Three million people paid for boxing. The cable companies gave them Dancing with the Stars instead.
Grasping that this does not bode well for the sweet science does not take a Sherlock Holmes to figure out. To paraphrase Fletch, even Larry Holmes could have figured that out.
Floyd Mayweather-Manny Pacquiao reintroduced casual fans to boxing. Few liked what they saw. The fighters lost a once-in-a-decade opportunity to bring back a long lost audience.
Boxing helped make television. Television helped unmake boxing.
DuMont’s Boxing from St. Nicholas Arena, NBC’s Gillette Cavalcade of Sports, CBS’s Blue Ribbon Bouts, and other programs attracted postwar beer advertisers and beer drinkers. The simplicity of two men duking it out easily translated to viewers watching on small, black-and-white sets in a manner akin to the way the demonstrative, unsubtle comedy of Milton Berle did. But like Berle, boxing soon became passé as the consumer’s palate expanded with the screen.
Benny Paret losing his life live on ABC in 1962, bigger tubes better able to project the more complex action of team sports, and closed-circuit (and later pay-per view) pricing the best fights away from free television all served to take the only sport capable of its best regularly selling out baseball and football stadiums and push it behind baseball, football, and much else in the allegiance of sports fans.
“The last time boxing was really healthy was the eighties,” Teddy Atlas tells Breitbart Sports. “Why? Network television and competitive fights.”
Like other boxing enthusiasts, Teddy Atlas suddenly sees much to be enthusiastic about.
“More people are talking about it,” Atlas tells Breitbart Sports. “The sport is more relevant now than it’s been in probably a while—some years.” In an April interview, Atlas called the publicity surrounding the Floyd Mayweather-Manny Pacquiao bout a “bolt of electricity” energizing the “crossover fans.” Similarly, Al Haymon, this generation’s Don King, securing time for the sweet science on NBC, CBS, ABC, and various cable outlets means that “now the less-than-hardcore fans are starting to be brought in” and “not just the rigid, fanatical boxing fans.”
Tony Harrison, a 21-0 pugilist managed by Haymon, tells Breitbart Sports that he sees network television and basic cable as key to the comeback.
“That’s the way to get the fans back involved with boxing,” the undefeated junior middleweight says of fights on free television after a fight on ESPN. “Not boxing-loving fans, but just the regular, basic, [every]day fan. Basic TV—people love basketball because they just see it all the time.”
Pacquiao-Mayweather, in other words, may not play out as the most important development to hit boxing in 2015. And, considering how the fight turned out, that’s a good thing.
Harrison thinks boxing appearing as ubiquitously in living rooms as basketball does will orient eyes back toward the ring. That’s the mindset behind Al Haymon’s Premier Boxing Champions, which debuted to solid primetime ratings on NBC in March. The freedom to change the channel on free TV, an option the financially-invested, captive audience of pay-per views really doesn’t possess, compels promoters to deliver great fights rather than just great fighters. Subsequent to its premiere, Haymon’s network-transcending series gave viewers excellent fights on Spike and NBC, and viewers gave the program excellent ratings in return.
This strategy borrows from the template that fueled boxing acting as a greater cultural force several generations ago. Then, boxing found fans on free television. More recently, the promotional strategy meant forcing fans to find boxing—on subscription cable channels, pay-per view, and in obscure and often out-of-reach broadcasting venues. It’s the difference between evangelizing the sport and preaching to the converted, and the results—a declining sport at all levels but the top—showed.
“The best fighters fighting the best, not fattening their records with guys below them but fighting the best,” Teddy Atlas says of boxing’s last healthy period, “whether it was Hearns and Leonard, or whether it was Duran and Hearns or Duran and Leonard, or whether it was Marvin Hagler in the mix. Or whether it was those great light heavyweights Matthew Saad Muhammad, Yaqui Lopez, Jerry ‘the Bull’ Martin—all those guys. Those were the kind of fights that fans responded to.”
“Fans were excited,” Atlas recalls. “Boxing was exciting.”
And the recent reason for renewed excitement stems from the ring’s return to network television. This Saturday, on CBS at 4 p.m. Eastern, undefeated Omar Figueroa faces Scotsman Ricky Burns with the WBC lightweight title on the line. Instead of viewers feeling ripped off, the broadcast gives the audience a chance to recoup its losses from last Saturday with this CBS fight priced right at free. And if Dancing with the Stars again interrupts the boxing broadcast, the remote can voice its objections by knocking out the bout with baseball, basketball, or hockey.