Liam Chivers is a name that the sports industry might not be too familiar with yet, but it is probably about time that it was.
The likelihood is, though, that you will have heard something by now about one of Chivers’ clients, KSI. This weekend the British internet sensation will headline one of the more unusual pay-per-view (PPV) shows that professional boxing has seen when he steps into the ring for a second time against rival YouTuber Logan Paul. The first bout, dubbed the ‘biggest event in internet history’, ended in a draw, but not before it had accumulated a record one million buys for YouTube’s PPV service in front of a sold out Manchester Arena.
For the casual observer, all this would make a lot more sense had KSI – real name Olajide William "JJ" Olatunji - taken up boxing more than just two years ago. Indeed, this sequence of events can be traced back to an Instagram post in July 2017, when Joe Weller, another YouTube influencer, was promoting a video of his own fight against a smaller creator called Theo Baker.
‘Lemme fight the winner haha’, KSI wrote in the comments section, setting in motion a chain of proceedings that will come to a head once more on 9th November at the Staples Center in Los Angeles.
“It all began with that,” recalls Chivers, KSI’s agent and the managing director and founder of OP Talent. “We ultimately realised that if he is actually serious, KSI is like the golden ticket, because he’s the biggest influencer in the country, so we can make something of that.
“So, we did a press conference and it all kicked off; tables were thrown, they came to loggerheads and they went at each other on social media for a while, and then it all became a thing. They both locked themselves away for about five months in training camp and worked as hard as possible to get in a state to embarrass the other one in front of the world of YouTube.”
As it turned out, it really was the world of YouTube that tuned in. With 1.7 million global concurrent live viewers – not to mention the millions more that caught up with the bout on-demand – KSI’s victory over Weller still stands as the fourth most-watched event that has been live streamed on the video-sharing platform.
However, as Chivers started to lay the foundations for KSI’s first fight against Paul, a controversial YouTube star from across the pond, most boxing purists were not willing to take seriously what they perceived to be no more than a stunt. Some labelled the bout as a joke; others said it was making a mockery of what is a grueling and dangerous sport. After all, with bad blood and a simmering dislike for one another at the heart of it all, the event was being promoted with the same storytelling techniques commonly used to upsell any other boxing or WWE PPV.
So what, in amongst all that, did Chivers make of the criticism?
“I didn’t really care, and we still don’t really,” he asserts. “I think it sold itself.”
But did he ever envisage a brawl between two internet personalities becoming as big as it has?
“As soon as I realised this had to be PPV and it had to be done properly, yes, you realise there’s going to be money made here - these guys are too big not to,” Chivers explains. “So yes, I did see it. I didn’t see over a million buys, I must admit; I thought maybe half a million or at best three quarters of a million, but we’d never done it before, so we had no idea quite how big it would be.
“I think it really highlighted the platform power and the fact you don’t need traditional TV and media to actually promote this to hundreds of millions of people, who then went on to replay it, review it and share it, and it really blew the internet up.
“But also, it opened the eyes of the media who had known about this space for quite some time, but were really trying to keep it in its place. There was just no doing that with something of the scale of this because it had beaten even Champions League final streams and everything - it was another level.”
Matchroom's Eddie Hearn speaks at the launch press conference for KSI vs Logan Paul 2
It was reported that KSI, 26, earned a barely fathomable UK£80 million from the first fight, and those that closely follow boxing will know that when there is money to be made, Eddie Hearn is rarely far away. Hearn himself has admitted that that he thought the first fight between KSI and Paul would be “embarrassing” and “a disaster”, but such was the success of the event last August that it convinced his Matchroom Boxing USA company to partner with Chivers and promote the rematch.
It was through Hearn, Chivers says, that he found his way to DAZN, the sports streaming subscription service which in September announced that it had pocketed the global rights to the rematch. With DAZN now available for US$19.99 a month the agreement means fans in the US will be paying double what they did to watch the first fight – albeit with the caveat they can access some ‘real’ boxing too – but perhaps more intriguing is that the deal sees KSI and Paul move away from the platform that made them famous in the first place.
Chivers, however, points out that there was more to consider than just the promise of a hefty rights fee.
“After the first Logan fight it was quite clear we didn’t need YouTube,” Chivers explains, speaking to SportsPro just under three weeks before the rematch. “YouTube offered no promotional budget and no support whatsoever, other than offering a platform which charges a huge percentage of the pay-per-view income just for the privilege of using it. There were a large number of piracy problems that they didn’t really help with, and the additional support needed to protect the broadcast better this time meant I had to look at other platforms anyway.”
As soon as I realised this had to be PPV and it had to be done properly, yes, you realise there’s going to be money made here - these guys are too big not to.
With that in mind, Chivers set about finding a “Google-level or mainstream top sport broadcast level platform”, one which was “totally robust and bulletproof to traffic”, as well as having the ability to combat other issues such as hackers attempting to disrupt the feed. On top of that, Chivers notes that he also needed to strike a deal that would cover the “inordinate” costs of staging a boxing event in the US. “Millions”, he reveals, are going on things such as travel, promotional events, content, press conferences and officials. Local commission tournament taxes apparently reach six figures, while there are also sanctioning fees and the costs of drugs tests to account for.
Eventually, after speaking to the likes of Stephen Espinoza at Showtime and “a bunch of others”, Chivers says DAZN emerged as the obvious choice.
“I think I spent nearly ten and a half months working on just getting the right broadcaster and distribution rights in place first,” Chivers recollects. “I really needed that ideal where someone’s going to buy these rights, take away all the risks of the costs, and that’s where you get into the territories of ESPNs, the Showtimes, the DAZNs.
“The DAZN model was clearly the best, because as a subscription model, the value potentially of a subscriber goes way beyond just a pay-per-view one-off buy, because people might stay around if they enjoy all the other content. If people want to stay around they’re going to get the Anthony Joshua fight the next month, there’s Canelo the week before it. So if people buy it they’re going to get all of that, plus other sports too.
“That meant I could be a bit more aggressive on the guarantees rather than just revenue share models, and they cover the costs, so the value for money for what it is as well just put it way above any other option.”
Indeed, the hope for DAZN will not only be to match the numbers from the first bout, but to convince some of the audiences that flock to the platform to hang around. With KSI and Paul boasting more than 40 million YouTube subscribers between them, retaining only a fraction of that number would represent a significant win. In addition to its coverage of the live event, the over-the-top (OTT) broadcaster has made the two fighters subjects of its latest ’40 Days’ documentary series, which sees KSI and Paul reflect on their first meeting as well as offering a behind-the-scenes look into their training regimes. Adapted versions of the show have also been appearing on Snapchat as part of DAZN's recently announced content partnership with the photo and video messaging app.
The DAZN model was clearly the best, because as a subscription model, the value potentially of a subscriber goes way beyond just a pay-per-view one-off buy.
What shouldn’t be lost in amongst the vast library of content being created is the significant fact that – unlike the first fight – when KSI and Paul come face to face on Saturday, they will do so as professional boxers. That means no headguards and ten ounce rather than 12 ounce gloves, as well as a more intense training camp. KSI, for one, is being put through his paces by Mayweather Promotions and conditioning coach Larry Wade, who trains former world champion Badou Jack, while his meals are being prepared by the same chef that feeds outspoken MMA star Conor McGregor during his fight camps.
For two men essentially making money off of their YouTube fame rather than boxing ability, going to such measures might seem extreme, but Chivers believes that – given the unforgiving nature of internet culture – there is a lot at stake for KSI and Paul.
“[Going professional] has changed the approach absolutely in the fact that it suddenly became an awful lot more serious,” he begins. “It hasn’t changed the approach in terms of, it is absolutely essential these guys win because of the world of YouTube. Being the meme, being that person knocked out on the canvas won’t ever go away. KSI and Logan have got to try and avoid that at all costs, so that doesn’t matter whether they’re wearing headguards or not. It just becomes a little bit more essential to train as if you are getting in the psyche of a pro fighter with pro coaches and pro supporters.”
With that professionalism also comes a stacked undercard, which Matchroom is hoping to exploit to grow the popularity of both its established and emerging talent. Saturday will see Billy Joe Saunders – not yet a known quantity in the US – defend his super middleweight world title against Marcelo Esteban Coceres, while Devin Haney, who has been tipped by some to be the next Floyd Mayweather Jr, will put his lightweight world title on the line when he takes on Alfredo Santiago.
“That’s when it comes back to the Matchroom side of things,” Chivers notes. “What do they really want to benefit out of it other than just subscribers to DAZN? By putting Billy Joe Saunders on there, yes, that hopefully adds credibility somewhat to the boxing fraternity, but the fighters who are on that card have absolutely bought into the fact that this is a new audience and they can benefit from the exposure themselves.
“I’m sure Devin Haney will be a multiple world champion, could go undefeated, could be one of the greatest in history anyway, but why not get that step up and have more people looking at him all the way through that journey? It’s not going to add to anything other than just he may be able to progress in terms of the popularity side of things and therefore make future earnings on his own fights later. There are a lot of young fighters who want to get on the card, so he (Hearn) sees it as an opportunity to grow their profiles.”
It is absolutely essential these guys win because of the world of YouTube. Being the meme, being that person knocked out on the canvas won’t ever go away.
The fusion of the real and the internet worlds has naturally created a lot of moving parts, as well as a number of different invested parties whose demands need to be met. Despite effectively selling on the promotional rights, Chivers says that he still “advises heavily” on the promotion and content side of things, especially in areas that are foreign to even Matchroom, DAZN and Sky Sports, which has rights to the fight in the UK.
“Everything still needs to be thought out and agreed, from fight week plans, to streaming on their channels, to social media plans, to gifting VIP tickets to influencers, so anything like that they are not used to” he says. “There’s a lot of discussions that go on every day with me, DAZN and Matchroom on all these aspects, so we’ve got a really big input into what’s going on.
“In some ways, because you’ve got DAZN, Sky and Matchroom, they’ve all got their own wider aims of what they need to deliver in terms of press and exposure, which doesn’t necessarily add as much in our world, so there are a lot more media requests than if we were doing it ourselves. I just had to be careful to protect KSI and make sure he’s just not permanently in an interview.”
Logan Paul speaks to the media ahead of the rematch
All of that brings us to now, to the rematch. The trash talk so far has bordered on the ridiculous, with KSI even mocking Paul’s dead dog, but wherever you look, the event is website homepage news. Who wins the fight will likely have little consequence for professional boxing, but that doesn’t mean the sport won’t pick up some tips – not least on how to promote on social media – along the way.
This is hardly a make or break night, but whether it is deemed a success or failure will have some implications going forward. For Matchroom and boxing more generally, it has stumbled upon an influencer-shaped route through which it will at the very least be able to pick up some new fans. For KSI and Paul, simply headlining a professional boxing card is likely to open up other avenues in the future, which Chivers hints might yet hold similar crossover events. However, he does not go as far as saying that this will necessarily become part of the norm any time soon.
“In terms of other boxing matches I think it depends how well this goes,” Chivers considers. “If DAZN see a load of buys they’re going to want to do another one, no doubt, because they’re going to want to retain subscribers on the platform. In terms of beyond this, I think it’s really hard to look further. Yes, there could be other sporting things, but I think boxing is just so perfect because of the intrigue and danger of it.”
“People will try and ride on the back of it and do their own locally in the US and the UK – whether they’ll be anywhere near the scale or the professionalism of this one, I doubt it, unless someone like DAZN spends a load of money on it. So I think it does live with KSI and Logan, potentially Jake Paul (Logan Paul’s brother) and then their opponents and where they want to go.
“Ultimately, KSI is the bigger influencer in this fight so it’s all in his hands – he is the one who has built the interest in this. If he does another one, it’ll be massive, if he doesn’t do another one and someone else does, it won’t be as big – I just think it’s pretty much that.”