Boxing has largely been relegated to pay-per-view and premium cable for years. Now a sports entrepreneur and several media companies want to give the sport the wider berth it enjoyed in 1970s and 1980s, when a heavyweight boxing match was a major TV draw. NBC kicks off the effort in earnest tonight when it airs boxing matches in primetime for what it believed to be the first time in three decades. “People are asking, ‘Is it really true? Is NBC going to have boxing in primetime?’” said Jon Miller, president of programming for NBC Sports. “You don’t have to stay up to midnight or 12:30 in the morning.”
TV is jammed with baseball, racing, football, basketball and more. But as media executives find live sports to be one of the few things that win the battle for views against video on demand and DVR playback, the big media outlets want even more of the stuff – and not just to fill broadcast primetime.
NBCUniversal has committed to 20 live boxing events in 2015 on both NBC and sports-focused NBCSN – resulting in more than 50 hours of coverage, which includes pre- and post-fight shows on NBCSN related to the NBC broadcasts. CBS is set to air as many as eight PBC events on weekend afternoons on its broadcast network, with perhaps more on cable’s CBS Sports Network. Spike will feature a monthly PBC event starting Friday, March 13. Adding fuel to the endeavor: a pay-per-view event slated for May 2 between Floyd Mayweather (above, pictured) and Manny Pacquiao.
Adding more NFL football to the schedule is costly. CBS paid between $275 million and $300 million to add Thursday-night games to its primetime lineup. Boxing, compared to many other sports, is not. “The sport of boxing has had a loyal following for a long time and it has, right now, a relatively low price for entry,” said Stephen Espinoza, executive vice president and general manager of Showtime’s sports and event programming. “That’s something unique among major live sports.” In the sport’s heyday, NBC and CBS did not have sister cable networks devoted to sports, with schedules always in need of filling even as rights for most major sports are already sewn up.
NBC’s matches – featuring fighters like Keith Thurman and John Molina Jr. – may not have the cachet of TV matches that boasted Roberto Duran, Larry Holmes and Marvin Hagler, but executives believe the exhibition could tap a new vein of casual fans of the sport who don’t get regular access to it. To lure them in, NBC has assembled a top-notch roster of sportscasters: Al Michaels, Marv Albert, and Sugar Ray Leonard, who knows what it’s like to hit and be hit. And the network will use technology to lend the spectacle new kinds of coverage: a coterie of 32 cameras that allows for 360-degree views on the action.
Al Haymon, a manager who represents more than 150 boxers, has established deals not only with NBC, but CBS, Viacom’s Spike and African-American-focused digital network Bounce TV, all to get more “Premier Boxing Champions” on the air in a way that is easier for more people to see and in a way that may be easier for the networks to show. Under the terms of the deals, Haymon’s organization will handle sponsorships, the better for advertisers to place their messages alongside the sport, no matter where it shows up. The pacts with NBC and CBS are essentially “time buys,” allowing the networks to sell ads in the programs ancillary to the actual bouts.
Sweet-science success is not guaranteed. “We’re a long ways off from the days of Ali-Foreman-Frazier and the stream of gold medals in the Montreal Olympics,” noted Laurence DeGaris, author of a book on sports marketing and a professor of marketing at University of Indianapolis. “Will viewers respond? It’ll be tough, especially for younger viewers, who have a much different frame of reference for who the ‘baddest man on the planet’ happens to be right now.”
And though contact-sports fans have easy access via cable to MMA (and other fare via pay-per-view), the networks aren’t looking to up the ante on violence. “If you play too much on the violence, it can be a little off-putting and doesn’t capture the skill that goes with this,” said John Miller, chief marketing officer of NBC Sports. “This is a contact sport, but we are trying to make it a bit more accessible to a broader audience.”
Nor do organizers expect PBC to speed up its process to woo fans who have grown up with the fast-paced antics of the MMA. “I don’t think there’s anything about boxing that needs to change in its presentation,” said Espinoza.