Anthony Joshua’s fight with Wladimir Klitschko was undeniably one of the most exciting heavyweight boxing matches in recent memory, but spectacle aside, the Brit is fast becoming one of the most marketable athletes boxing has ever seen and has the potential to propel the sport into a new commercial era.
Around 90,000 people filled a sold-out Wembley to watch the fight with many more watching at home and in pubs and clubs nationwide. The interest spanned far beyond the UK though: US cable companies Showtime and HBO also secured the broadcast rights. To put the deal in context, it was only the third time the two rivals have both broadcast a lucrative boxing match. The last time that happened Floyd Mayweather defeated Manny Pacquiao in 2015 and the only other occasion was for Lennox Lewis vs Mike Tyson in 2002.
Both parties were involved, not only because of the profile of the fight, but the ties with each of the fighters. Joshua recently inked an exclusive deal with Showtime, while Klitschko has a deal with HBO. The move was unprecedented because it wasn't pay-per-view in the US; instead both networks sent their teams to Wembley and conducted two separate broadcasts.
Joshua’s enthralling 11-round battle with the Ukrainian represents a resurgence of the heavyweight division, and more significantly, a resurgence in the entire sport’s commercial appeal. Floyd Mayweather versus Manny Pacquiao was one of the biggest fights in recent memory, but Mayweather hung up his gloves, drawing to a close one of the most financially lucrative careers the sport has ever seen, while Pacquiao’s ill-judged remarks harmed his profile and pushed his biggest sponsor Nike to cut ties with him.
Casual boxing fans have largely turned their attention elsewhere since then, drawn to the sport of mixed martial arts thanks to the likes of Conor McGregor (who may himself end up in a boxing ring with Mayweather in the near future). But boxing hasn’t stood still – in fact the sport is in a great place with many sublime talents like Vasyl Lomachenko, Canelo Alvarez, Gennady Golovkin and Andre Ward helping to usher in a new era of stars.
Talent aside, none of them can pull in the casual fan and sponsors quite like Joshua. Sports Pro Media placed the Watford fighter fifth on its 'Most Marketable Athletes in the World' list last year (no other boxer in the world was ranked higher). The heavyweight division became known as the land ruled by the likes of Jack Dempsey, Muhammad Ali, George Foreman, Mike Tyson and Lennox Lewis, though it has been dominated by the less charismatic Klitschko and his brother Vitali since Lewis retired. Tyson Fury’s unlikely win over Klitschko generated a momentary blip in attention, though Fury’s behaviour since has only served to sully the image of boxing as a pugilist sport laden with unsavoury characters.
However, it is undeniably thriving again thanks to the emergence of Joshua, who is the absolute antithesis of his British heavyweight counterpart. Polite, humble and well-spoken, the Olympian's natural demeanour has cleansed boxing of some the polluted atmosphere that had enveloped it in recent years.
His persona is perhaps best reflected in the comments he made immediately following his win over Klitschko: “If you don’t take part, you fail. Boxing is about character. There is nowhere to hide. No complications about boxing. Anyone can do this. Give it a go. You leave your ego at the door. Massive respect to Klitschko. He’s a role model in and out of the ring and I’ve got nothing but love and respect for anyone who steps in the ring. London, I love you. Can I go home now?”
His personality has attracted a number of major brands to partner with him including Under Armour, Lucozade Sport, Jaguar, Sky Sports, Beats, Lynx and many more. They'll all have taken confidence in seeing how adept Joshua is on social media and the number of followers he has accumulated compared to some of the UK's other big sporting names.
The Premier League is by far the UK’s undisputed commercial colossus and its profile has grown steadily over the years with homegrown talent like Harry Kane and Marcus Rashford representing the face of the world’s most watched football league. With that in mind, Joshua’s swift ascension to the summit of the sport is all the more remarkable. According to data supplied by Brandtix, the 27-year-old has 4.7 million followers across Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, while Kane, who plays week-in-week-out, has 3.6 million and Manchester United young gun Rashford has 3.2 million.
With far less TV time than the Premier League stars, Joshua has managed to outpunch them. Joel Seymour-Hyde, senior vice president at Octagon, attributes his strong social profile to his “natural understanding and affinity” with social as a platform and as a way to communicate with fans.
“One of his great strengths is how he genuinely comes across as a very natural and humble guy and that’s reflected in how he uses social media. He seems to genuinely enjoy fan interaction and make time for people.”
— Anthony Joshua (@anthonyfjoshua) April 29, 2017
This, coupled with his likeable personality and the respectfulness shown in his interviews and fights, is a dream for sponsors and Seymour-Hyde maintains that his demeanour “isn’t manufactured, it’s his natural state which means he becomes extremely appealing for sponsors to work with”. Brandtix’s analysis on Joshua’s sponsors revealed that Lucozade Sport, alongside Beats and Under Armour, were his most talked about sponsors across social media.
Lucozade Sport's most recent work with him is largely behind the brand’s success, according to early feedback. The ‘Made to Move’ short film chronicled the journey of his tumultuous past, including an arrest in 2010, to heavyweight champion of the world six years later.
Jo Long-Pockett, associate director of PR at Mongoose Sports & Entertainment, which is promoting the campaign, said: “We’re still pushing it so we’re not drawing any conclusions at the moment, but it’s about nine million views so far and that’s not including the views where the video has been embedded in media articles.”
She adds that the impact of the film has stimulated a lot of interest in his back story and has led to organic media content around the film.
In Seymour-Hyde's view, the ad was “probably the best thing [Lucozade Sport] has done for a number of years” in terms of branded content and while the brand can largely take credit for its positive reception, he adds that talents like Joshua “allow you to create these beautiful pieces of work”.
Under Armour has benefited from Joshua’s social activity too, hence why it is among the top three most mentioned of his sponsors on social. Almost every second post on his social feeds features him wearing Under Armour apparel. In fact you’d be hard pushed to find him wearing anything other than Under Armour in his posts.
Starting the week fresh #AJBoxing A post shared by Anthony Joshua (@anthony_joshua) on
The support has been reciprocated too: Under Armour is clearly a big believer in Joshua and has used him as a central ambassador.
“They’re really capitalising on the opportunity at moment, promoting him outside the UK in places like Dubai and Germany,” says Seymour-Hyde.
Sky Sports is another of Joshua’s main sponsors which is seeing strong results from its association with him. According to YouGov, one in five (20%) of the UK general population have a positive impression of the sports broadcaster, but that figure rises to 38% amongst those who follow boxing.
Other sponsors also seem to be getting a meaningful uplift among the boxing audience. Lynx's Impression score got an 8% boost while Lucozade Sport and Beats jump 3% and 4% respectively.
“Sponsorship of individuals always carries a risk – especially in a sport like boxing, but this one seems to be paying off,” says Bruce Cook, director at SMG Insight.
Ruppert Pratt, director of Mongoose Sports & Entertainment, sums Joshua up as the "perfect ambassador" and a safe partnership for brands, even for those who wouldn't usually delve into boxing.
“There’s always a risk with sponsoring a personality that something could go wrong, but you look at his history and you see he’s a very safe endorsement with values that companies are going to be desperate to communicate and align themselves with," says Pratt.
"He ticks all the boxes, he has the story of coming from humble beginnings, turned his life around, came into the sport quite late. If you were to write a Hollywood sports film it has all the elements in it," he adds.
Pratt believes Joshua could be the first sports ambassador to have corporate companies, B2B businesses and financial institutions on his books, alongside "brands which don’t tend to work with ambassadors".
There’s little doubt that Saturday night's fight will have a massive impact on the commercial appeal of the sport in the years to come. Joshua's win could well lead to a mega-fight with US boxer and WBC heavyweight champion Deontay Wilder, the prospect of which will undoubtedly excite Josha’s sponsors which could begin stretching his marketability across the Atlantic.