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19 May 2021updated 22 Jul 2021 4:35am

From athlete to influencer: how cash-strapped sport is turning into celebrity entertainment

The wildly lucrative boxing career of YouTuber Jake Paul proves the real world power of likes and views. 

By Jonathan Liew

In the Jake Paul universe, nothing is real. Or, more precisely: nothing is real beyond the attention it generates. Words can mean anything you want. Actions have no consequences. Whatever comes out of your mouth is made true simply by the act of saying it. Covid-19 is “a hoax”. Serious allegations of sexual assault can be batted aside. All that is sacrosanct must be debased, and all that is debased must be made sacrosanct. For the 24-year-old YouTube prankster, professional provocateur and anointed saviour of boxing, fame and notoriety are simply parallel lanes winding towards a common destination.

On 17 April, in his third professional fight, Paul knocked out Ben Askren, a former cage fighter who had never boxed at any serious level. And yet what the encounter lacked in sporting pedigree it more than made up in celebrity wattage. There were musical performances from Justin Bieber, the Black Keys and Doja Cat. The rapper Snoop Dogg and the comedian Pete Davidson shared presentation duties. The fight itself lasted less than two minutes before Askren was felled by a wild right hook. Still, by most measures the event seemed to be a stunning success: shortly afterwards Paul claimed that the fight had attracted 1.5 million pay-per-view purchases at $50 (£36) each, or $75m (£54m) in total. The news was announced on Paul’s Instagram page, accompanied by a photograph of him basking in a giant pile of banknotes.

Was it real? Was it sport? In the subsequent days, industry experts would cast doubt on the veracity of Paul’s numbers. Fans wondered aloud about the integrity and validity of the bout. Seasoned boxers derided the spectacle as a tasteless stunt. “For true fighters, I do believe that it’s a lack of respect,” said Canelo Alvarez, the multiple-weight world champion from Mexico. “It’s all based on money. It’s all for money.”

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Yet somehow, none of these objections felt all that robust or relevant. Particularly not in a sport like boxing, which to some extent has always been the domain of the braggarts and the chancers, the hustlers and the hucksters, and where a certain incredulity is essentially priced in to the viewing experience. And as for a lack of respect: for the likes of Paul and many of his generation of YouTube nihilists, there could be no greater endorsement. The irreverence, the insincerity, the repudiation of established norms: this is the point of the exercise. Even Davidson’s pre-fight presentation – “today’s a really wild day for boxing, because it shows how low it’s truly sunk” – carried its own arch, self-referential wink.

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Paul’s spectacular infiltration of big-time boxing – to the point where two former world champions were fighting on the undercard as his warm-up act – may be the most grotesque example of how the worlds of sport and scripted celebrity entertainment are slowly bleeding into each other. But on a smaller scale, this is a process happening across the board. The aborted European Super League was an attempt to recast football as a steady-state television drama: the same cast going on the same adventures at the same time every week.

Meanwhile, on 20 April the PGA Tour unveiled the Player Impact Programme, a new $40m (£29m) fund to be awarded to the golfers who generate the biggest global profile, based on metrics such as social media engagement, internet searches and television exposure. Fans and ex-players have already derided the scheme as a means of funnelling even more money to the world’s best players, such as Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy. Really, though, the novel part is the way it explicitly divorces sporting reward from sporting performance.

Not a cent of the fund is contingent on how well a player can hit a golf ball. Instead, as with Paul and his boxing vaudeville, the only meaningful currency is attention. “If I get ninth [at a tournament] and Tiger gets ninth, we both make the same amount of money,” said the world number 39, Max Homa. “That is… robbery, because I brought one-thousandth of the attention and money to the tournament that Tiger brought.”

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It’s worth following this train of logic all the way through, because it is the logic upon which the future of sport is being re-aligned. Of course the best athletes have not always been the highest-earning ones. Profile has always been disproportionately remunerated through the auxiliary economy of sponsorships, endorsement deals, media coverage or post-career opportunities.

But this is different. In a way, this was an inevitable corollary of sport’s post-Covid capital crunch: the athlete reimagined as influencer, rewarded primarily – or even exclusively – in terms of their ability to generate content. As all sports scramble for liquidity and market share in an overheated attention economy, increasingly they are beginning to repackage themselves as entertainment franchises, advertising space. Rumour, scandal, conflict, slur: it’s all good. Whatever moves the dial.

Nobody understands this better than Paul, whose career has mushroomed in spite of – or perhaps because of – numerous high-profile controversies. A few years ago video footage emerged of him using the N-word during a freestyle rap. Shortly before his fight against Askren, the TikTok star Justine Paradise accused him of forcing her to perform oral sex on him. (Paul denied the allegations, implying they were the work of “liars and fake news”, and derided Paradise as an attention-seeker trying to drum up business for her adult entertainment channel.) Meanwhile, the circus goes on. Jake’s brother Logan is scheduled to fight the legendary Floyd Mayweather in June. As ever, in the world of the influencer nothing is real except the likes and views: the clout, and what it buys you.

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This article appears in the 19 May 2021 issue of the New Statesman, In defence of meritocracy