In this post, Jesse Weiss examines the way race and racism was used to market the recent “megafight” between Floyd Mayweather and Connor McGregor. He utilizes the concept of strategic racism to evaluate the rhetoric utilized to sell the fight to millions of Americans and discusses the potential implications.
I am a fan of combat sports. As a youth, I competed in martial arts and, after some time away, I have returned to it. My children practice and compete in Jiu Jitsu. There is something very appealing to me about one competitor testing their ability against another in an arena for all to see. I support local events and have even purchased many big fights in the past.
By all accounts, I am a fan. So, in June, when it was announced that boxing’s undefeated champion (Floyd Mayweather) was to battle the UFC’s most exciting fighter (Connor McGregor) and the worlds of boxing and mixed martial arts were set up to collide, I should have been excited.
Instead, I was puzzled. Both boxing and the mixed martial arts are combat sports but they are very different events with very different athletes. The skills in one do not always translate well into the arena of the other. As a fight fan, I was curious about how the promoters and participants would sell this fight. As the fight date drew closer, the marketing strategy became very clear.
The Tale of the Tape
Combat sports seem to bring the best and the worst out of its participants. The skills that can elevate a fighter to become the best in their proverbial “game” do not always result in that same fighter being the best human being. As such, neither of the participants in this “megafight” would be considered particularly good role models. Floyd Mayweather is, pound-for-pound, one of the best boxers in history, but he has also been arrested five times and convicted twice for domestic violence. Connor McGregor is a UFC champion in two weight classes at the same time, an honor only he has achieved, but he is also an unapologetic braggart with a penchant for profanity laden outbursts.
Both fighters are considered to be the best in their sport while embodying the worst that their sports have to offer. For this reason, promoters seemed to have a challenge in marketing the fight. To the casual fight fan, there may not seem to be an underdog, as both fighters are champions. So promoters did not rely on populism. Similarly, there was not a clear “good guy” and a clear “bad guy” in the fight. Both fighters are comfortable wearing the “black hat.” Thus, promoters could not rely on classic good versus evil dichotomies. Mayweather verses McGregor lacked the key elements that have traditionally drawn viewers to watch fights, save one. Floyd Mayweather is black and Connor McGregor is white.
Marketing the “Race Card”
As Adam Kilgore, of the Washington Post, recently pointed out, utilizing race to sell a fight is not a new phenomenon. In fact it has been a consistently used tactic for the last 100 years. What is new, however, is the amount of money that the participants and promoters made. While Showtime, the cable provider who sold the Pay-per-view, has not, at the time of this writing, released the official number, Business Insider estimates that as many as 5 million viewers paid $99.99 to watch the event. So many people bought the event that it crashed the system and resulted in a delay in the fight’s start time. That doesn’t even include the thousands of people who watched the fight in their local movie theater or bought tickets at the event. It is estimated that the event resulted in the most lucrative pay-per-view in history. It appears that racial tensions are profitable.
In his book, Dog Whistle Politics, author Ian Haney Lopez introduces the concept of strategic racism, which refers the willful use of racially charged language to gain wealth, power, and status. While Lopez applies the concept to politics, it is clear that its application can easily be extend to other social phenomena like this sporting event. In the weeks leading up to the fight, the promoters staged four press conferences traveling from Los Angeles to London in order to garner attention and sell the fight. In these venues, the fighters were given free rein to demean and denigrate their opponent. Each fighter chose to utilize racial stereotypes, homophobic slurs and sexist language and were cheered for their braggadocio. This not only occurred at each of the four press conferences, it intensified as the fight grew closer. The fighters were never penalized nor were they reprimanded by those who promoted the fight. Even as the country was still reeling from the racial violence experienced in Charlottesville, VA, pay-per-view buy numbers continued to increase in anticipation of the big fight.
Lopez points out that much of the motivation behind strategic racism comes from a desire for profit rather than hatred of others. In fact, much of the strategy is to appear colorblind. Nowhere was this clearer then when the fight ended and combatants embraced in the middle of the ring, each singing the praises of their opponent. McGregor even attempts to justify his racist behaviors by using the “heat of competition” excuse. After all, both fighters made more money from this fight than any other that they had participated in.
The marketing strategy seems to have worked but the ends do not, however, justify the means. The participants themselves may not be prejudiced but undoubtedly some of the millions of people who bought the product they sold did so because they related to the messaging. The impact that such a high profile fight like this can have on the present racial climate negatively demonstrates the power of sport. Instead of bringing diverse people together for a shared experience, this event drew people together by playing on outdated and offensive racial stereotypes for profit. Strategic racism is still culturally damaging. Sport has the potential to heal but, in my opinion, this event made things worse. As a fight fan, I am disappointed. As a sociologist, I am concerned. Mayweather won, but ultimately everyone lost.
- Should sports be evaluated and treated the same way that fictional entertainment is?
- Beside racial and ethnic status, what are some other examples of group stereotypes that are used to market products?
- What are some other examples of recent strategic racism from popular culture where race is being used as a marketing strategy? In your opinion, are these strategies effective? In your opinion, are these strategies ethical?
- Read this post-fight interview where McGregor appears to express regret over his racist remarks. Do you think that the rhetoric represented a “slip of the tongue” or was it part of a marketing strategy to use race to sell a fight? Explain your perspective.
- Lopez, Ian Haney. 2013. Dog Whistle Politics: How Coded Racial Appeals Have Reinvented Racism and Wrecked the Middle Class. Oxford; New York. Oxford University Press.
Many sexist and homophobic stereotypes were used here as well. ↩