World middleweight champion Andy Lee recently found himself on the canvas after absorbing a hard right-hand punch from undefeated challenger Peter Quillin in the first round of their nationally televised 12-round World Boxing Organization championship fight. Lee got up, was hit again and fell back down.
The sweet science has found itself in Lee’s precarious position over the past two decades. Once a staple of primetime and weekend-afternoon network- TV lineups, boxing found itself on the ropes from the late ’90s through the early 2000s. It was knocked down by a one-two punch of shady promoters, bad matchups and overpriced fight cards that helped push major boxing matches almost exclusively to premium services HBO and Showtime, as well as to pay-per-view.
But like Lee, who got up from the second knockdown and eventually gutted out a split-decision draw to keep his belt, boxing has risen from the canvass, finding new life on cable and broadcast networks in 2015.
Under the oversight of powerful and press-shy boxing promoter Al Haymon’s Premier Boxing Champions (PBC) franchise, boxing is once again airing on mainstream broadcast TV and cable networks, with multi-year deals to air live fight cards on NBC, CBS, Spike TV, Bounce TV, ESPN, CBS Sports Network and NBCSN.
Even reality-focused general-entertainment channel truTV is stepping into the boxing ring, with a multi-fight deal with boxing promoter Top Rank.
Industry executives said the combination of Haymon’s willingness to buy time on broadcast and cable networks to showcase competitive world championship boxing matches live in primetime, coupled with the unprecedented hype surrounding the May 2 Floyd Mayweather-Manny Pacquiao pay-per-view welterweight championship boxing match, have helped fuel momentum.
Factoring in the increasing value of live sports programming in a very fragmented television environment, boxing isn’t just getting up off the mat — it’s getting increased exposure in front of a huge television audience.
“There are a lot of factors that have come together independently that, put together, have created a perfect storm for boxing,” Showtime Sports president Stephen Espinoza said. “All of these factors have created a platform for boxing to be showcased in an unprecedented scale both in terms of the breadth and depth of the presentation.”
Executives said hard-core fight fans — as well as young aficionados of the Ultimate Fighting Championship and other mixed-martial-arts ring sports who might not necessarily follow boxing — now have a chance to watch the best fighters in the world without the need for a subscription to Showtime or HBO.
“It’s a big deal for the sport … when you have primetime Saturday night, you have an opportunity to draw a very large audience,” said veteran sportscaster Marv Albert, who announced NBC’s March 7 primetime PBC-produced boxing telecast. The PBC on NBC telecast came some 30 years after Albert announced NBC’s last primetime boxing show.
Viewers are already responding to the boxing shows on traditional broadcast and cable- TV channels. NBC’s April 11 fight card, which featured the Lee-Quillin fight, as well as its March 7 PBC debut telecast averaged 3.1 million viewers and a 1.0 rating among the advertiser coveted 18-49, according to Ratings Intelligence.
The series, which will feature a total of 11 NBC primetime and Saturday-afternoon telecasts, as well as nine primetime NBCSN telecasts, is also averaging over a 1 ratings point among men 18-49 and 25-54, per Ratings Intelligence. That’s rare for a typical Saturday night for any broadcast or cable network.
Spike’s inaugural PBC boxing telecast on March 13 averaged 869,000 viewers, more than double what ESPN2 averaged for its Friday Night Fights package in 2014, according to Nielsen. Spike, which will air 12 fight cards over the next year, will debut its second PBC-produced event April 24 featuring a main event bout between super middleweight champion Anthony Dirrell and contender Badou Jack.
“It’s creating a lot of excitement around boxing,” Spike TV president Kevin Kay said of the network’s PBC on Friday Night series. “We had never done boxing before, so I think you’ll see the audience continue to grow with our other cards.”
Kay added that Haymon, a former music promoter who represents more than 150 boxers, according to press reports, including pound-for-pound boxing champion Floyd Mayweather, is committed to building the appeal of boxing through increased exposure on broadcast and basic-cable TV.
Mayweather — who currently holds the World Boxing Association, World Boxing Council and WBO’s welterweight titles — won’t appear on any of the PBC cards in the near future, though. Two fights, including the May 2 bout with Pacquaio, remain on his exclusive six-fight deal with Showtime.
“[Haymon] believes boxing needs a comeback, and if it was allowed to just be on pay cable and PPV, it would have an older audience and younger people would never have the opportunity to experience boxing the way we experienced it when we were kids,” Kay said. “When you’re in front of most TV households versus the 28 million to 30 million that pay TV is in, you have an edge.”
Terms for PBC’s various TV series have not been disclosed, but executives said Haymon has reached time-share arrangements with the various networks in a bid to broaden boxing’s reach.
In a recent interview with Multichannel News, CBS Sports chairman Sean McManus said his network’s multi-year business deal with PBC was “good” for CBS.
CBS’s April 4 Adonis Stevenson-Sakio Bika light heavyweight championship fight — the first of up to eight live events for the broadcaster in 2015 — drew 1.3 million viewers on a Saturday afternoon.
Even boxing’s ring-sports competitors are impressed by PBC’s aggressive TV strategy and the sport’s subsequent resurgence. The investment made by Haymon and the networks will pay dividends with regards to boxing’s future health, Ultimate Fighting Championship president Dana White told Multichannel News.
“I’ve said this for years — what boxing needs is a guy who will put his hands in his pockets and spend money on the future of the sport, and that’s what Al Haymon is doing,” White said. “He’s making some moves and he’s pulling in good numbers”
Prior to the Premier Boxing Championship franchise, the lion’s share of boxing matches were on premium networks HBO and Showtime as advertisers and broadcast networks fled the sport in the 1990s amid scandals involving both fighters and promoters, mismatches and expensive fight purses.
But premium channel executives aren’t worried that boxing’s return to broadcast TV will be a major hit to their fighting franchises, despite the fact that many PBC fighters have previously appeared on HBO or Showtime.
Both middleweight champion Lee and Quillin’s most recent televised fights were carried by HBO, for example.
HBO Sports president Ken Hershman said the network isn’t suffering from lack of quality fighters — over the next three months, the network will air live fights featuring such names as 2014 fighter of the year Terrance Crawford, heavyweight champion Vladimir Klitschko and rising star Canelo Alvarez. Potential fights for former champions Miguel Cotto and Timothy Bradley are currently in negotiations, he added.
“We’re fully charged and ready to go,” Hershman said. “We’re just trying to figure out where we’re going to put them all.”
Showtime is also running on all cylinders with its spring and summer boxing lineups. Major upcoming cards feature the likes of Julio Cesar Chavez Jr. and heavyweight champion Deontay Wilder.
Both Showtime and HBO will have their hands full over the next couple of weeks as jointly promote and distribute what is potentially the most lucrative boxing match in history, the May 2 Mayweather-Pacquiao PPV event. The fight, pitting arguably the two most popular fighters in the sport, is expected to shatter the record $152 million in PPV revenue generated by Showtime’s 2013 Mayweather-Canelo Alvarez fight.
Mayweather-Pacquiao will benefit from an unprecedented marketing and promotional campaign with spots on such high-profile shows as AMC’s Mad Men and coverage of the NBA Playoffs and NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs, In Demand senior vice president of programming and business development Mark Boccardi said. Efforts began in earnest this past weekend, he said.
“When you add up all the promotion that will happen from all of the parties involved, coupled with all the media coverage, on top of social media and all of the organic discussion that will go on, [Mayweather-Pacquiao] will have a hysterical level of attention,” he said.
Not that the fight needs much promotional hype. From the moment the two men faced each other at the March 11 press conference announcing the fight, anticipation has been building in both the industry and among boxing fans.
Showtime’s Espinoza said that at press time, several operators are already reporting PPV buys for the fight at levels not usually seen until two or three days before the live event.
Industry observers say boxing’s live-event status plays well in a television environment that is fragmented with time-shifted DVR and SVOD viewing, as well as from competition from overthe- top services like Netflix and Hulu.
Live sports programming on cable in particular dominated viewership during the first quarter. ESPN’s Jan. 12 telecast of the Ohio State-Oregon College Football Championship Game set an all-time cable audience record of 33.6 million viewers, while the network’s overall college football and NFL Wild Card playoff coverage comprised the top five most watched shows on cable during first-quarter 2015.
On April 4, TBS generated its biggest audience ever with the NCAA men’s basketball national semifinal game between Kentucky and Wisconsin — the second game of the “Final Four” — which delivered more than 16 million viewers.
“There’s no question that live sports still provides a unique value in today’s time shifted viewing patterns that is only becoming more critical as time goes by,” Showtime’s Espinoza said.
While boxing is clearly enjoying some momentum in the early rounds of its TV renaissance, executives said it still remains to be seen whether the sport has enough stamina to go the distance and re-establish itself as one of the biggest draws on television.
“I think the jury is still out … right now they are in a major spending mode, and we’ll see how long that continues and whether that produces any long-term business plan that works,” Hershman said.
Tale of the Tape: Pay-Per-View Boxing
The pay-per-view industry has high hopes for the highly anticipated May 2 matchup between Floyd Mayweather and Manny Pacquaio, and why not? For one, according to Forbes, tickets for the bout at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas are already commanding between $1,500 and $10,000 on the secondary market, according to Forbes.com — and they weren’t even on sale yet at press time. Another reason might be Mayweather’s prominence on the list of the most-purchased and highest- grossing pay-per-view fights of all time, where he’s outperformed such ’90s and ’00s mega-stars as Mike Tyson and Oscar De La Hoya.