal, Associated Press and Yahoo.

During fight week in Riyadh, we were the eyes and ears of U.S. reporters. Our team sent quotes, photos and event details from the fighter arrivals, media workouts, final press conference and weigh-in. Lastly, the fighters agreed to do a series of phone calls with U.S. journalists including ESPN, The New Yorker and LA Times to discuss final fight preparations.

Every fight week contains regular set-piece events geared toward generating press and buzz, such as the fighters’ grand arrivals in the host city; training sessions in front of the media; the main press conference with official remarks from fighters, trainers and promoters; additional event storylines from the undercard press conference; the weigh-in and final face-off; and the post-fight press conference.

Although much of the schedule stayed the same in Riyadh, there were significant differences and surprises compared to an average domestic boxing event.

For example, you need a visa to enter the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia for work. Media not only needed their credential application accepted, but also their visa application.

The fight took place at a purpose-built arena – meaning the Saudis created it from scratch in just months. And it will be taken down by 2020.

Hospitality was a focal point. Local organizers built a standalone multi-level media center to provide reporters with a home base for the week, including catering, couches, worktables, televisions, Wi-Fi, power and so on.

Saudi Arabia is a dry country. Reporters had to settle for a coffee after filing their stories, instead of grabbing a beer like they are used to.

Traffic made it very difficult to plan your day. The trip from hotel to venue could take anywhere from 25 minutes to 3.5 hours.

On Thursday of fight week, event organizers hosted a black-tie gala attended by local dignitaries, fighters and broadcasters.

The time difference was especially tough for journalists based on the West Coast. Being 11 hours behind left a very small window to coordinate phone calls between the fighters and reporters from Ruiz’s home in southern California.

Despite originally telling reporters he would come in lighter for the rematch, Ruiz weighed in at 283 lbs. – a full 15 pounds more than the fight in June. He blamed it on eating three meals earlier in the day and standing on the scale with a sombrero…

You cannot predict the weather. Despite being in the middle of a desert that gets only four inches of rain per year, it poured throughout Saturday night’s outdoor event. Media were left to choose: work ringside with a poncho or watch screens inside the media center. Ponchos were definitely the more popular choice.

Come fight time, once it finally stopped raining, Joshua won back his WBA, WBO and IBF heavyweight world titles with a dominant unanimous decision over Ruiz in front of a packed venue of 15,000 people, including fellow boxing superstar Canelo Alvarez, MMA fighter Khabib Nurmagomedov and R&B star Usher.

Joshua was vindicated after his shock defeat in New York and Ruiz was left to answer a battery of questions at the post-fight press conference about his lack of commitment and self-discipline.

From a communications point of view, with the help of the DAZN team, Betsy Rudnick PR and Group SJR, more than 200 stories were written and the One Night documentary was viewed more than 3 million times – DAZN far exceeded its subscription targets despite substantial headwinds in the fight’s timing and location.

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