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Ring That Bell: 20 Years Of Boxing

6/23/2006 8:00 PM Eastern

Call it a one-two punch. Showtime’s 30th is the premium network’s second anniversary this year: Showtime Championship Boxing celebrated its 20th in March.

For two decades, Showtime has played cable ring to innumerable historic fights, from 1989’s 10-rounder between Evander Holyfield and Michael Dokes followed by George Foreman’s dramatic comeback opposite Gerry Cooney the next year to the first face-off between Diego Corrales and Jose Luis Castillo in what industry experts dubbed the “2005 Fight of the Year.”

For Ken Hershman, Showtime’s senior vice president and general manager for sports and event programming, it’s about delivering “the best boxing on television.” It’s also about giving fans a steady diet of boxing on TV. Championship Boxing is the only regularly scheduled primetime premium television boxing show, with the first Saturday of every month marked out for a boxing event.

Outside the Box
Some of Showtime’s innovations in sports programming include:
Source: Showtime Networks
2006
Introduced podcasting and vodcasting
Announced that iTunes would offer boxing matches
2005
Partnered with DirecTV on an Interactive TV boxing portal
2004
First network to begin regular telecasts of boxing in high-definition
2002
Launched its Interactive Boxing application
1999
Produced the first broadband pay-per-view sports event
1998
Featured the first live Webcast
1996
First boxing network to feature online scoring
Offered streaming audio from fighters’ corners on the Web

Keeping boxing fans satisfied, especially with so many of the sport’s — not to mention the network’s — biggest draws no longer in the ring, is no small feat. Showtime has opted for a less big-name-driven programming strategy, eschewing multifight contracts that it would have signed in the past.

“When we had Mike Tyson, we had a different philosophy,” Hershman admitted. But he thinks shunning such deals now is one of the things that sets Showtime’s boxing programming apart from the competition.

“[Home Box Office] will sign fighters to 3- or 4-year deals, multiple fights, and then they’ll work through who the opponents are,” he said. “They’re really relying on big stars. Not necessarily putting them in the toughest fights possible.”

The problem, Hershman said, is that, “with any athlete, when you have a long-term deal you don’t want to do anything too risky to jeopardize it. So when we did [multifight deals], we found that the matchups were really soft and we couldn’t get the best out of them that we wanted.”

While a more “a la carte strategy” has freed up the network to pick and choose who to put on any given card, it also means that a prospective rising star who might hit it big on Showtime can always take their trunks somewhere else for their next bout.

Still, Hershman thinks the philosophy is in the network’s and fans’ best interests: “We just want to have the best fights we can — the best matchups with the most exciting fighters.”

Not that Showtime has ceased cultivating long-term relationships with high-profile fighters through the years. Lamon Brewster, Castillo, Corrales and Jeff Lacy are among the fighters who have been on Championship Boxing several times. “We’ve developed a good relationship with them, but at the same time we’re not married to each other,” Hershman explained.

Besides its flagship Championship Boxing, Showtime has also made a name for itself in the pay-per-view arena with several knockout events. The 1997 Mike Tyson-Evander Holyfield rematch was the most-watched PPV event ever, scoring almost 2 million buys; and a 2002 matchup between Tyson and Lennox Lewis grossed $103 million, making it the all-time PPV revenue champ.

But since the end of the Tyson era, Showtime has been less involved in such big PPV events.

“Pay per view for us is more of an opportunistic play,” said Hershman. “We’re really programming the network more than being a pay-per-view provider.”

Still, PPV is sometimes the only way for a cable network to go when programming a premiere-event bout. The two reasons: time and money.

When you have “the Oscar de la Hoya-level fighter … the Felix Trinidad-level fighter, who requires $10 million for his own side to go into a fight, let alone what his opponent is going to get, the economics dictate that you have to go to PPV,” Hershman said. “And there are also only so many dates. Showtime can only put on so many fights. There are other dates that promoters feel they have to keep their fighters working. They have a quality card, but nowhere to put it on the network. So we offer it up on PPV so viewers at least can elect to see it.”

Besides Championship Boxing and PPV events, the network’s sports lineup now also includes ShoBox: The New Generation, which features up-and-coming fighters. For young athletes, who usually have 15 to 20 fights under their belts and typically have been undefeated to date, ShoBox is “a kind of test,” said Hershman. “It’s a back to basics, bare-bones boxing program for the real hardcore boxing fan.”

To satisfy those hardcore fans, Showtime has also been aggressively exploring interactive and multiplatform opportunities for its sports programming. It was the first network to feature online scoring, produced the sport’s first live Webcast and broadband PPV event, and it was the first network to begin regular telecasts of matches in high definition. This year, Showtime boxing introduced podcasts and vodcasts, and announced that Apple Computer Inc.’s iTunes would offer fights for downloading.

“All of these ancillary platforms are ways to generate additional retention, awareness and revenue,” said Hershman. “It’s about delivering more value to existing subscribers who are already engaged … but it also allows you to expose [nonsubscribers] to something they might not have seen, get them excited and get them on board for subscribing.”

Showtime’s programming formula seems to be working. Last year, its boxing ratings were 35% over 2004, according to Hershman, who said that this year’s numbers are flat. “We couldn’t possibly expect to be up another 35% in 2006,” he added. “To increase 35% and now to be holding our own, we’re very pleased.”

Aside from giving boxing fans what they want, Hershman sees the network’s sports programming as an opportunity to expose viewers to other fare that the network has to offer — and perhaps to introduce nonboxing fans to the sport. In 2003, for instance, the network scheduled a live concert by hip-hop artist Jay-Z followed by a fight between Tyson and Clifford Etienne, which led into the premiere of its Family Business series.

“If you put these great events on, you’ll get great numbers,” he said. “People will be drawn to it and watch, and then they’ll stick around and watch the other things that Showtime has to offer.”

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