Showtime stands by its man

Showtime Event Television, perhaps mindful that Saturday night’s bite-shortened heavyweight championship fight between Evander Holyfield and Mike Tyson had set a record for pay-per-view buys and revenue, was preparing Monday to give Tyson, the network’s most lucrative single sports asset, another chance.

It seems that an ability to attract more than $100 million in television receipts in a single evening will buy an athlete a lot of redemption.

With Tyson going on live TV Monday to read a face-saving statement of apology, SET executives were cautiously optimistic that Tyson could salvage his reputation and marketability in the wake of his disqualification for biting champion Holyfield on both ears during the third round of their rematch in Las Vegas.

“The final chapter on Mike Tyson has not been written,” said Mark Greenberg, executive VP of sports and events programming for Showtime Networks.

“I think there are issues Tyson has to deal with before we can all move forward. We can’t dismiss what happened on Saturday night. But I would say it’s certainly possible we will continue our relationship.”

SET has a lot riding on that relationship. Preliminary estimates indicate that Saturday’s fiasco was purchased by between 1.8 million and 1.9 million homes at an average of $49.95, which easily erases the all-time pay-per-view record of 1.6 million buys for the first Tyson-Holyfield match last November.

With the estimated $110 million to $115 million in PPV revenue generated by Saturday’s match, the five Tyson fights that have run on pay television since his 1995 release from prison have tallied in excess of $350 million combined. Clearly, Showtime isn’t about to dismiss that kind of drawing power lightly.

“It’s still unclear just where Tyson falls in the world of boxing after this,” Greenberg added. “He’s had a lot of second chances, and people are forgiving of him. I think at this point, Mike needs to stand up and take some responsibility.”

That’s just what Tyson tried to do on Monday in a carefully orchestrated news event aired live over CNN and ESPN2. He read a statement apologizing to the world, to his family and to the Nevada State Athletic Commission as well as to Holyfield himself.

Indeed, the wild card in any future Tyson scenario is the way Nevada’s sporting body opts to reprimand Tyson when it meets today to mete out his punishment, if any. It could ban Tyson from boxing in the state for any amount of time it sees fit, and other states might follow suit.

Yet Monday’s apology enables SET to continue its relationship with Tyson while reducing the likelihood of a public relations nightmare. The network has a three-year deal to carry Tyson’s bouts on pay-per-view, a pact that still has 18 months to run.

While Greenberg would not comment Monday on the possibility of a third Tyson-Holyfield matchup, neither would he dismiss it.

“There will always be a curiosity factor with Mike Tyson,” Greenberg said. “People may be angry and frustrated by what he did on Saturday, but they would buy Tyson-Holyfield III tomorrow.

“I mean, what viewers saw on Saturday may not have been what they bargained for, but they got something different, a different kind of value.”

That value continued to preoccupy the nation on Monday, with even President Clinton weighing in on the controversy in televised comments. The general consensus seemed to be that apology or no apology, Tyson’s credibility as an athlete and a business partner had been severely damaged by Saturday’s ugly incident.

Steve Blum, an analyst with the media research firm Carmel Group in Carmel, Calif., fears that any Tyson fights from this point forward would “all be freak shows, the equivalent of an animal taking on Jeffrey Dahmer and Hannibal Lechter.

“I think that anybody who considers doing business with Tyson would at this point be wise to reassess it. Sure, he’ll be a big draw, but does a company like Showtime really want to have any association with a man who would do this in a boxing ring?”

Then again, added Blum, “Tyson is a paroled felon, and he is repped by a convicted killer (promoter in Don King), and that didn’t seem to be a big problem for anyone. So we shouldn’t be surprised that the integrity of boxing isn’t part of this equation.”

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