Cabler looking to build future stars. but eyes big matches

A staple of the net’s schedule since 1986, Showtime Championship Boxing has taken some body blows in recent years.

While still the biggest draw in the sport, contract mainstay Mike Tyson has lost his belts and some of his luster as the baddest man on the planet. What’s more, pay-per-view boxing coin is down from a high of $232 million in 1997 to $116 million last year — and PPV arm Showtime Event Television has not been able to duck the trend.

“The hard part right now is that it’s become a somewhat diseconomic business,” says SET exec VP Mark Greenberg. “There are more smaller events. In the ’90s there were probably 30 (live PPV) events a year with one big one. Now there are probably 140.”

Greenberg says PPV dollars continue to be diluted by increased competition from wrestling, concerts and movies. The sport also has become standard programming on cablers HBO, USA and ESPN, as well as mother network Showtime.

But, according to Greenberg, that’s not all bad.

“We’re about to launch a new series, sort of a young champions on their way up. I think we really need to try and build out the next audience. HBO tried it, but they missed the mark. They didn’t concentrate enough on boxing.”

Such ambitions aren’t easily attainable, however, in a sport where the top-tier athletes are the highest paid on the planet.

“It’s no different with what happens with a movie and talent costs. The stars want as much money as they can demand. I would call that capitalism. We all just have to think in rational terms.”

Indeed, Tyson, with minimal endorsements, made $31.5 million in 1991, nearly twice Michael Jordan’s $16 million (including endorsements).. And while not even Tyson draws like he used to, fighters’ pay demands haven’t changed much.

“Part of the problem is that the industry is not as aggressive in promoting these events,” says Greenberg, thus SET cannot afford the price ceilings of the early ’90s.

“If we’re going to lose money,” he concludes, “we’re just going to put them on Showtime and call it a licensing fee.”

Rising stars

That might be the channel’s hook for young fans. In terms of personalities, he cites Olympians Jeff Lacy and Rocky Juarez as new fighters who might catch on.

“We now have relationships with (junior welterweight champs) Zab Judah and Costa Tzuyu, and where we’ve been moving towards in the past few years is having these fighters fight a couple times of the year and build the fighters.”

Still, Greenberg can’t resist contemplating the only big-name heavyweight bonanza out there, a near-mythical Tyson-Lennox Lewis match.

“I personally think Tyson is in Lewis’ head and he’s avoiding the fight,” Greenberg says. “It will happen because both fighters need it to happen; both need it more now because they don’t hold championships.”

SET needs it, too.

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