It is not exactly the Superbowl. It’s bigger. One of the most anticipated sporting events of the decade occurs May 2nd. Floyd Mayweather versus Manny Pacquiao. Ring side tickets on StubHub for $351,005.25 a pop. In fact, this fight is so universal in its appeal that Sen. Harry Reid looked into buying his notably pugilistic counterpart John McCain a ticket (recall in 2013, McCain threatened to kick the *$(% out of Reid over a Senate squabble).
Both Mayweather and Pacquiao are boxing giants. Each has a devoted fan base. And each is at the helm of a massively successful, individual sports brand. But it wasn't always like this.
On the precipice of the biggest moneymaking fight in history, it is worth remembering that only a decade ago neither man was much of a draw at all. Their brands were either completely ineffective, as in the case of Mayweather, or completely unknown, as in the case of Pacquiao. No one much cared to see them. As Lou DiBella, former head of HBO Sports, said of Mayweather on the eve of his first boxing PPV in 2005 against the extremely entertaining, but marginally talented Arturo Gatti, "His talent is astounding, but his recognition has not matched his talent. He can't sell tickets. Anyone who thinks he's the A side of this promotion is crazy. It's a Gatti event."
Pacquiao was not exactly an overnight sensation either. Bob Arum, Pacquiao’s promoter, originally used Pacquiao in an HBO undercard to sell tickets to Filipinos. It didn’t work. They didn’t know who he was.
Despite the inauspicious beginnings, though, both have built two of the most successful sports brands in history. Mayweather currently sits at number 1 on the Forbes’ list of highest paid athletes and Pacquiao at number 11. Each, therefore, serves as a master example on the importance of properly aligning one’s brand to one’s goals. Without properly fostering their brands, they would both almost surely still be obscure names with little possibility of capturing the public’s imagination outside of hardcore boxing fans. How then, did each’s brand grow into the behemoth it is today?
After winning an Olympic silver medal at the 1996 Atlanta games, Mayweather began as an extremely talented, but extremely dull fighter. Unfortunately, his brand at the time—"Pretty Boy" Floyd Mayweather—did little to counter this image. In fact, it reinforced it. Mayweather was hit so rarely that his fights offered little for excitement in a sport where hitting is the sole objective. He was able to remain "Pretty" even after 12 rounds. Though he was winning every championship he could get his hands on, he was not making very much money or gaining many followers, especially in comparison to top draws like Oscar De La Hoya.
With the gap between his talent level and actual fan interest continuing to grow, things began to boil over for Mayweather. From complaining that no one at the MGM Grand was even aware he was fighting to being considered merely the opponent in his first PPV, Mayweather recognized the need to regroup. So he fired his entire promotional team. He even fired his father. What emerged was the new, villainous persona of "Money" Mayweather. As Mayweather himself puts it, it "was like a [professional wrestler] reinventing himself."
Mayweather went out of his way to foster this new brand. He began to hang out with celebrities with similar "money" centric brands—like 50 Cent, Justin Bieber, and even Warren Buffet—and became very active in social media by posing with wads of cash and other accoutrements of wealth. Both of these efforts helped to cultivate a fan base either aspiring for Mayweather’s "Money" lifestyle, or longing for his comeuppance—something that boxing is perfect for.
While he does not promote any products, this actually helps further his rich guy persona (rich guys do not need endorsement money after all). Instead, Mayweather generates value for his brand by co-promoting all of his own fights. This means Mayweather’s money comes almost exclusively from promoting PPV sales. Why compromise the brand, then, when you can generate hundreds of millions of dollars from getting fans to buy into the "Money" persona?
Pacquiao, on the other hand, has always been entertaining. He is, however, not American and lacks the Olympic credentials of someone like Mayweather, which certainly did not help him in winning fans early in his career. He could not even get his home country fans to pay much attention to him initially.
To rectify his anonymity, Pacquiao did everything in his power to foster the premiere brand of Filipino-ness. In addition to beginning to wear the Filipino flag on his trunks, Pacquiao undertook to create a music and movie career in the hopes of furthering Filipino culture overseas. The idea of the hard working Filipino émigré who sends back support to his or her home nation has long been an important symbol in Filipino culture. Pacquiao used this longstanding symbol to create a supremely popular brand with Filipinos (the nation supposedly stops when he is fighting) that could then be exported as an American story of hard work paying off.
To complete the story of bolstering the Filipino nation through boxing, Pacquiao ultimately ran for, and won, office in the Filipino congress. This would solidify Pacquiao’s brand as one of a devoutly Christian, "good guy" fighting for the betterment of the world. In essence, Pacquiao’s brand is the opposite of Mayweather’s "Money" brand of fighting to make himself rich.
While each fighter's respective brand is now larger than life, it is exactly because the brands they have fostered are so disparate that makes their fight so big. In one corner there is the self-centered bravado and narcissism of "Money" Mayweather and in the other there is the good-guy who fights for something bigger than himself, his people. Just as in the cola wars, with the youthful Pepsi in one corner and the comfortable nostalgia of Coca-Cola in the other, everyone can pick a side. The value of each brand becomes more valuable from the contrast. We may not know whether the black hat or white hat will win on the 2nd, it's the power of branding that's made the fight matter.