SVG Biz Report: Can PBC Return Boxing to TV Prominence?

By Mike Reynolds, Contributing Editor

Before Floyd Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao engage in the most lucrative fight in boxing history on Saturday night, World Boxing Council (WBC) super bantamweight champion Leo Santa Cruz will defend his crown against Jose Cayetano, and World Boxing Organization (WBO) featherweight titlist Vasyl Lomanchenko will battle Gamalier Rodriguez.

Although some question the quality of those contests at the MGM Grand, especially in light of the record $89.99-$99.99 PPV price, few will argue that the far more interesting undercard is taking place away from Las Vegas.

Al Haymon’s Premier Boxing Champions (PBC) is playing out in venues around the nation on a bevy of networks. It’s a bet, stretching into the hundreds of millions of dollars over the next couple of years, that could revitalize a sport that, over the past two decades, has been generally frustrated in attempts to regain its place inside mainstream sports.

Once a broadcast-network staple, the sweet science has largely decamped to pay TV, to Showtime and HBO and their respective pay-per-view arms as well as to ESPN’s long-running Friday Night Fights series. But boxing’s position has grown over the past couple of years, first with the extension of Oscar De La Hoya’s Golden Boy Promotions with Fox Sports covering bouts with Fox Sports 1 and Fox Deportes.

Through a deal with Turner Sports and HBO Sports, truTV is also entering the ring, with an eight-card deal with Bob Arum’s Top Rank, the first three of which will bow on the eve of major HBO boxing events next month, highlighted by Takahiro Ao battling Ray Beltran for the vacant WBO’s lightweight crown on May 1.

Last week, BET announced a deal with Jay-Z’s Roc Nation Sports calling for nine cards and live musical and DJ performances over 18 months, starting with Andrew Ward-Paul Smith for the former’s World Boxing Association (WBA) super middleweight crown on June 20.

The big man in the ring, though, is the reclusive Haymon, an advisor to Mayweather, boxing manager, and former music promoter. Haymon Boxing Management has landed deals with NBC Sports, CBS Sports, Spike TV, ESPN, and African-American–aimed multicast service Bounce TV, of which Hayman is a founder. The agreements have returned boxing to broadcast and upped its presence on basic cable.

The network gambits, plus Haymon Boxing’s stable of some 200 high-quality fighters, could lead to a ringside renaissance and perhaps even serve as a feeder system of sorts that could propagate the pay-TV bouts and ultimately ascend to the PPV pantheon.

“There have been significant barriers to entry for boxing, with the competitors appearing on pay TV and PPV,” says Jon Slusser, SVP, sports and branded entertainment, Spike. “Longtime boxing fans have shown they will pay for it. The problem is getting the attention of new fans.”

“Short-sighted” promotions have made it difficult, he says: “You do one fight, concentrate on it, and then walk for another year. PBC is a total departure from what has happened over the past 20 years and wants to make the sport available to the masses.”

A Boxing Rebirth
According to Brian Kweder, senior director, programming and acquisition, ESPN although May 2 culminates the build-up to Mayweather-Pacquiao (unless there is a rematch), it marks a new era for boxing.

“The purpose of the PBC is to grow exposure, so that every Tom, Dick and Mary get to know these fighters. Right now, it’s Manny and Floyd and maybe Canelo [Alvarez]. You can’t sustain a sport with two or three names.

Jon Miller, president, programming, NBC and NBCSN, was the first to ink an agreement with Haymon Boxing Management and has the broadest deal. He doesn’t subscribe to some naysayers’ theory that boxing is expanding too quickly.

“We knew they were going to push hard for the exposure but didn’t know it would get the buy-in from all the networks. Kudos to [Haymon Boxing],” he says. “Nobody complains that there is too much great NFL, NHL, or basketball.”

Slusser observes that Haymon’s fight plan is reminiscent of the NFL, which is “always thinking 10-20 years ahead about its plan,” and the other futbol.

“[MLS] took a long time to map out the future of the sport,” he says, alluding to the continuity of national scheduling with ESPN2, FS1, and Univision that concentrates the bulk of matches over the weekend.

Spike, which is airing 10 cards this year, as part of a two-year deal, is showcasing PBC action as part of its “Friday Night Lights Out” franchise, which also includes the Bellator MMA and Glory kickboxing circuits.

“Viewers know they can come to Spike for great ring sports on Friday nights,” he says.

A Boost for a Slow Night
For NBC Sports, which will air 21 events on NBC and NBCSN this year and a similar schedule next year, the PBC accord augments its roster and boosts the network on what is typically a slow night for broadcast.

NBC’s inaugural PBC card, the March 7 co-feature of Adrien Broner-John Molina Jr. and Keith Thurman-Robert Guerrero, drew a 2.1 rating and 3.4 million viewers, the most for a network boxing event since 1998. The April 7 card netted a 1.8 and 2.9 million viewers.

Miller describes the first two primetime Saturdays as “strong performances inside and outside of the ring” and adds that the PBC cards boosted late-news ratings for local affiliates and, later, Saturday Night Live.

Spike’s first two PBC cards — a third with Amir Kahn is set for May 29 from Barclays Center — also performed well in Nielsen’s ring. The March 13 card averaged 869,000 viewers, the most for a boxing event on Friday night in eight years and more than double ESPN2’s 403,000 average for Friday Night Fights in 2014. The Andre Berto-Josesito Lopez bout garnered 1 million viewers.

The second card on April 24 connected with 569,000 on average, with a peak of 716,000 viewers, despite competition from NBA and NHL playoffs, Major League Baseball, and Bruce Jenner’s transgender interview on ABC that scored with just under 17 million viewers.

At ESPN, the first PBC card will come Saturday July 11, after the Friday Night Fights series signs off a 17-year-plus run on May 22 with the finals of the heavyweight and junior middleweight Boxcino tourneys.

“The boxers in Friday Night Fights were at a certain part of the stratosphere,” says Kweder. “It featured up-and-coming fighters and others on the down slope of their careers.”

With Haymon’s expansive stable producing fewer but better matchups, PBC will secure positioning on ESPN. The multiyear plan calls for a dozen fights annually, with a pair slated for ABC.

“The expectation is that there will be better fights on ESPN on Saturday nights,” he says. “Ideally, most of the matches will be on Saturdays, but they will also air on Wednesdays, a few Thursdays and Fridays. PBC has to fit our schedule. We’re fortunate to have a wealth of content.”

Kweder says ESPN, which has yet to announce the July 11 lineup, had been trying for the past few years to get better fighters with a business model that worked.

Promotion, Production, Talent
Although PBC’s network deals are generally reported to be time buys, the executives interviewed emphasize that is not the case. Financial commitments aside, investment is manifesting in terms of promotion, production, and on-air talent.

For NBC, that has meant such legends as Bob Costas, Marv Albert, Al Michaels, and Sugar Ray Leonard. ESPN will deploy the Friday Night Fights tandem of Joe Tessitore and analyst Teddy Atlas.

Spike’s PBC presentations feature NFL RedZone host Scott Hanson, Bellator MMA artist Jimmy Smits, boxer and former Showtime analyst Antonio Tarver, and Dana Jacobson, the first woman with a regular presence on network boxing.

SJX Partners is handling integrated TV and digital sales, plus tickets and hospitality offerings. Kweder says ESPN is also in the ad-sales arena for PBC.

“PBC’s major investment in boxing is great for the sport, which is highly entertaining,” says Lee Berke, president/CEO, LHB Sports, Entertainment & Media.

He says he has not yet seen entitlements from an ad-sales perspective. “PBC is running full-page ads in all the papers [in the New York DMA] and multiplies that by placement in many markets,” he says. “It’s great for the sport if it continues, but people are asking me how to pencil out the model, and I’m still puzzling about that. There is a nut to cover. For now, PBC and the networks are making the play, and we’ll see how it goes over the next couple of years.”

In the short term, Mayweather-Pacquiao is certainly raising awareness for the sport, but Miller doesn’t know how much that equates to down the road, after the final bell rings on Saturday night.

“It’s great that more people are talking about boxing and that some who haven’t been interested in the past will tune in elsewhere,” he says. “But PBC on NBC will rise on the quality of our cards.”

Mark Boccardi, SVP, programming and business development, InDemand, which negotiates PPV licensing and marketing deals for most cable distributors, welcomes the heightened activity and the buzz the PBC is creating inside and outside the ring. Still, he cautions that it may not generate knockouts in the PPV arena down the pike.

“All of the exposure should lift the profile of fighters, and they may become pay-per-view fighters down the road,” he says. “The flip side of the argument could be that, since there is so much more boxing on the air, [viewers] may sate their interest in the sport and don’t need to order PPV matches. It remains to be seen.”

ESPN Kweder is confident, though, that PBC’s play is part of the roadwork that will rejuvenate boxing, even if it means higher costs down the road.

“The game plan will enhance the sport’s profile and may make us a victim of our own success,” he says, noting that the current deal is “very favorably” in ESPN’s financial corner. “If it proves to be as a successful as we think, that’s subject to change, and there will be a different level of negotiations. We’re okay with that; we want to be there as boxing rises.”

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