The fate of Showtime Event Television and HBO Sports' April 6 Lennox Lewis-Mike Tyson pay-per-view megafight will most likely be determined Tuesday, when the Nevada State Athletic Commission decides whether to give a boxing license to the former champion.
Boxing observers said the enigmatic Tyson didn't endear himself to the commission after rushing heavyweight champion Lewis last Tuesday during a press conference to announce the highly anticipated fight. The ensuing brawl — and a potential Tyson indictment in Las Vegas on sexual-assault charges — cast further doubt on his boxing future.
But if Tyson is cleared to fight, industry executives said, the attention created by the melee could propel the bout to record-breaking revenue levels.
The PPV industry could certainly use the lift. Last year, the sport generated just $93 million, compared with $116 million in 2000 and $219 million in 1999.
Lewis-Tyson figures to be the centerpiece of a trio of PPV events, beginning with a March 2 card headed by a rematch between World Boxing Council featherweight champion Erik Morales and Marco Antonio Barrera. Later, on May 4, WBC super welterweight champ Oscar De La Hoya and World Boxing Association super welterweight king Fernando Vargas are slated to do battle.
The press-conference fracas overshadowed a groundbreaking deal between two rival PPV programmers, SET and HBO Sports. Many observers believed a deal for the fight could not be made because of a long-running feud between Viacom Inc.-owned Showtime — which holds television rights to Tyson's fights — and AOL Time Warner Inc.'s HBO, which has a multifight deal with Lewis.
But executives from both companies said pressure from the fighters forced the two parties to work together.
Sources close to the situation said it's unclear how the Nevada commission, which stripped Tyson of his license after the former heavyweight champion bit Evander Holyfield's ear during a 1997 fight, will rule on the issue after last Tuesday's incident.
Minutes after the press conference began, Tyson — who claimed he was pushed — began throwing punches at Lewis and the fighter's bodyguard. Tyson suffered a cut on his forehead during the fracas, while Lewis was allegedly bitten.
Representatives from the commission could not be reached for comment at press time. But commission chairman Luther Mack told the New York Daily News
that Tyson's explanation of the event would weigh heavily in its decision.
Also weighing on the commission's mind are reports that Las Vegas police are investigating allegations that Tyson sexually assaulted a woman last fall in that city, according to published reports.
As Las Vegas is scheduled to host the fight, a negative ruling by the commission would force Showtime and HBO to find an alternate site, a difficult prospect at this juncture.
Even if the commission grants Tyson's license, Lewis may be having second thoughts. Representatives from Lewis' camp said the World Boxing Council and International Boxing Federation heavyweight champion would evaluate his "options" with respect to participating in the event after the commission makes its decision.
In a press statement, Tyson said a "miscommunication" over a planned face-off between the two fighters at the conference led to the skirmish. In the statement, Tyson also apologized to conference attendees for lewd remarks he directed at a boxing reporter.
If Tyson gains the commission's blessing, then the headlines and images spawned by the press-conference brawl may ultimately help sell the event on PPV.
Adds to Hype
"I think it increases the appeal," DirecTV Inc. senior vice president of programming acquisitions Michael Thornton said. "People like excitement, and I think that's why Mr. Tyson is so popular — you never know what you're going to get."
But others aren't too sure.
"Sadly, in boxing, there's no such thing as bad publicity," In Demand senior vice president of programming and development Dan York said. "[The incident] certainly indicates animosity between the two fighters, but that kind of conduct does not help a sport that has its share of black eyes."
HBO and Showtime executives held mixed views about the impact the incident could have on the fight's PPV performance.
"It probably does both," Showtimeexecutive vice president of corporate strategy and communications Mark Greenberg said. Added HBO Sports president Ross Greenburg: "This isn't the way we wanted to kick off the promotion, but Lewis-Tyson had a ring to it that felt like we could get the industry back to the 1980s and experience a megafight. I hope by April 6, we can let the action happen in the ring and we can put this behind us."
Should the fight materialize, both companies will evenly split the fighter's purse guarantees — reported to be $17 million each — and will jointly market the fight. Neither network's logo will appear on the PPV telecast. Neither executive would reveal terms of the fight's rate card. But sources close to the situation said the fight could break the heretofore sacred $50 retail mark.
Showtime's Greenberg is confident an equitable deal can be reached.
"It will be an enormous payday for the industry, so it's in their interest for it to happen," he said. "We're sensitive to what their needs are, but I think they're also sensitive to the fact that we have two fighters who command significant guaranteed purses. So we have to make this economically successful to [operators] as well as for us."