Doing A Knockout Business

June 15, 2007
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COMSTOCKPARK — Baseball isn't their only business. For a couple of notable West Michigan Whitecaps executives, boxing has clearly rung their bell, and now they're getting ready for round two.

Whitecaps Chief Financial Officer Denny Baxter and Director of New Business Development Dan McCrath formed Blue Cap Promotions last year and presented their first fight night at Fifth Third Ballpark in ComstockPark last summer. Their second show at the park, which has the undefeated Vernon Paris going against local favorite Ramon Guevara for the Michigan light welterweight title, is set for Friday, June 29.

But Blue Cap doesn't just promote at the home of the Whitecaps. Baxter and McCrath have held boxing cards at casinos in Mt.Pleasant and Manistee, and have one coming up in Sault Ste. Marie.

"After the success of last year's event, folks began to look at us as people who put on a quality event and know how to run a production," said Baxter.

"We also have another show on our hands that we're trying to find a home for: an ESPN show that will likely be out of state. It's funny how one thing leads to another. So it's already gone well beyond the ballpark."

Baxter said he has been a boxing fan for a long time. As a youngster, he said he was a "devotee" of former world heavyweight champion Muhammed Ali, and was captivated by an era of boxing that held a huge number of classic prize fights outdoors.

After Baxter and Whitecaps CEO Lew Chamberlin had a string of successful baseball seasons under their belts, they looked for other ways to showcase and use the park, and boxing seemed to be a natural fit.

"In thinking back to the old times, if you will, all the great old boxing events were outside. They were in Yankee Stadium or ComiskeyPark, or at the MadisonSquareGarden bowl. So I started thinking, 'Why not try that here?' And that kind of fit the persona of our facility and minor league baseball," said Baxter.

"I thought, 'Let's bring it back outside, get it out of the smoky room and bring it back into a real positive setting.' So it was kind of a combination of wanting to explore another alternative for the facility, as well as my passion for the sport, that got this thing going."

A promoter doesn't need millions to get into the boxing business. Baxter said it costs about $75,000 to put on a club fight, which usually has local fighters without much experience and is the lowest rung of the industry. Blue Cap has aimed a lot higher than that, though, so its investment into next week's bouts is higher. The locale the fights are being held in also demanded something better than a club show.

West Michigan has a very strong history of providing athletes for the sport, whether it's Tony Tucker,

Kenny Lane
on the lakeshore, or, currently, Floyd Mayweather here," said Baxter.

"If we're providing this talent to the industry, then the industry ought to give us a better show than the local club shows. Not to knock the club shows, but something stronger than that."

Blue Cap is strictly a boxing promoter. Neither Baxter or McCrath own a piece of a fighter, so they can focus on putting together a show without worrying about who wins, loses or draws.

"You've had promoters that have a vested interest in a fighter who then sets him up to win, and he looks good, and they're going on for a title. But the shows look terrible and they're rollovers, if you will, and they're really not competitive. Because we're not vested in fighters, it allows us to put on the best match possible," said Baxter.

Carlos Llinas of CLIP Boxing is co-promoting next week's card with Blue Cap. Baxter met Llinas, who is based in Detroit, at last summer's fight night. Llinas told Baxter he was so impressed with the event that he suggested they co-promote, and they have. The bouts Blue Cap held at the casinos were also co-produced by CLIP.

In addition to the state light-welterweight title fight, next Friday's card has a heavyweight tussle between two up-and-comers: Raphael Butler and Cedric Boswell. Jennifer Salinas and Sarah Schneider will hold their ballpark rematch that night, and a pair of regional favorites — Mike Malotke and Jason Wahr — are scheduled to climb into the ring. The Sprinkler Fitters Union Local 669 is the event's sponsor. Tickets range from $15 to $60 and are available at the park's box office, at the Whitecaps Web site, and by phone at (616) 784-4131.

Baxter said Blue Cap's customers aren't only wealthy and older white males — the traditional boxing fans seen at ringside — and the blue-collar white males that fill the cheaper seats. He said he has seen many Hispanics in the crowds of fights he has attended — a demographic group many businesses are trying to reach — and women, too. He said females have accounted for about 40 percent of the paying customers he has seen at those bouts.

Baxter also said the boxing industry isn't marketing itself very well today. Although the business needs television exposure to pump itself up, cable channels have turned to what is called mixed martial arts but is billed as "ultimate" fighting. Research shows those bouts are drawing more young adult male viewers, along with the advertisers that covet them, than traditional sports like boxing.

"Some people will tell you that you can't do a boxing show without TV. I understand that, and I don't dispute that entirely. I think you can put on a quality show without it. We, in fact, have a relationship with Fox Sports Detroit, and we are considering putting this upcoming show on TV," said Baxter.

"It's not a rights-fee basis. It's more of a factor of sponsorship and a factor of exposing what we're doing, basically, to the state so people can see that Blue Cap Promotions puts on a pretty good boxing show, and maybe they'll go to the next one."

Even though Baxter and McCrath are terribly enthusiastic about the fight business, they readily admit that boxing isn't their main event.

"What I tell folks about Blue Cap and Dan is that we're baseball guys, and the Whitecaps come first. We're very passionate boxing fans, and we're very happy about our opportunity to be involved with the sport, and maybe put a more positive spin to it to get rid of some of the old connotations about rotten, dirty promoters and things like that," he said.

"The boxing is a wonderful secondary opportunity."    

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