SBJ/January 16-22, 2012/Media

NBC climbs back into boxing ring

The last time NBC tried to bring boxing back to its schedule, it teamed with Telemundo to air fights showcasing four young Latino fighters promoted by Main Events: Rocky Juarez, Juan Diaz, Kermit Cintron and Francisco Bojado. The networks stuck a toe in with three dates in 2003, then came back with five in ’04.

A year later, Main Events took those same fighters to ESPN as part of a short-lived deal in which the sports network would try its hand at pay-per-view. Boxing hasn’t aired on NBC since then.

Heavyweight Eddie Chambers (right) will headline “NBC Sports Network Fight Night” Saturday.
Photo by: NEWSCOM
“Boxing became a challenging effort when it came to network television,” said Jon Miller, president of programming for NBC Sports, who was a sales executive at the network when it regularly aired boxing in the 1980s. “We weren’t getting great fights. Promoters were interested in a quick buck … and in building [fighters] up for a cable or pay-per-view payday.

“We needed to get away from that if we were going to get back into the business.”

Eight years after its last try — and a full 20 years after it stopped airing boxing as a staple — NBC Sports returns to the ring Saturday night. Sort of. Working again with longtime promotional ally Main Events, it debuts “NBC Sports Network Fight Night,” a two-hour show headlined by heavyweights Sergei Liakhovich (25-4) vs. Eddie Chambers (36-2) and junior middleweights Gabriel Rosado (18-5) vs. Jesus Soto-Karass (24-6-3). This time, the network has a sports cable channel on which to give boxing a shot.

After nine months of intermittent talks, which followed a stream of pitches by Main Events CEO Kathy Duva over the last five years, NBC in October signed on for four dates to air on the cable channel formerly known as Versus. A March date will follow the debut. Main Events also is working on matches for June and December, with the latter two likely to feature some of the same faces as the first two. Miller said the network will consider extending the series if the four-show test shows promise. Last week, it signed Go Daddy as presenting sponsor.

Rights fees will average about $150,000 per show, according to boxing sources, allowing Main Events to fill a middle-class void that exists between ESPN and the premium cable networks.

So what changed? For one thing, NBC has a sports network to program, and it sees live events as one of its pillars. The rights for most major sports are locked up by other networks for now. Boxing can be had a la carte. The merger between NBC and Comcast also played a role. NBC and CBS both moved away from boxing after they saw the stars they developed graduate to fight for more money on premium cable. Because Comcast sees an upside from premium channel subscriptions and pay-per-view, that dynamic may not sting as much as it once did.

“Every time I went back to NBC over the years — and believe me, I went back a lot — the answer I always got was: We’re going to build these guys up and then HBO and Showtime walk away with all the good fights,” Duva said. “Well, you’re Comcast now. So even if they leave, they don’t really leave. If more people subscribe to HBO and Showtime, that’s good for Comcast. And when more people buy pay-per-views, that’s great for Comcast.”

Main Events has changed dramatically since the last time it aired fights on NBC. Once involved deeply in fighter development, the promoter now deals with only a handful of boxers. Main Events has pledged to offer up slots to any promoter, so long as they are willing to put their fighters in competitive matches. NBC also asked Duva to make fights with compelling story lines and keep them out of the dull backdrop of casino ballrooms. All the shows will emanate from cities in which Comcast owns a regional sports network, allowing for greater local promotion and additional programming for the RSNs.

This week’s card, set at the 1,500-seat Asylum Arena in Philadelphia — the former TV home of Extreme Championship Wrestling — features a pair of Philly fighters, Chambers and Rosado.

“We want there to be a rabid crowd,” Miller said. “The RSNs can promote it. They’ll really embrace it. In Philly, this will be a real happening.”

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