SBJ/June 11-17, 2012/In Depth

Boxing making most of TV opportunities

Not long after he took over as the head of Showtime Sports in November, Stephen Espinoza noticed what seemed an inefficiency in the way the network spent its production budget.

Fight cards typically featured upward of eight bouts, some of which turned out to be exciting fare showcasing up-and-coming talent. Yet only two of them made the network’s telecast.

“We’re there with our crew and our equipment and it seemed a little bit silly to go through all that trouble and bring in trucks and personalities from out of town and only get a couple of fights of content,” Espinoza said. “And that’s especially so with authenticated [video on demand], where we have an almost limitless ability to store content and make it available to our subscribers. It didn’t make sense to me.”

One of Espinoza’s first moves at Showtime was to approach promoters with the opportunity to air more fights if they built out better undercards, offering to put two or three of those fights on the multiplex channel Showtime Extreme as a lead-in to the main card on the flagship. The network has been able to offer more fights for only slightly more than it was spending, Espinoza said, by urging promoters to spread the payout more evenly across their cards.

On June 2, Showtime took another step toward offering viewers more, airing a four-fight card on the main network, with a one-hour undercard lead-in on Showtime Extreme.

“As a fan watching boxing, if you only got two fights and they were both quick endings, it could be really dissatisfying,” Espinoza said. “With U.S. Open golf, you’ve got all-day coverage spread among various networks. The concept that boxing was somehow different, in that the tolerance level was only two fights, it didn’t make sense.”

HBO featured Brandon Rios in its new short series "2 Days: Portrait of a Fighter."
Photo by: Getty Images
Showtime’s expanded boxing offering is indicative of a recent uptick for a sport that, a few years ago, found itself with perilously few TV opportunities. In a two-month span in 2008, Spanish-language channel Telefutura canceled its weekly “Solo Boxeo” show, which provided 48 dates, and ESPN cut its fight schedule in half, axing its “Wednesday Night Fights” show.

“Solo Boxeo” returned in 2010, but the outlook remained relatively bleak.

Then, late last year, many in the sport sensed a turn.

Hungry for programming to air on its rebranded sports cable channel, NBC Sports signed promoter Main Events to test launch a series called “Fight Night” that would air intermittently on Saturday nights, with Go Daddy as the presenting sponsor. A four-fight commitment quickly became five fights, and now it’s up to six, with plans for more.

Not long after that launch, Golden Boy Promotions announced a multiyear deal with Fox, which will air 44 live events on Fox Deportes, with some clearing on Fox Sports Net and at least one card a month airing on Fuel TV, which airs a steady diet of UFC programming.

“Boxing is good complementary programming for the UFC,” said George Greenberg, executive vice president and general manager of Fuel TV. “There’s a reason boxing has its troubles. But they do have a loyal and passionate fan base.”

The network with the largest boxing budget, HBO, also has built out its schedule of late, mostly in the form of new shoulder programming. After repeated success driving pay-per-view buys with its high-gloss “24/7” shows, the network created “2 Days: Portrait of a Fighter,” a 15-minute short that documents 48 hours in the life of a boxer.

The debut featured lightweight champion Brandon Rios. The second episode followed junior middleweight James Kirkland. Kirkland has fought regularly on HBO. Rios has a bout on the network on July 7.

HBO also launched “Fight Game” with Jim Lampley, an interview show that promises to take aim at controversial issues in the sport.

“We’re finding all sorts of creative ways to put these fighters in front of an audience and develop an interest level in them,” said Ken Hershman, president of HBO Sports. “That’s what our job is. The recent advent of all the shoulder programming has been a very substantial development here.”

Last year, HBO attracted an average of 1.2 million viewers for its World Championship Boxing shows, an increase of about 10 percent over 2010. This year, Julio Cesar Chavez Jr. delivered 1.9 million viewers for WCB and Bernard Hopkins attracted 1.6 million. The first half of the year also figures to produce a pair of big numbers for HBO Pay Per View. Floyd Mayweather’s fight against Miguel Cotto last month was the second-highest-grossing non-heavyweight PPV event ever, bringing in $94 million on about 1.5 million buys. Saturday night’s Manny Pacquiao fight was expected to do at least 1.2 million buys.

The audiences for “Fight Night” on NBC Sports Network have been far smaller — 264,000 viewers for the first card and 283,000 for the second — but only the NHL and IndyCar racing have produced larger audiences for the network.

With payouts that are better than what ESPN and the Spanish-language networks offer, but lower than what fighters get on premium cable, NBC Sports Network has found an underserved middle ground. Thus far, promoters Kathy Duva and Russell Peltz have delivered pivotal and competitive matches, turning down fight managers who aren’t willing to risk a loss.

Duva said she is willing to bring back fighters who get beat, so long as it was in an exciting fight against quality competition.

“I’ve had more conversations with TV executives where they said, ‘Our viewers saw him lose, so they really don’t want to see him again,’” Duva said. “Can you imagine someone saying, ‘We saw the Yankees lose yesterday, so we don’t want to see them again.’ To make it interesting, people have to win and lose.

“This is competition. That’s the point. If he couldn’t lose, there’s no point of putting it on television.”

The show also has proved to be cost-effective content for the rebranded cable network. Along with airing the live telecast, NBC Sports replays the fight and sometimes gets its best rating of the day from them. The replays also air on
Zab Judah was featured on NBC Sports Network as part of its “36” franchise.
Photo by: Getty Images
Comcast RSNs. NBC Sports Network also has used its burgeoning “36” franchise — which has taken viewers behind the scenes in hockey and racing — to raise the profile of fighters on the network. Zab Judah was featured before his fight in March. Last week, the network followed Eddie Chambers, who faces Tomasz Adamek this Saturday on “Fight Night.”

“We like the fact that it leads to original programming,” said Gary Quinn, senior director of programming and acquisitions for NBC Sports. “Those re-airs have been doing fairly well. We get multiple bites at that apple, so it’s a great investment for us — one that has exceeded expectations.”

The leading promoters in the sport all say they’ve noticed the uptick in demand for their content.

“We have so much interest from networks and platforms who want to have boxing as content — it’s something we’ve never seen since I’ve been in the sport,” said Richard Schaefer, CEO of Golden Boy Promotions, whose company revived “Solo Boxeo” by bringing a cadre of sponsors to the show and now says it will do the same for the shows it promotes on the Fox channels. “A couple of years ago, we were out begging. Now, people are calling us.”

Turnkey Sports Poll

The following are results of the Turnkey Sports Poll taken in May. The survey covered more than 1,100 senior-level sports industry executives spanning professional and college sports.

How much attention do you pay to the following properties now compared to five years ago?
  MORE SOME LESS
Boxing 7% 41% 53%
UFC 29% 39% 32%
WWE 4% 32% 64%
 
In your opinion, can the UFC get to the next level without being sanctioned to hold bouts in New York?
Yes     46%
No     35%
Not sure / No response     19%
 
Which of the following fight industry titans would you most like to have dinner with?
Dana White, UFC     22%
Oscar De La Hoya, Golden Boy Promotions     19%
Vince McMahon, WWE     19%
Don King, boxing promoter     11%
Bob Arum, Top Rank     5%
None of these     24%

Source: Turnkey Sports & Entertainment in conjunction with SportsBusiness Journal. Turnkey Intelligence specializes in research, measurement and lead generation for brands and properties. Visit www.turnkeyse.com.

There are several reasons. The proliferation of sports networks that want both live and repackaged content. The increased emphasis on Hispanic viewers. The willingness of fighters to sign for less money and fight more often.
Top Rank President Todd DuBoef points to better packaging, thanks in large part to improved shoulder programming and increased promotion by media conglomerates such as Time Warner and CBS.

“I always felt like there were 100 Polynesian islands out there in the sports world and boxing was one of them,” DuBoef said. “I’d see the other islands and they had fireworks and carnivals. And we were this island with muddy gutters and no electricity. For years, we just weren’t being presented right. I’d look over and say I wish we were like the NFL or basketball.

“Well, we’ve finally got carnivals and Ferris wheels now. We’re out there presenting ourselves better, and the market is responding.”

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