After making little noise for most of 1998, the
much-maligned sport of boxing is beginning to answer the bell for the cable industry. A
decision today (Oct. 19) by the Nevada Athletic Commission to give Mike Tyson his license
back would further fuel a TV comeback for a sport that only months ago was on life
Most observers blamed a lack of marquee fighters and the
loss of Tyson for boxing's struggles. But a number of basic and pay TV networks are
posting strong ratings for boxing series and events, while several proposed lucrative
pay-per-view fights -- including a potential December Tyson bout -- are close to being
Still, some operators and boxing observers remained
cautiously optimistic about the long-term viability of boxing, which has a long history of
disappointments both inside and outside of the ring.
While cable has had its ups and downs with boxing over the
past decade, the past 16 months have been a particular struggle, both on the PPV and
After the June 1997 Evander Holyfield-Tyson event drew a
record 2 million buys and grossed $100 million in PPV revenue, the genre has barely
reached that level cumulatively with several events thus far this year.
The sport suffered another blow on the basic-cable side
when USA Network canceled its 17-year-old Tuesday Night Fights franchise, saying
that it wanted to seek younger viewers.
The show was not only the lone weekly boxing showcase for
up-and-coming fighters, but it also provided a springboard for eventual lucrative PPV
"When USA Network canceled its fight series, it seemed
like the industry was reading the last rites to boxing," one top 10 MSO said.
Yet instead of walking away from the beleaguered sport,
several networks embraced the "Sweet Science," and they are now beginning to
reap the benefits:
Turner Network Television is looking at offering
several boxing specials, after its Sept. 22 show drew a surprising 2.1 Nielsen Media
Research rating, said Kevin O'Malley, senior vice president of programming for Turner
Not only was the rating above the typical 1.9 rating that
the network averages in the time period, but it was also well north of the 1.7 that TNT
guaranteed advertisers for the event, sources close to the situation said.
Earlier this month, ESPN2 elevated boxing to the
level of its other professional-sports leagues by creating an in-studio show for its
weekly Friday-night boxing series, said Richard Glover, senior vice president of ESPN
Perennial boxing distributor Home Box Office is in
the midst of one of the best ratings runs in its boxing history. The pay network's
World Championship Boxing series has generated double-digit ratings for its last five
Showtime Networks Inc. also scored big with its
Sept. 19 Evander Holyfield-Vaughn Bean fight. Shown during the service's free preview
weekend, the fight helped the network to increase operator participation in the promotion
by 43 percent, the company said.
Why the renewed interest from networks in the sport? Unlike
any other sport, network executives said, boxing consistently performs well on television
and provides viable programming throughout the year.
"Boxing is truly a national sport with a strong fan
base that follows the sport on television," said Arthur Smith, executive vice
president of programming and production for Fox Sports Net. The network offers about 20
nationally distributed boxing shows per year, as well as 20 additional syndicated fight
cards from the Forum in Los Angeles.
Moreover, the sport is beginning to provide good, quality
fights featuring a new crop of exciting young fighters such as Oscar De La Hoya, Naseem
Hamed, Felix Trinidad, Roy Jones Jr., Angel Manfredy and Sugar Shane Mosley, who are
fighting frequently and against quality competition.
"When you do good fights, you get good ratings,"
said Lou DiBella, senior vice president of programming for Time Warner Sports. "There
aren't as many [television] outlets as there used to be, so the networks are putting
on good fights, and the viewers are responding."
And that bodes well for the future of PPV boxing. With
basic networks providing additional exposure for young fighters, operators said, more
marquee PPV fights can be made.
"Anytime a boxing fan can see some events on basic
cable, it reinforces the decision to purchase boxing on PPV," said Pam Burton,
director of marketing for Prime Cable.
But as many operators can attest to, the sport is very
unpredictable. After averaging more than $200 million in PPV revenues over the last two
years, the sport bottomed out this year, earning less than $100 million through 10 months
and leaving many operators that budgeted for at least three major PPV fights scrambling to
meet 1998 projections.
Still, operators were encouraged by the performance of
TVKO's Sept. 18 De La Hoya-Julio Cesar Chavez PPV event, which grossed around $25
Operators were also encouraged by a potential late-February
or early March Holyfield-Lennox Lewis heavyweight-unification fight (see story, page 26).
Yet despite the renewed interest in boxing, many operators
are playing it safe when it comes to 1999 budgets, declining to budget aggressively after
being burned this year.
"We're definitely being conservative next year;
we're not counting on boxing to support our [PPV] budgets," one top 15 MSO PPV
"Maybe we've been too aggressive in the past on
event budgeting, and we're taking a close look so that we don't get caught
scrambling for events at the end of the year," Burton said.