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Boxers are a valuable ‘blank canvas’ for drinks brands

In an exclusive interview, former world champion and Sky Sports pundit Johnny Nelson tells Sarah Neish why the world of boxing is about to break open opportunities for premium drinks brands.

There’s no doubt that aligning your brand with a sports team, tournament or athlete can pay dividends.

Rarely a week goes by when the drinks business does not report on a new sporting partnership, from Californian producer Kendall-Jackson becoming the official wine sponsor for the NBA to David Beckham fronting the new advertising campaign for Stella Artois.

AB InBev has sponsored this year’s Olympics, tennis ace Roger Federer has hooked up with Moët & Chandon, and footballer Lionel Messi has partnered with Michelob Ultra.

However, one sport has enormous untapped potential for drinks, and is about to become an increasingly attractive prospect for major brands.

Up until now, premium brands haven’t paid much attention to boxing. “You don’t tend to see boxing events sponsored by Rolex or Taittinger like you do at the tennis,” former cruiserweight world champion Johnny Nelson tells db in an exclusive interview.

But all that could be set to change with Saudi Arabia becoming an ever bigger fish in the sport, pouring billions of pounds into boxing and winning bids to host high-profile fights such as Tyson Fury and Oleksandr Usyk’s heavyweight unification bout, which took place last weekend.

Saudi prides itself on its luxury offering, and is looking to attract “big spenders” to its private island Sindalah, due to open by the end of this year. High net worth visitors and the yachting community are among those being targeted as its primary guests.

When a nation that places such emphasis on prestige starts to take a serious interest in boxing, it won’t be long before super-premium brands start to follow suit.

“Boxing is definitely becoming more attractive for drinks brands,” says Nelson, “And it’s because of the fan base. They like a drink! Boxing is a people sport. Going to the boxing is an event, an occasion, it’s not just two fighters getting in the ring. If boxers do it right, they get a big following, which is why the TV channels love them. And it’s not about targeting a male or female demographic, you’re getting your brand in front of everyone.”

Instagram @johnnynelsonsky

Blank canvas

As with any link-up between a drinks brand and a professional sport, one anomaly is that athletes rarely drink alcohol themselves. Is there a disconnect to having your drinks logo printed on the ring canvas when the boxers inside that ring give booze a wide berth?

“A professional boxer drinking alcohol is like a petrol station attendant smoking a cigarette. If you go there, you’re going to get blown up,” says Nelson, who refrained from drinking booze throughout his 19-year-long professional boxing career.

“Forgoing alcohol is one of the sacrifices you have to make if you want to be good at your job as a professional boxer. But it’s not the fighter that the drinks companies are after, it’s the fighter’s fan base. You’re piggybacking on that support, on the party environment. The boxer is a blank canvas for the brand to project their story onto.”

With last week’s Fury Vs Usyk fight drawing more than 550 million viewers across 137 different countries, plus reports of an additional 20 million illegal streams worldwide, that’s a valuable blank canvas to have your brand’s name on.

Is there a future for premium spirits in boxing?

Flogging beer to boxing fans is a no-brainer. But is there a future for premium spirits behind the bar of some of the sport’s best-loved venues?

“Without a doubt,” says Nelson, who recently partnered with The Pugilist rum, produced by Warwickshire Gin Company in Leamington Spa. In many ways the collaboration is a marriage made in heaven as Pugilist’s founder Dave Blick is keen to get his premium rum into more boxing venues, and Nelson can fly the flag for the spirit at the sports biggest events in his capacity as boxing commentator for Sky Sports.

“Not everyone wants to drink beer. I don’t like beer – I’ll have it if I’m at a BBQ and there’s nothing else, but otherwise I’d rather drink a spirit with a bit of Coke or orange juice. In reality the volume of beer can get too much, people can drink more of a spirit,” he says.

It was, Nelson reveals, a mutual friend who first told him about The Pugilist and its connection to the story of 1950s boxing legend Randolph Turpin. Surprisingly, it was Nelson who reached out to the distiller, not the other way around.

“It’s nice to see a company trying to lift Randolph’s profile and successfully monetising a product at the same time, so I approached them and asked to get involved with the brand,” he says.

“Randolph is one of the unsung heroes of the boxing world, and he doesn’t get the credit he deserves. At that time in the UK for a Black man to do what he did [beat Sugar Ray Robinson to snatch the world middleweight title in 1951], nobody who looked like him had done that before,” says Nelson, who remains the longest-reigning cruiserweight world champion of all time.

He also appreciated the fact that the base spirit of The Pugilist is Guyanan rum, a nod to Turpin’s heritage.

“I love that they’ve made it authentic and as close to his heritage and story as it could be. It puts more respect on the back of his name.”

Does he think that the rum’s premium price point (£38 per bottle) could make it challenging to secure on-trade listings at boxing venues?

“No. If you want a nice rum, you’re going to pay for it. If you want a cheap rum or a cheap beer people will just grab whatever…” he says.

However, Nelson is keen to stress that the brand equally belongs in high-end bars outside of boxing venues. In luxury hotels and restaurants, perhaps even on Saudi’s Sindalah, rubbing shoulders on the back bar with fellow premium rums such as Zacapa, Diplomatico and Eminente.

Would Nelson consider launching his own spirit in the future?

“I’d love to. Getting involved with The Pugilist, and at such an early stage for the brand, is my way into the drinks industry, and an opportunity to learn. There’s always a chance…”

He wouldn’t be the first boxing star to release his own drinks range.

As db reported, in November 2023 MMA star Conor McGregor secured a major on-trade deal for his Forged Irish Stout with more than 500 listings in UK bars and pubs via a partnership with LWC Drinks.

It follows on from McGregor selling a majority stake in his Proper No. Twelve whiskey to Proximo Spirits in a deal worth a reported US$600 million.

Mexican boxing superstar Canelo also launched Tequila-based ready-to-drink range VMC (which stands for Viva Mexico Cabrones) in the US last year.

Check out db’s top 10 sporting drinks partnerships of 2023 here.

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