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NBC will bring pro boxing back to network television as part of a two-year extension of the “Fight Night” series that has aired on NBC Sports Network this year, taking another swing at a sport that last appeared on terrestrial television in 2004 and hasn’t run there consistently since 1998.
The deal with promoter Main Events calls for at least eight dates on NBC Sports Network in 2013 and again in 2014, with two slots on NBC in each of those years. At least six of the NBC Sports Network dates each year will air in prime time on Saturday nights.
“We have a long memory,” said Jon Miller, president of programming for NBC Sports. “There was a great history of boxing on NBC for a long time. It pained us to see how much the sport had been slighted and poorly executed. Promoters had put a lot of bad fights on and turned a lot of people off. Boxing was one of the top three sports in this country. Greed got the better of it.”
NBC and Main Events launched “Fight Night” as a pilot program in January with a commitment to only four dates. It already has aired four cards and plans two more this year: Sept. 21 and Dec. 8. Live airings have attracted 200,000 to 300,000 viewers, putting it at about half the audience of ESPN2’s “Friday Night Fights.” That was enough to make the show one of the more watched offerings on NBC’s redesigned sports cable network and convince the network to continue investing.
The budget for “Fight Night” cards typically ranges from $100,000 to $150,000, according to sources, which is more than most fighters make appearing on ESPN or Spanish-language cable networks but far less than they make on most premium cable shows.
The extension also includes continued rebroadcasts of “Fight Night” on Comcast RSNs, along with NBC Sports Network’s commitment to continue creating shoulder programming that introduces viewers to the fighters who appear on the network. It already has aired two installments of its behind-the-scenes “36” franchise around boxers Zab Judah and Eddie Chambers.
“If you look back to all those stars of boxing who are iconic, they were in our living room on Saturday afternoons,” said Kathy Duva, CEO of Main Events. “They became stars on the major networks and then they went on to carry the sport. There have been very few of those stars to emerge since the networks stopped showing boxing. That’s why this is important, why it may be a tipping point.
“It’s five dates [on NBC], so it’s not like it’s every week, but it’s five more dates than we’ve had, for the most part, since the late ’80s. It’s a commitment. And I’m confident that, if they’re happy, we’ll do more.”
Though Duva would not discuss specific fighters or fights for Dec. 22, the date, time and NBC’s request that it be a heavyweight point to Tomasz Adamek, a Main Events-promoted fighter who beat Chambers on a “Fight Night” card last month. Putting Adamek, who is from Poland, on a Saturday afternoon card would allow Main Events to sell the show in prime time in Europe, where he likely would generate more revenue.
The network views the offering of airtime on NBC as a way to showcase fighters it builds up via the “Fight Night” show on NBC Sports Network.
“You’re going to see people there who have been on our air already,” said Gary Quinn, senior director of programming and acquisitions for NBC Sports. “One of the focuses in our grand plan was to bring back the heavyweight division. … There’s the potential for one of those guys to show up.”
After the first few weeks of the NBA playoffs, the league’s network television partners were worried. Big ratings draws like the Chicago Bulls, New York Knicks and Los Angeles Lakers were out. In their place were small-market teams, like the Indiana Pacers, Oklahoma City Thunder and San Antonio Spurs.
“It felt like somebody punched you in the stomach,” said Doug White, ESPN’s senior director of programming and acquisitions.
Ratings for the Finals, with their LeBron James-Kevin Durant matchup, were down 1 percent.
Photo by:NBAE / GETTY IMAGES
“Once I saw how tough a series Indiana was giving Miami [in the second round], I said to myself, ‘This is going to be a really fun ride,’” White said. “The league is in a really good place right now.”
That “good place” was solidified with the playoffs’ television performance, which consistently pulled high viewership numbers even if those numbers were down from the past two years.
Not including the Finals, ABC, ESPN and TNT averaged 5.301 million viewers this year for the playoffs, down 1 percent from last year’s 5.375 million — a result that may seem surprising given the competitive series during each round of the 2012 postseason. But league and network executives said the league’s TV performance matched expectations, especially considering the number of small markets that went deep into the playoffs.
“From our perspective, the numbers have been terrific,” said Jeremy Carey, U.S. director for Optimum Sports. “We’ve seen our clients’ interest peak over the last couple of years. Their impression is that the league has changed and has a lot of positive momentum.”
Much of that momentum can be seen in the star power of the Heat, obviously, but it’s also visible with Oklahoma City, which is the NBA’s third-smallest television market.
“We have seen the trend all year long with Oklahoma City,” said Danny Meiseles, executive vice president of programming and executive producer for the NBA. “The ratings were as strong as we expected. You might have your opinion about LeBron [James], but you can’t deny he is one of the greatest players, and our networks are benefiting.”
Network executives agreed.
“We’re still seeing growth, even with traditionally smaller TV markets,” said Christina Miller, senior vice president of strategy, marketing and programming for Turner Sports and general manager for NBA Digital. “One of the great things about the NBA is its strength among young men.”
With the NBA playoffs, TNT won the night four times among all cable and broadcast networks in the men 25-54 demographic. It won the night three times among cable and broadcast networks for total viewers, households and the adult 25-54 demo.
The league’s postseason ratings surprised some industry experts who said the NBA has been more effective in reaching young men than other sports.
“The average age of the NBA postseason viewer is 40,” said Brad Adgate, senior vice president and director of research for Horizon Media. That age is younger than the postseason average for most other major leagues; only the MLS Cup audience is younger. “I expect ESPN, ABC, and TNT to raise their rates next year.”
Adgate said ABC charged advertisers roughly $500,000 for each 30-second spot during the Finals this year and was reportedly sold out of inventory, though he did not say how much the shorter five-game series cost the network in ad revenue as opposed to a six- or seven-game series.
Last year’s Finals spots started at $400,000 for units in Game 1 and increased to $632,300 for 30-second spots in Game 6.
Executives stressed that viewer interest remained strong throughout the playoffs.
“We won 32 out of the 40 nights we were on cable [during the NBA playoffs],” Meiseles said.
For example, the Heat’s seven-game series against Boston in the Eastern Conference finals set ratings records three times during the series, punctuated by Game 7, which was the highest-rated NBA game in cable TV history.
The Eastern Conference finals on ESPN averaged a 6.2 rating and 10.1 million viewers. Last year’s five-game Eastern Conference finals on TNT between the Heat and Chicago averaged a 6.2 rating and 10.4 million viewers.
Two smaller markets brought smaller conferences finals ratings for TNT this year, as the six-game Thunder-San Antonio Western Conference finals averaged a 5.0 rating and 7.8 million viewers. Those marks were down 19 percent and 25 percent, respectively, from the marks for the five-game Heat-Bulls series last year but up 16 percent and 13 percent from last year’s Mavericks-Thunder Western Conference finals, which was on ESPN.
ESPN and Turner rotate carrying the conference finals annually.
As late as about a year ago, some broadcast executives still looked down their noses at cable. In their eyes, broadcast TV is about delivering quality video to mass audiences. They hardly viewed cable TV — and its tonnage of seemingly cheaply produced programming — as competitors.
I recalled those early conversations last month with the news that two of the biggest broadcasters, CBS Sports and NBC Sports, are trying to develop their own radio networks.
CBS Sports signed a deal with Cumulus Media, which owns and operates radio stations, to launch a national radio network in the next six months. NBC Sports announced a partnership with syndicator Dial Global for a national radio network that will launch in September with hourly sports updates before growing into something bigger.
These moves make it clear that broadcasters don’t view cable as an inferior competitor anymore. The broadcasters have adopted the cable model. The main U.S. broadcasters already own 24-hour sports channels, like NBC Sports Network and CBS Sports Network. They have been making moves to make their online offerings good enough that they are capable of handling TV Everywhere.
Now they are investing in sports radio.
Could it be much longer before we see CBS Sports The Magazine or a broadband channel called NBCSports3.com?
The recent moves by NBC Sports and CBS Sports to join ESPN and Fox Sports in the network radio business make sense. The moves allow CBS and NBC to expand their sports content to a new platform and allow them to market their cable channels as well, almost as barker channels.
And, most importantly, the moves could help out these networks’ bottom lines.
In a recent report, Wells Fargo analyst Marci Ryvicker pegged the national sports radio market at about $150 million. While Ryvicker said ESPN now dominates sports radio, she added, “we believe that CBS’s new network could garner a significant share of the market as early as 2013.”
Some observers believe CBS Sports is in the best position to claim a large chunk of the market, after ESPN. When it launches Jan. 2, CBS Sports says, it will be carried on 67 Cumulus stations and will launch in nine of the top 10 markets.
“This looks like one of those cases where it will add up for both sides: Cumulus provides the distribution and CBS provides the content,” said Tom Taylor, a radio industry analyst with Radio-Info.
CBS Sports executives say the move is more about finding a place for its sports content than anything else.
“We think the sector has been unchallenged, and we believe we have the product that can make it work,” said Dan Mason, president and CEO of CBS Radio. “This deal puts us into this market that we haven’t participated in on a network basis.”
CBS already operates a radio network through Dial Global (which is formerly Westwood One), but that network focuses on news, not sports.
The incumbent sports radio networks — ESPN and Fox Sports — aren’t ready to cede ground to CBS Sports or NBC Sports yet.
“People have seen our growth, and they’ve seen what’s happening in sports radio,” said Traug Keller, ESPN’s senior vice president of production and business divisions. “The model is different now.”
The model is so different now that, in fact, neither of the incumbents describe their business as radio anymore.
“Radio is an antiquated term. It’s not radio. It’s audio,” said Don Martin, head of Fox Sports Radio and senior vice president of sports programming for Premiere Networks, a radio syndication company. “If you’re not solidified on all of these platforms, you should just get out of the business. You need to be where the listener is.”
Rather than adopt ESPN’s national model, in which ESPN shows are heard across the country, Taylor believes CBS Sports will follow a more regional approach. In fact, he predicts that next year WFAN’s Mike Francesa will be heard on CBS/Cumulus stations in upstate New York and New England.
“CBS’s plan allows for a lot of regionalization,” Taylor said.
Compared with television, radio is hardly a big business. But the amount of interest that broadcasters are now showing in the sports radio business demonstrates how far they’ve moved to compete on any platform.
John Ourand can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @Ourand_SBJ.