With the economy in a nose dive, how many people will pay $54.95 to buy Saturday's telecast of the Oscar De La Hoya-Manny Pacquiao fight?
It's an intriguing matchup. De La Hoya, the sport's most popular fighter, against Pacquiao, the current lightweight champion who's the world's top-ranked boxer pound for pound, in a bout set at the welterweight limit of 147 pounds.
De La Hoya will make his first return to Las Vegas since his epic fight against Floyd Mayweather Jr. in May 2007 (Mayweather won a split decision), which drew 2.4 million pay-per-view buys worth $134.4 million -- both records for a De La Hoya fight.
But given the severity of the economic downturn, executives at Top Rank, the Las Vegas-based boxing promotion company that handles Pacquiao, are projecting the De La Hoya fight will attract only 1.5 million pay-per-view buys. That still would be the second-highest pay-per-view sales for any De La Hoya fight.
HBO is working hard to sell the fight. As it did for De La Hoya-Mayweather, HBO has rolled out its "24/7" four-part reality series promoting De La Hoya's and Pacquiao's life stories. The social-networking site Facebook has created a "Dream Fight" promotion to attract a younger fan base to the bout.
However, because of concerns about the economy, fight sponsors Coca-Cola, Tecate beer and Full Throttle energy drink are each offering pay-per-view rebate coupons worth $10 to $20 that, when combined, can reduce the $54.95 pay-per-view price to $4.95.
"This is the first time we've had rebates like this," said Mark Taffet, HBO's pay-per-view chief. "There's no doubt we need to be more sensitive than ever to value, and we believe De La Hoya-Pacquiao provides it with a capital V."
Other fight promotions showed how the worsening economy has forced boxing fans to cut back on their spending, as is the case with virtually all consumer groups.
Richard Schaefer, a Swiss former banker who is chief executive of De La Hoya's Golden Boy Promotions boxing company, had expected Golden Boy's fight between former middleweight champion Bernard Hopkins and current middleweight champ Kelly Pavlik in October to generate about 350,000 pay-per-view buys. The fight had solid selling points: age and wisdom versus youth and power, gifted defense versus a knockout punch.
But the Hopkins-Pavlik telecast was purchased by only 190,000 homes.
"Frankly, I was shocked," Schaefer said. "I knew, given the environment of the economy, we weren't going to have the numbers we had come to expect from the past, but we've all been subjected to so many days of bad news . . . this global depression is affecting all of us, everyone."
In the days before another fight promotion in Las Vegas on Nov. 22, Schaefer walked around a casino and echoed the words of Dana White, president of Las Vegas-based Ultimate Fighting Championships, who said the gambling mecca has been reduced to a "ghost town" on non-fight days. "It's down, I see it," Schaefer said.
The question of how well the De La Hoya-Pacquiao fight will sell elicits numerous opinions in boxing circles.
In September, the MGM Grand Resort in Las Vegas sold its 16,000 tickets for the fight (most with a face value of $1,500) in less than two hours. Richard A. Sturm, the resort's president of entertainment and sports, predicts rosy earnings in occupancy, gaming and dining at his property and 11 other Strip destinations for the De La Hoya-Pacquiao fight, managed by MGM Mirage.
"Our average occupancy rate has been down a little bit, but there are certain events, like this one, when you know people want to be in town," Sturm said. "People like to come to Las Vegas, they like a getaway. This great one-night event is a great excuse. We're expecting this to a great success in every aspect."
Schaefer has watched with a banker's eye the economic devastation across the country and its effect on Las Vegas. "The numbers don't lie about how bad things are here," he said. "Look at the stock prices. These numbers didn't go down because everyone was in Vegas gambling."
Indeed, MGM Mirage's stock price has plummeted in the last year to $11.98 from a high of $93.19. Neighboring Wynn Resorts has dropped to $39.82 from $134.74, and Las Vegas Sands Corp., which includes the well-known Venetian property, has tumbled to $5.17 from $122.96.
Jay Rood, director of the MGM/Mirage Race and Sports Book, said betting inside his rooms has doubled on past mega-fights, but "no one knows what's going to happen this time, given the economy and circumstances."
Yet Schaefer, Taffet and the fight sponsors maintain that a good De La Hoya fight is a "recession-proof" commodity.
"We are keenly aware that consumers right now are demanding value, but we believe if there's one fight the consumer will buy, it's De La Hoya-Pacquiao," Taffet said.
"There's nothing that people need more right now than the camaraderie of sharing a night with friends while watching a good fight and being sensitive to value. This is clearly the boxing event of 2008."