Joseph Santoliquito

NBC hopes to forge a new road into boxing with cable series

 

Promoter Kathy Duva’s pitch to get NBC back into the boxing business was an easy one.

The CEO of Main Events, which built Evander Holyfield into a household name with the help of network television during the mid-1980s, told the NBC suits sitting on the other side of the table that all they had to do was find one marketable fighter and their company would more than recoup its investment in launching a new boxing series.

Holyfield won his first world title, the WBA cruiserweight belt held by Dwight Muhammad Qawi, on ABC’s Wide World of Sports in 1986. He unified the cruiserweight titles on Showtime before taking the undisputed heavyweight title from Buster Douglas on pay-per-view and closed circuit in 1990. From that point, Holyfield evolved into a bona-fide star and money machine, breaking revenue records with his pay-per-view events against George Foreman, Mike Tyson and Lennox Lewis, which generated hundreds of millions of dollars during the ‘90s.

Duva made her point to the NBC executives: pay-per-view stars make most of the money in boxing, but networks were the vehicles that launched the likes of Holyfield and Tyson.

So for the first time in a long time, NBC will make the plunge again into boxing. The network dabbled in it, somewhat, with The Contender in 2005, but this move involves four nationally televised shows on NBC’s new cable sports channel, formally Versus, which was rebranded into the NBC Sports Network on Jan. 2.

The series debut, which takes place Asylum Arena in Philadelphia on Saturday, features a pair of undefeated heavyweight prospects, Maurice Byarm and Bryant Jennings in the co-featured bout, and a scheduled 10-rounder with all-action junior middleweights Jesus Soto Karass and Gabriel Rosado.

NBC got out of the boxing game in the late-‘80s when it became cost-prohibitive to compete with burgeoning subscription cable networks HBO and Showtime, which offered promoters much higher licensing fees for the right to televise live fight cards.

However, now there is a new player in the boxing TV biz—cable giant Comcast, which owns NBC.

Comcast, according to Duva (who should know) generates more money from boxing pay-per-view events than HBO, Showtime, any promoter or fighter, hauling in at least 20-25 percent of all PPV sales.

That’s because all PPV fights go through Comcast’s cable system, which distributes the premier channels that televise them.

So Duva kept it simple when pitching the new idea of am NBC boxing series: Find one great fighter.

“I told NBC, for Comcast’s purposes, all they have to do is find the next great fighter,” Duva said. “That’s why this series came about, because it makes sense for NBC, and especially Comcast, to build another heavyweight. It’s a Comcast-driven thing, and that’s why they’ve committed to this series.”

Saturday’s debut of the series, called NBC Sports Network Fight Night, will be followed by shows on March 24, June 16, and December 8. The three dates still need sites and the cards need to be pieced together, but Gary Quinn, the Senior Director of NBC Sports and NBC Sports Network, says they would like to build it up to a monthly showcase.

“We’re not here saying that we’re guaranteeing success but I think we have a little history with the sport, where we thought we did it right and we had some good shows,” Quinn said. “We have the relationship with Kathy and Main Events, but we want to make sure every fight on the card is evenly matched and, hopefully, the boxing community will embrace it and we’ll get a positive buzz and start growing an audience for it. We’re opening this up to every promoter. We want styles and matchups where everyone wants to see good fights. We’re trying to resemble back in the day with those great fights everyone remembers on NBC.”

Quinn said that when cable arrived and started throwing huge purses out, NBC couldn’t keep up financially.

“The hope is to find some windows and grow it out, trying to keep it as consistent as we can,” Quinn said. “We’re going to do whatever makes good business sense, but we would like to make it on a consistent monthly level. If we see the ratings are increasing every time, we’ll make them. In a perfect world, we’d like to have a once-a-month series in a year or two. That’s the goal. But we’re not locked into any set template right now. We’re looking to make great fight that generate nice ratings.”

Tyson, Holyfield, Lewis, Oscar De La Hoya, Floyd Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao are the six fighters that have driven 80-percent of pay-per-view sales over the last 20 years. Finding the one engine, the next “Pac-Man” or “Money May” could be a serious boon for the network—and place Comcast into a major, more overt role when it comes to boxing.

“Comcast wanted to own something, a property and this is it,” Duva said. “Networks want to own, and it’s something that they don’t have exclusivity of anymore with different cable channels and different sources of revenue. Networks don’t have the captive audiences they used to have. With Comcast partnered with NBC, that’s a portal now into homes and a chance to market a product even better.

“What they’re hoping for with this series is to grow fighters, especially heavyweights, since the division is what drove boxing in the past, and grow an audience for that one particular fighter.”

Finding the “next one.”

Can it happen? NBC is hoping you tune in to find out in the coming months.

 

Photo / Main Events

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