It might not come as a huge surprise to find that Felix Baumgartner’s Red Bull Stratos freefall from the edge of space still stands alone as the most-watched event to be live streamed on YouTube. At a peak of more than eight million concurrent viewers, the Austrian skydiver’s generation-defining stunt dwarfs the first presidential debate between Hilary Clinton and Donald Trump, which drew a comparatively paltry peak audience of 1.2 million back in September 2016.
But in among the death-defying feats of human nature and political squabbles lies what some might consider to be an anomaly. In at fourth on the YouTube roll of honour, with 1.7 million global concurrent live viewers, is a boxing match from February 2018. This was not, however, a fight between a pair of undefeated, hard-hitting heavyweights. Instead, it was a hyped-up battle of two internet personalities - or influencers, as marketers like to call them - whose media channels have made them some of the most recognisable faces among a generation that has been moulded by the world of social.
On the night, British YouTuber Olajide William "JJ" Olatunji – or KSI, as he is famously known - beat his rival Joe Weller by way of technical knockout, but the result was not what was most eye-catching about the occasion. As well as selling out London’s 7,000-seater Copperbox Arena, the event’s official live stream was watched by 15 million people. The fight generated widespread media coverage in the UK and trended worldwide on Twitter.
That event, as you might already know, was no one-off. KSI has since called out and fought controversial American YouTube star Logan Paul. Such was the success of the first fight at the Manchester Arena last August – which apparently attracted a record one million pay-per-view buys on YouTube and, conveniently, ended in a draw – that the sequel is already scheduled for Los Angeles in November.
And last week, at SportsPro’s inaugural edition of The Fan Conference, held at Tottenham Hotspur’s shiny new stadium in north London, we had an opportunity to pick the brains of one of the puppet masters behind it all. Only as Liam Chivers, KSI’s agent and the managing director and founder of OP Talent Management, started his keynote session, something peculiar was going on: the room was suspiciously bare.
Jeff Nathenson, the ever-entertaining managing director of Whistle Sports, led the inquest. “This is very, very weird,” he began. “I thought this would be packed out.” Nathenson proceeded to point out to the audience, in no uncertain terms, that what Chivers was about to discuss is going to disrupt “the boxing industry, the pay-per-view market, and sport in general” from this point onwards - and you couldn’t help but feel that he was right.
Chivers might have been speaking at The Fan Conference at the same time as packed-out panel sessions discussing Formula One’s Drive to Survive Netflix series and a potential naming rights sponsorship deal for Spurs’ new stadium, but haven’t we heard those ones – or some variation of them – before?
Of course, it could simply be down to a matter of taste. However, the vacant seats in Chivers' session were perhaps also emblematic of an industry that can be guilty of being a little standoffish when it comes to embracing anything alien to it, one where decision-makers prefer to see how something different works for someone else before taking it on themselves.
Even Eddie Hearn, whose Matchroom Boxing USA will be promoting the rematch between KSI and Paul, admitted that he thought the first event featuring the pair would be “embarrassing” and “a disaster”.
Sport has always been about entertainment, but the boundary has become increasingly blurred. What Chivers and his team have been able to create is a package of extremely valuable commercial rights. Often lost in the debate is also the fact that the first fight accrued revenue from many of the same sources as a traditional sporting event, including ticket sales, pay-per-view buys, advertising and merchandise.
And much to the dismay of its detractors, Paul-KSI II is likely to be even bigger.
British heavyweights Anthony Joshua and Tyson Fury have both offered their support for the rematch. Subscription streaming platform DAZN has gobbled up global rights to the bout, while WBO super-middleweight champion Billy Joe Saunders has won the race – and yes, you are reading this right – to fight on the undercard. Clearly, the hope for both boxing, in letting its guard down, and DAZN is that they can convince at least a portion of the new audiences that tune in to stick.
With over 40 million YouTube subscribers between them, KSI and Paul have followings that surpass those of even the most renowned sports and movie stars. For sport, an industry that is increasingly obsessed with targeting a new and younger audience, influencers such as them have provided an obvious bridge to reach that demographic.
Because here’s the thing: whether you think it's sport or not, respect it or not, and like it or not, one guarantee is that the millions of young people engaging with this event will not care. And if the sport industry is not going to be able to beat the craze, then it may as well join it; the very least it can do is listen and try to understand.