The beleaguered sport of boxing may have received an adrenaline boost last week when Million Dollar Baby won the Academy Award for best picture, but several cable networks are aiming to breathe new life into their pugilistic programming.
Despite the lack of a true marquee fighter to carry the sport, Home Box Office, ESPN, Fox Sports Net and Showtime have been punching up their coverage of the sweet science — and they’ve been rewarded with increased viewership.
Considered a significant broadcast and basic-cable draw in the 1970s and 1980s, televised boxing of late has largely aired on premium players HBO and Showtime, as many wary advertisers abandoned a sport known almost as much for its corruption and controversy outside the ring as its action inside the ropes.
But recently, ESPN and FSN have been ringing the bell with weekly boxing shows that are resonating with fans.
ESPN2’s Friday Night Fights franchise has posted a 20% increase to an average of 525,000 viewers through Feb. 25, compared to the same period a year ago. The network will also return its summer Tuesday Night Fights series in May.
ESPN senior vice president of broadband and interactive sales Matt Murphy attributed the success to the total sports network’s recent agreement with promotional outfit Main Events. The parties are in the middle of a 12-fight deal showcasing such up-and-coming stars as World Boxing Association lightweight champion Juan Diaz and welterweight contender Kermit Citron. The partnership will also develop two pay-per-view events, the first set for April 23. That card, which will retail for a suggested $29.95, will feature Diaz and Citron, as well as three-time champion Shane Mosley.
“Friday Night Fights has never been stronger … the ratings have been up significantly the past 12 months, and our decision to complement what they’re doing with championship PPV events reinforces ESPN’s commitment to the sport,” Murphy said.
FSN plans to air as many as six live boxing cards over the next few months within its daily sports-and-entertainment offering Best Damn Sports Show Period, said FSN executive vice president of programming and production George Greenberg.
Three previous Best installments that featured boxing, which aired over the past six months, rank as the highest-rated shows in the series’ history.
The show presenting the Sept. 23 James Toney-Rydell Booker fight set the record, with a 0.76 household mark.
Going forward, FSN will showcase young fighters, including 2004 Olympic gold medalist Andre Ward, who’ll appear on the undercard of an April 7 event featuring light heavyweights Julio Gonzalez and Montell Griffin.
On March 6, FSN also began its weekly Sunday-night boxing package of taped but previously unseen fights.
“The potential also exists to go with a live fight on Sunday Night Fights, if we wanted,” Greenberg added.
But while basic networks are getting into the ring, HBO and Showtime remain the sport’s TV champions.
Nearly all of the sport’s marquee names and boxing matches appear either on the networks or via the networks’ respective pay-per-view arms.
HBO Sports president Ross Greenburg said the sport’s exposure on basic cable, as well as through Million Dollar Baby — about the trials of a female boxer — and reality shows like NBC’s The Contender and Fox’s The Next Great Champ are aiding boxing’s overall appeal.
“The more people that are in a ring and are exposed on television, the better off the sport is,” said Greenburg. HBO will add to boxing’s small-screen exposure with an average of one World Championship Boxing event a month, as well as six live events as part of its Boxing After Dark franchise.
HBO is off to a fast start after its Feb. 19 Bernard Hopkins-Howard Eastman WCB show generated a 7.2 rating within the network’s universe, according to Greenburg.
In addition, HBO plans to distribute a PPV boxing event each month through June: a March 19 Erik Morales-Manny Pacquiao super-featherweight fight; an April 9 Marco Antonio Barerra-Mzonke Fana WBC super-featherweight championship tilt; a May 14 Felix Trinidad-Winky Wright middleweight match; and a potential June Arturo Gatti-Floyd Mayweather junior welterweight championship bout.
For its part, Showtime continues its series of boxing cards on the first Saturday of each month — scheduling that proved to be a ratings winner, network executives said, though it didn’t disclose specifics.
In addition, the network will offer at least 12 boxing cards featuring up-and-coming fighters as part of its Showbox franchise, according to Showtime Sports and Event Programming senior vice president and general manager Ken Hershman.