The first thing we can say about the upcoming sports event of the year is that it doesn't promise to be much of a sports event. In a bizarre way, that's sort of the point.
On Aug. 26, Floyd Mayweather will come out of retirement to box mixed-martial-artist Conor McGregor in Las Vegas.
McGregor, 28, secured this fight because of one marvellous physical attribute – his mouth. He has never before boxed at any meaningful level.
Although he is old (40) and out of practice, Mayweather is by consensus the finest pugilist of his generation. It's not just that he's never lost a fight. He's never really come that close. Over two decades and nearly 50 fights as a professional, Mayweather has only once suffered the indignity of a split decision.
This isn't a boxing match, per se, because that suggests a meeting between two relatively equal competitors. Rather, this is a chess grandmaster playing the world champion of checkers. They may both be good at board games, but one is working on a different level.
Canelo Alvarez, judged by many to be the best boxer currently at work, has called the encounter "a big circus and a joke."
The Mexican has good financial reasons to feel affronted. On Sept. 16, he'll meet Gennady Golovkin in what is, by sporting standards, the real fight of the year. All the lustre has just flaked off that affair.
Instead, we'll get a fight that is more likely to end with an illegal karate kick to the head than a decision. That's probably a best-case outcome for most of the people who will pay a hundred bucks to stream this encounter.
Many of them will never before have seen either of these men compete. Few of them will care if Mayweather still has it or whether McGregor can switch disciplines mid-career. Those are questions so plainly contrived to make money, they beg no answer.
You may as well wonder how well Shaquille O'Neal would do wrestling an alligator, because a lot of people might pay to watch that as well. That doesn't make it "sports."
The only point to Mayweather-McGregor is that it will provide something mainstream sport has lost the ability to do well – create an honest-to-God spectacle.
In their rush to monetize every day of the year, the major professional leagues have for some time now been eating their own lunch. What do you get after six months of hockey (or basketball, or baseball)? Two more months of "meaningful" hockey – although only two weeks of that really count.
Once that's over, you move to summer, which used to suggest a small pause to live your actual life. Not any more.
Now it's hot-stove season and if you want to stay plugged in, you have to keep abreast of every organizational twitch, all of which must be pored over Talmudically, regardless of how insignificant.
We have reached the point where the off-ice/field/court stuff is treated with more thoughtfulness and reverence than the sport as it is played, because games last only a couple of hours, two or three times a week, and the Internet requires around-the-clock feeding.
We no longer track what happened. We mine what should happen, or seemed to happen, or ought to have happened, or might still happen. Being a fan of sports has become a largely imaginative exercise, moving backward and forward in time. I suspect that, eventually, some people will stop watching games altogether and instead reassemble them forensically from the statistical data.
Every bit of input matters – every game, every trade, every controversy, every rumour. And so nothing really does. It's all of a piece.
Mayweather-McGregor doesn't have that problem. It's a one-off. That is an unimpeachably rare bonafide these days – something that will only happen once. You may love the Super Bowl, but if you miss this year's, there's one the year after. The best boxer in the world will never fight the best cage fighter in the world ever again. (Not after this particular cage fighter gets his head handed to him.)
This fight won't ask you to give it two months of constant attention in order to be enjoyed. McGregor doesn't know what he's doing. Why should you?
You can tune out of this thing until 10 minutes before it starts and you will still have all the necessary information – two guys are going to fight and the one who looks comfortable doing so in shoes is probably going to win.
People who never watch the fights, or UFC, or pay-per-view of any sort, or even sports at all will tune in for this. Why? Because it's different. Because everyone else is, too. Because it's an event.
With that sort of allure going for it, what does the sport matter? The fight is an incidental part of the entertainment. You'll remember where you were and who you saw it with rather than any of the competitive particulars.
I suspect this fight is a harbinger of sorts. For most of 50 years, traditional sport has enjoyed unfettered growth. Everyone has gotten richer through expansion – more teams, more games, more preseason, more playoffs.
Eventually, that must end. In economics, growth is made possible by innovation. Baseball (or hockey, or football, or what have you) isn't changing any time soon. They haven't found a new way to tap new audiences. They're just giving the same one much more of the same thing. That has natural limits.
When people tire of the constancy of sport, they will seek out spectacles. And in order to distinguish themselves, those will become increasingly freakish.
Like this fight, not all of them will qualify as sport in the strictest sense. But at least they will be different.