Few sports moments are more thrilling than the 12th round of a close pro boxing match or a one-punch knockout in a mixed martial arts event, nor are any events more grandiose than a pro wrestling extravaganza.
Ring-sports programming, once relegated to the national and regional cable networks and pay-per-view, is now finding a home on basic-cable networks, as executives look for action-packed content to reach young adult men. Networks such as USA Network, Syfy and Spike TV, as well as upstart channels like MavTV, are hoping the one-two punch of high ratings and great demo appeal can provide a knockout proposition for viewers and advertisers.
Ring sports, particularly boxing and wrestling, initially found TV success on entertainment- based broadcast networks in the 1950s and ’60s. Live fights and wrestling events became the staple of primetime nights on all of the major broadcast networks, which sought exciting, inexpensive programming to offer viewers.
But by the 1970s, as the networks began developing more scripted entertainment, boxing and wrestling were relegated to weekend afternoons and late fringe hours. Eventually, cable picked up the ring sports gauntlet, particularly with boxing, as ESPN and regional sports networks, and premium channels HBO and Showtime showcased the best and brightest boxers.
In the mid and late 1990s, boxing, such pro-wrestling outfits as the WWE (then the World Wrestling Federation) and the mixed-martial-arts-based Ultimate Fighting Championship used pay-per-view to reach their loyal viewers.
Fast-forward to today, and more entertainment networks are airing ring sports as a way of providing actionbased, live programming to attract elusive young male viewers, Spike TV president Kevin Kay said. Male-targeted Spike offers a Thursday-night block of ring sports including Bellator MMA championship fights and Impact Wrestling, a two-hour series from TNA Wrestling.
“When you look at the network and you want to appeal to advertisers who are looking for young 18-34 males, Bellator is a nice property to have, and wrestling’s appeal is not just limited to 18-to-34 year-olds,” Kay said. “When you’re a network that’s primarily male, having a product that allows you to draw 18-to-34 and 18-to-49-year-olds really helps.”
Boxing is also finding its way back to broadcast television after a nearly two-decade hiatus due to lack of advertiser interest in the sport. CBS last December televised its first boxing match in 15 years, in association with sister premium channel Showtime. The broadcast network last month also worked with Showtime to offer shoulder programming to help market the pay TV service’s May 4 Floyd Mayweather-Robert Guerrero pay-per- view event.
Kay said advertisers are slowly coming back to ring sports after abandoning the genre due to a perception of excessive violence. Spike was the first network to air UFC programming, debuting reality series The Ultimate Fighter in 2005. The series will air on Fox Sports 1 this fall, after a year on FX.
“I think it’s a lot easier to put on — there’s not as much resistance from advertisers and sponsors as before,” Kay said. “But there are still some advertisers that it’s not right for. But as you look across the landscape, lots of advertisers now advertise in [ring sports] where they didn’t before. That’s not as much of a concern as it was in the past.”
And viewers are tuning in. USA’s Monday Night Raw series is one of the most watched shows on cable, averaging 4.9 million total viewers and 1.2 million adults 18 to 34 so far this year, according to Nielsen. The network considers its WWE content one of its three programming tentpoles — along with acquired off -network series and original scripted fare — that have helped USA maintain its status as the most watched cable network for the last five years.
Raw, which offers three hours of live programming per week year-round, also draws a large co-viewing audience, which makes it even more appealing to advertisers, said USA Network co-president Chris McCumber.
“Finding live events and live viewing is such a commodity these days, so to have a highly rated show on 52 weeks a year that draws an important audience of young guys and a lot of coviewing among families is invaluable,” he said. “It offers a very interesting proposition for advertisers.”
Other networks are also jumping into ring sports. MavTV, which last July repositioned itself into an entertainment-based network from a male-skewing service, nevertheless considers its Wednesday-night block of ring-sports shows — including the MMA-based King of the Cage franchise — a staple of the network’s primetime programming lineup.
King of the Cage, which provides weekly live MMA fights as well as classic MMA footage, allows the network to retain its initial core male viewer while providing coviewing opportunities between young male and female viewers, MavTV president Bob Patison said.
“While [King of the Cage] skews male, it is drawing about 30% female viewers,” Patison said. “We’re finding that the interest in teen-based viewers is rising, so it’s becoming more of a family-based sport than we had anticipated.”
The network will look to add amateur boxing and college wrestling content later this year, Patison said.
Other networks will enter the ring later this summer. E!. for instance, will debut reality series Total Divas, based on the lives of the WWE’s female wrestlers. McCumber said the series will be cross-promoted on sister NBCUniversal services USA and Syfy; the latter already offers WWE series Smackdown weekly, on Friday nights.
“That show has the ability to bring in an audience that isn’t necessarily watching the WWE brand,” he said. “E! has a very young, upscale audience, and watching Total Divas on E! will get women into the fold that haven’t watched WWE, and I think that’s the way to expand the pie for everybody.”
Ring sports, long a stable of pay-per-view, are finding a home on basic cable networks seeking young, male action fans.