Fans who tune into ESPN Friday evening will be greeted with a rare sight on the sports outlet: A ticking countdown clock.
The on-screen timer won’t tick down to the start of Scott Van Pelt’s late-night “SportsCenter” or the first pitch of an important baseball game. It will instead try to interest viewers in an event that has become as infrequent on ESPN as the ersatz timepiece itself – a major boxing match.
On Saturday, July 1, at 10 p.m., ESPN will televise a bout between World Boxing Organization welterweight champion Manny Pacquiao and undefeated contender Jeff “The Hornet” Horn at Suncorp Stadium in Brisbane, Australia. The fight will also be telecast on ESPN Deportes. It is the first time since 2005 that the popular Pacquaio has taken part in a fight that was not limited to pay-per-view.
“We sort of came across this opportunity to really plant a flag back in the sport of boxing in a big way,” said Burke Magnus, ESPN’s executive vice president of programming and scheduling, in an interview. “We hope to do more.” ESPN declined to offer terms of its agreement with Top Rank, the promoter of the bout.
Fights involving past practitioners of the so-called “sweet science” like Marvin Hagler, Sugar Ray Leonard and Muhammad Ali were once top draws on broadcast TV. But in recent years, the biggest names in the sport have moved to pay-per-view matches and premium cable outlets like Time Warner’s HBO and CBS Corp.’s Showtime. ESPN is the latest broad-audience outlet to try to make the sport more broadly available, and does so as its business has come under more scrutiny. The network has parted ways with an array of reporters and journalists, the result of a new focus on financial discipline at a time when rights fees for top sports broadcasts are soaring and cable networks of all stripes are growing more mindful of subscribers migrating to new viewing behaviors that do not require a traditional subscription to Comcast, Charter or Cox.
Boxing could help ESPN strike a new blow with sports fans. “We have a sense that there’s a deeper reservoir of notable fighters,” said Magnus. “We just feel there’s a little more buzz around boxing than there has been in a number of years, and we think that can carry forward.”
ESPN will join other TV outlets hoping to cultivate the sport. NBC, CBS and the Viacom cable network Spike have in recent years begun showing more boxing (Spike’s deal to show boxing lapsed earlier this year). ESPN wants to outdo them and focus more intently on the kind of top-shelf match-ups that might be more the stuff of premium cable. For several years, ESPN showed “Friday Night Fights,” but those broadcasts featured “mostly guys that were up and coming and off the radar, trying to establish themselves, but lower on the food chain,” said Magnus. Getting attention in 2017, he added, “means stepping up in term of quality.”
Boxing has gained mainstream punch in the last two years as Premier Boxing Champions, a promotional entity backed by Al Haymon, placed shows on entities ranging from CBS and Fox Sports 1 to Bounce TV. “With championship-level fighters being showcased through PBC on major network television, the sport once again became more widely available to casual fans instead on those hardcore fans with pay cable subscriptions to HBO and/or Showtime,” said Courtney Brunious, associate director of the University of Southern California Sports Business Institute. “You have boxing showing up on the front of the sports page again.”
There are reasons to work for the sport’s top matches. “The Battle of Brisbane: Pacquiao vs. Horn,” as this weekend’s match has been dubbed, is expected to attract a sellout crowd of 55,000 fans. The previous Australian record of 38,000 was set on March 1, 1992, when Azumah Nelson stopped Jeff Fenech in the eighth round to retain his World Boxing Council super featherweight title. “By following the PBC model, which has brought quality fights and fighters to network and cable, ESPN has a chance to solidify its position again if it can find a way to showcase similar bouts,” said Brunious. “The top fights will always find their way to pay-per-view, but there are still enough fights to be made for a network like ESPN to carve out its own place in the sport again.”
Boxing fans aren’t all that ESPN is seeking. The Disney-owned network will use the match-up to promote other big events it plans to show in July, said Burke, including the annual Home Run Derby that’s part of Major League Baseball’s All-Star Game festivities; Wimbledon; and the network’s own ESPY awards.
Viewers can expect the network to tie its Friday and Saturday programming to the big fight. Live coverage of Pacquiao and Horn weighing in will be featured during a 7 p.m. “SportsCenter” broadcast on Friday night. During the week of June 26, classic Pacquiao fights will be available on demand and streaming via ESPN’s mobile app. On Friday night, ESPN will air a special 90-minute broadcast of its popular “First Take” with Stephen A. Smith, Max Kellerman and Cassidy Hubbarth, who will discuss the boxing match.
ESPN is trying to line up sponsorships tied to the Pacquaio-Horn fight, said Magnus, who could not offer specific details. He suggested the network faced a challenge, because the event was a one-off and not tied to other series or broader array of games.
That won’t keep the network from taking a jab at other boxing opportunities. “We are looking at boxing. We are intrigued. One important thing when it comes to boxing is being able to present a high level of fight on a regular basis,” he said. ”If that opportunity presents itself , I think you will see us doing a lot more in the sport.”