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Is Boxing on the Outside Looking In?


It was announced with great fanfare last week that the UFC had brokered a deal with the Fox Network that would have them televising four live cards a year. Yes, Fox, not Fox Sports Net, but the channel that brings you the NFL, Major League Baseball and “The Simpsons.” Fox has come a long way since the days of “Married with Children” and “The Garry Shandling Show” and the UFC has come a long way since the days of small underground and unsanctioned cards. Their first telecast takes place on November 12th, which just happens to be the same date as Manny Pacquiao’s pay-per-view bout against Juan Manuel Marquez.
Of course, this set off the immediate debate of just how much this “free” UFC show would affect the pay-per-view figures of Top Rank and the “Pac-Man.” It turns out, perhaps not too much.
Bob Arum, CEO of Top Rank, told Maxboxing last Friday afternoon, "Well, I thought we’d be going head-to-head with them and therefore, it would be a huge battle but instead, it’s a pretty good situation. They’re going to go- and I’m using Pacific time- and show two of their fights from six to seven on Fox and then start our telecast at six o’clock but Manny doesn’t go into the ring until about 8:30. So they’re going to direct people over to the pay-per-view and those are people that we wouldn’t ordinarily attract because there’s very little overlap between UFC [and boxing]. So we have the opportunity now to pick up, with their help, a good number of the UFC fans."

For years, Arum, among others in boxing, spoke optimistically about returning the sport to the terrestrial airwaves, where they once played to huge audiences on networks like of CBS, NBC and ABC. As they eventually made the deal with the devil and started paying the huge license fees of the premium cable networks like HBO and, later, Showtime, the sport has become more and more marginalized to the fringes with fewer transcendent stars in recent years.
When asked about the UFC deal, Arum commented, "The real problem is that they took a network deal which doesn’t pay them nearly as much as premium television does and so, yeah, we would like to be on network television but certainly not have that as an exclusive deal which they’ve done. In other words, you look closely at this deal, only four of their shows a year and there just one-hour shows on network television." The veteran promoter pointed out that the UFC will still keep their best match-ups on pay-per-view. "So four times a year, they’ll be doing a show on Fox, which is pretty good but they had to give them an exclusive in order to do it."
According to Kevin Iole of Yahoo! Sports, who covers both boxing and MMA, the deal is for a duration of seven years and $700 million, also including programming on other Fox platforms like FX (which will televise 32 bouts and be the new home of their “The Ultimate Fighter” reality series) and Fuel TV. Perhaps the financial figures are greatly exaggerated but the potential viewership that the UFC has going forward is pretty staggering.
Anyway you look at it, this is significant.
"For the sport of MMA and especially the UFC, it’s such a huge, huge deal. To be on network TV, four major fights a year and with all the different platforms that Fox and its regional sports networks and their foreign networks that are affiliated with Fox, it’s huge and all it will do will grow the sport and we’re so thrilled here," said Marc Ratner, V.P. of Government and Regulatory Affairs for the UFC.
It’s telling that while boxing now celebrates fights that have audiences of just over 1.5 million and more recently, the fact that pay-per-view infomercials (in the form of either “24/7” or “Fight Camp 360”) will get seen outside of the relatively small reach of HBO and Showtime and that the participants in pay-per-view bouts might get booked for appearances on “The Piers Morgan Show,” the actual UFC product is on Fox. When Pacquiao was taken over to CBS/Showtime by Top Rank earlier this year for his bout against Shane Mosley, it was hoped that it would lead to a return of boxing on CBS’s airwaves down the line. However, it seems as though all that was gained over HBO was leverage by Arum and his company in future dealings.
Boxing found a new way to stretch the existing template by finding new and innovative ways to market their pay-per-view events, which in itself is a positive step, I guess. But the UFC has created a whole new paradigm in which to expose its product and create future generations of fans. No matter what anyone thinks of MMA, the way it has been promoted and marketed, has made it appealing to the ever-important demographic of the white male between the ages of 18-to-34, which is paramount to sponsors and corporate entities. There’s always been that debate as to how much crossover there is between fans of boxing and MMA but it seems to advertisers, it’s more vital about just who is making up the fan base.
It’s hard to deny that MMA hasn’t at least cut into the boxing market share in the United States as it relates to combat sports.
"I think it’s a big blow because you’re going to have at least 36 fights a year, prime time, where there is MMA fighting on either FX- which is in 99 million homes- or Fox- which is the largest network in the country. So you’re talking almost every single week, either Friday or Saturday night, there is going to be a UFC fight live on one of the two networks, reaching at least 100 million people and they’re going to put their biggest stars on there," Iole pointed out.
To put this into perspective, if you combined the subscription bases of both HBO and Showtime, it would hover around 50 million.
"I think it’s going to be a huge blow to boxing because boxing does not have that kind of in-depth coverage of its top stars," Iole concluded.
In the past, other MMA organizations made their ways to the network airwaves but never with anything this comprehensive and filled with this much potential.
Brent Brookhouse, Managing Editor of explained, "The UFC, they took a lot of time kind of working and waiting for a network deal that was best for them. They had pretty in-depth talks in the past with NBC and they were hinting at CBS as well. One of the big sticking points was always that the networks wanted control of the production. They felt that the production was part of what made them so successful and they didn’t want to give that up. It looks like Fox finally caved, so it’s hard to say what the long-term impact is to it but it’s more eyeballs getting a chance to catch the product and not having to pay- which is one of the points you hit eventually- you kinda max out. The number of people willing to give your product a try instead of paying 50 dollars. Now, there’s a new method for people to get legitimate high-end fights that they can see for free."
Originally, UFC made inroads by putting its product on cable entities like Spike TV and later on Versus, playing to ever-growing audiences throughout the years. Brookhouse points out, "The Spike deal went sour pretty fast as soon as it was clear that the UFC was going to try to play hardball. They had a Versus show that Spike counterprogrammed with replays of an old UFC event and Spike actually outdrew Versus, which I think kind of pushed the UFC to try to make a bigger deal and not feel comfortable with Versus- the fact they were getting beat by replays on a different network."
Just like in boxing, UFC’s pay-per-views are star-driven and without the true marquee attractions, buy rates will suffer. For the first time in years, their numbers have plateaued.
"There’s a lot of factors at play," explained Brookhouse, "but they’ve definitely taken a hit this year. One of the main things is the injury or illness of Brock Lesnar. He hasn’t fought this year and he was a guy who was pushing pay-per-view buys over the million-buy mark. So they’ve had a couple other injuries at the top end of the cards but it’s hard to say. There was supposed to be a third fight between Frankie Edgar and Graham Maynard and their January fight was a great fight but they’re not major drawing guys. So it’s hard to say when that fight gets scrapped because of injury how much impact that really has. But it’s been a pretty big dropping off in terms of the number of pay-per-views per event. They’ve got some very big shows to close out the year but this will be the first year- barring just outstanding numbers we’ve never seen- in several years that the UFC won’t set a new record for pay-per-view buys in one year."
That’s the key; the union with Fox helps the process of creating new attractions. The thing is, a network deal in boxing wouldn’t mean that a Pacquiao or Mayweather would ever be on those networks. The tax bracket they reside in means they are compensated through pay-per-view and nothing else. That said, it would infinitely help the visibility of nascent stars like Brandon “Bam Bam” Rios and Nonito Donaire, who represent the future of the boxing business. Instead, they are relegated to playing in front of modest audiences on HBO and Showtime.
Yeah, it’s great that it will be more Manny and Floyd all the time on the various Time Warner entities as they push their upcoming cards but it says here that for the overall growth and development of the sport (and just as importantly, for their own investment in the sport), it would’ve been better for TNT or TBS to start at least a semi-regular boxing series. Yeah, the proposed series on HBO2, which will focus on up-and-coming prospects, seems promising but again, it’s such a limited audience.
As for the quality of shows you can expect to see on Fox, Ratner says, "These will be major attraction fight cards, so there’ll be big-time fighters on there and certainly our pay-per-view model will still be in effect." Brookhouse says, "I’d imagine they’d try to go big at least early on. I don’t think Fox was wanting to pay just for mid-level shows. So I’d expect probably that you won’t see George St. Pierre on Fox just because he’s one of the few guys that’s a guaranteed pay-per-view draw but it wouldn’t shock me to see a guy like Anderson Silva make an appearance on Fox once a year."
You get the sense that unlike their counterparts in boxing, they won’t recklessly abuse their exclusive output deals like the way Top Rank mangled its series on Versus a few years back. Dana White and the Fertittas have always seemingly grasped the big picture and have been able to see the forest for the trees. Somewhere along the way, boxing and its cadre of TV packagers began to believe that HBO’s and Showtime’s limited universe was the biggest and most important stage they could possibly play on. Exacerbating the problem was the lack of bona fide promoters who basically ditched any effort to build local markets and instead took checks to ship their products out to far-flung Indian casinos. Then you have networks that are seemingly controlled by Machiavellian advisers whose influences have helped water down their standards.
This has been a collaborative effort on many fronts, going far beyond just a Pacquiao-Mayweather fight not coming to fruition. The power brokers in boxing can downplay this new marriage between UFC and Fox all they want publicly. You’d hope they at least heed the warning of the changing shift taking place.
"I think so. Boxing certainly has the bigger individual stars. Nobody in MMA can match Manny Pacquiao. Nobody in MMA can match Floyd Mayweather," stated Iole, "but it’s not about one or two guys- it’s about a whole roster of guys and a whole series of fights and right now, this is something to be worried about because MMA can continually grow with this kind of deal and this isn’t the finish line. This is just the beginning. I think if I were a boxing promoter, I would be very concerned."
Let’s make this clear; boxing isn’t dying (and I’m not using this column as a eulogy by any means) but what worked many moons ago is now obsolete. What’s taking place now is often illogical and ineffective. In foreign markets, the sport is thriving and ratings for fights in those markets, which like the Klitschko brothers in Germany, are shown on over-the-air television, do Super Bowl-like ratings. But years of neglect and, sometimes, arrogance in America have caught up to the business in many respects. We may have the best fighters but we might also have the worst business model currently in existence. And this upstart, which was derided not too long ago as “human cockfighting” by Senator John McCain, has now hit the big stage.
It’s where boxing was long ago.
Brookhouse says, "It’s a pretty big swing from such a small period of time. It feels like they’ve crammed almost a career life cycle for a sport in about ten years. It’s pretty amazing to see now, that Strikeforce and EliteXC have been on CBS, now the UFC on Fox and the big pay-per-view numbers that they do. Really the only thing that’s left, one of the major goals that people have had in getting the sport legalized in New York."
For all the great work done by Joe Tessitore and Teddy Atlas ringside for ESPN2’s “Friday Night Fights,” it was always Brian Kenny who played the role of John Stockton from the Bristol studio. He wasn’t just a talking head but a guy who actually loved and appreciated the sport of boxing (something that is rare in the broadcasting realm). When others have pinch-hit for him, it just wasn’t the same show because they simply didn’t have the passion or the knowledge for the sport of boxing.
Kenny is now leaving ESPN in September and the word is that he will be moving over to the MLB Network, where I’m sure he’ll do the same professional job he did for over a decade for “The Worldwide Leader.”
Boxing needs all the advocates it can get in the media and I’m afraid they lost one here. He will be missed.
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