PBC plots path to maximize rights, distribution
|Keith Thurman’s win over Danny Garcia (left) drew 3.1 million viewers for CBS last month.
Two years in, there are numbers culled from more than 100 shows that blanketed the airwaves, including a smattering of prime-time Saturday night shows secured via time buys on NBC, CBS, Fox and ESPN, along with a hefty volume of shows on both NBC Sports Network and FS1, as well as bimonthly shows on Spike and the traditional premium cable boxing offerings of Showtime.
“If nothing else, what PBC without question has provided is a set of data points across a variety of different networks and at least the structure of an argument of what a business model would be if certain benchmarks can be reliably delivered,” said Stephen Espinoza, executive vice president and general manager of sports at Showtime. “That’s something that hasn’t existed since boxing was regularly on prime time on network television in the ’70s and ’80s.”
In the last 12 months, PBC has produced 54 cards that aired across nine channels, putting up the following numbers:
■ NBC: An average of 2.45 million viewers across three shows.
■ Fox: An average of 1.75 million viewers across three shows.
■ Spike: An average of 538,000 viewers across seven shows.
■ Showtime: An average of 452,000 viewers across 10 shows.
■ ESPN: An average of 418,000 viewers across seven shows.
■ Bounce: An average of 397,000 viewers across four shows.
■ NBC Sports Network: An average of 237,000 viewers across three shows.
■ FS1: An average of 189,000 viewers across 15 shows.
If those sound like a recipe for network rejection, those who still hold out hope for the PBC would remind you that the viewership has been better of late, as PBC has moved away from its scattershot approach of time buys to focus on CBS/Showtime and Fox/FS1.
CBS’s telecast of the Keith Thurman vs. Danny Garcia fight in March drew an average of 3.1 million viewers to prime time on a Saturday night, the second largest audience for boxing in the last year (see chart). The main event attracted 3.74 million and the fight peaked at 5.1 million, both of which are promising indicators.
Two weeks before that, Showtime drew its largest boxing audience since heavyweight Deontay Wilder fought on the network in 2015, getting 779,000 viewers for an Adrien Broner fight.
On the week in between those, FS1 got its biggest audience ever for the PBC, with a fight featuring prospect Caleb Plant drawing 357,000 viewers, most of whom likely migrated there after Wilder’s appearance on Fox, which drew an audience of 1.87 million. All four PBC cards that have aired on FS1 since then have broken 200,000 — certainly not strong numbers, but an uptick of about 20 percent over what FS1 was doing with the property before that.
And then there is the PBC’s performance on Bounce, the lesser-known digital broadcast channel that targets African-American households. The PBC also had its best showing on that network in February, when a card of prospects that included two former U.S. Olympians drew 501,000 viewers.
That level of performance is an indicator that, when packaged and promoted effectively, boxing is the sort of property that could command a rights fee via a package that includes broadly distributed television, the end game that Haymon pitched when he raised more than $400 million in institutional capital to launch the company.
“If you’ve got a sport that is relatively inexpensive and that can reliably draw 4 to 5 million or even 3 to 4 million on prime time Saturday nights, that is a viable business,” Espinoza said. “There are a lot of ways to skin the cat. But at a relatively inexpensive price, there is a business there.”
The key word that Espinoza mentioned several times during a conversation about the property is “reliably.” The PBC has generated ratings for CBS this year by putting its two biggest fights on the network, bouts featuring Keith Thurman against Danny Garcia and Shawn Porter, arguably three of the four biggest stars in the stable. Any network that invested in the PBC would have to trust Haymon to provide fights like that consistently enough to make the numbers work on network prime time.
|Showtime drew 779,000 viewers for Adrien Broner’s split decision over Adrian Granados in February.
“If you look at this as a long-term play and believe that these guys are willing to invest in building stars — and not just for harvesting via PPV — you might say based on what we’ve started to see that there could be a future as a mass appeal product,” said sports media consultant Ed Desser. “But are they willing to do that? That’s the question to me.”
One of the criticisms of the PBC has been that Haymon spread the programming too broadly across the TV grid, making it difficult for viewers to track. There were several reasons behind that decision. For one, it exposed all the networks to the PBC product and put Haymon across the table from each of his potential suitors. Perhaps more importantly, it enabled him to meet commitments to his stable of more than 200 fighters, finding dates for them throughout the year without being blocked by the networks’ ties to other sports.
In hindsight, most TV executives agree that the spread probably hurt the ratings, a theory supported by the uptick of recent months, as the PBC has consolidated its programming across fewer networks. NBC and Haymon parted ways amicably after the time buy commitment concluded, with the network saying it would be willing to talk again if the economics made sense. Spike, which paid a rights fee, also stepped back after its initial contract ended, although it told the PBC it would entertain slots for fights on a case-by-case basis — as long as they weren’t at odds with Spike’s combat sports priority, Viacom-owned Bellator MMA.
“We enjoyed the relationship and we both learned a lot from it,” said Jon Miller, president of programming for NBC Sports. “We agreed to continue talking. And if the right opportunity comes up, we’re open to having a conversation. That’s where we left it.”
Considering the heft of Haymon’s stable of fighters, most of whom he is contractually obligated to provide dates, the likelihood is that dream fit would be with a network that could provide heft through its sports network and promotional reach through the occasional Saturday night on a network flagship.
CBS may be the company best positioned to play in that model, especially since Showtime already has a built-in boxing budget that sources pegged at about $40 million for this year. It also has the underprogrammed CBS Sports Network digital offering.
4 to 5 million or even 3 to 4 million
on prime time Saturday nights,
that is a viable business.”
“With any rights negotiation, it’s part art and part science,” said Doug Perlman, CEO of consultancy Sports Media Advisors. “When they come out, who they’re talking to, what the motivation is of whomever they’re talking to — that all can matter as much as the ratings and the demos. And, as important as anything, will they be able to generate a competitive bidding process?”
The greatest struggle for the PBC may, in the end, be the same one that pushed it off network television to begin with: The inability to find sponsors to spend consistently in the sport.
“I think the sponsor relationship is where boxing is living or dying,” Espinoza said. “The sport is underappreciated in terms of the demo that it delivered: multiethnic and multigenerational. It’s hard to find second-generation Hispanic and all-generation African-American. The demo is very valuable. But, to a certain extent, there is still a lot of work that needs to be done to educate sponsors and make them see the truth as opposed to the conventional wisdom that has been hanging around for a couple of decades.
“That’s where the lack of an advocacy group [such as a league] in the sport hurts. If there was one, they’d be with every ad agency and pulling out charts and PowerPoints, showing what boxing delivers at a relatively inexpensive rate.”
Though Haymon and other PBC executives continue to decline opportunities to discuss their strategy publicly, those in TV and in boxing say that —while only those in the company know for sure — it appears likely that the events and decisions of the next year will determine the company’s fate.
“They put together a significant amount of money and they went for it,” said Richard Schaefer, the former Golden Boy Promotions CEO who last year launched Ringstar Sports, a promotional company that will work with the PBC and others. “They challenged a lot of the prevailing wisdom and tried new things. Some worked and some didn’t. Now, is somebody or hopefully more than one network going to step up and say we like what we saw the last two years?
“I don’t have a crystal ball. But if I look at the rating and the cost, then I do believe that boxing is a tremendously effective way to reach an audience, and that it’s the cheapest live sports content there is right now. Is that enough to have one of those networks step up and say we’re going to buy into it and try and here is how much we’re willing to pay? I don’t know.”