Joseph Santoliquito

Boxing makes a bullish return to network TV

CBS will showcase the pro debut of 2012 U.S. Olympian Joseph Diaz Jr. (left) and a title defense by IBF bantamweight beltholder Leo Santa Cruz (right) on Saturday afternoon. It’s the network’s first live boxing broadcast since 1997.

 

There is a generation of boxing fans that never had the chance to plop down in a recliner on a Saturday afternoon, channel hop (when you actually had to get up to change the channel) and catch boxing on network TV.

It’s probably inconceivable to today’s fans that the most popular heavyweight champion of the 20th Century, Muhammad Ali, fought Jimmy Young, Ernie Shavers, Leon Spinks and other contenders on network TV. These days a fan may shell out $59.95 to see a pair of fighters that can’t even sniff the bottom of the “The Greatest’s” shoes.

But something quite seismic will occur on consecutive weekends this month – for the first time in many years live boxing will be featured on network TV, starting with CBS’s broadcast bantamweight beltholder Leo Santa Cruz defending his IBF title against fellow unbeaten Alberto Guevara at the L.A. Memorial Sports Arena, in Los Angeles, Calif., on Saturday.

On the following Saturday, Dec. 22, NBC will feature aheavyweight clash between Tomasz Adamek and Steve Cunningham from the Sands Casino Resort, in Bethlehem, Pa., in a rematch of their classic 2008 Fight of the Year nominee.

The CBS show marks the first time the network will air live boxing since 1997. CBS, which is owned by Viacom, the parent company of Showtime, is working in conjunction with the premium cable network’s Amir Kahn-Carlos Molina broadcast later Saturday nightand airing Santa Cruz-Guevara as, “Showtime Boxing on CBS.”

The Cunningham-Adamek fight is the first NBC boxing show since 2004.

The time slot for both fights is 4-6 p.m. EST, a Saturday network TV time frame that hasn’t been occupied by boxing in at least two decades.

But what happened to boxing on network TV in the first place? It was a Saturday afternoon staple throughout the 1980s and into the early-1990s. Then it slowly withered.

“I think network boxing disappeared because the promoters, and quite honestly, the fighters, were more concerned about a payday than growing their fighters and growing the sport,” said Jon Miller, the president of programming for NBC Sports and the NBC Sports Network. “Boxing just migrated to cable from there, then eventually to pay cable, choking off any kind of development for a good, young fighter to build a fanbase.

“We, at one point, back in the early-1990s, I want to say 1992-93, were doing 25-to-30 fights a year on the network. We had a lot of fights on our air. We had NBC Ringsideand the NBC boxing series. The problem was pay cable came along and they needed a way to drive subscriptions and they went and bought all of these fighters that we had on our air. We had a strong library of fights and fighters. Marv Albert was our ringside blow-by-blow announcer with Ferdie Pacheco.”

Though ratings were solid, boxing became a tough sell to advertisers. It wasn’t a dependable sports property at the time, because promoters weren’t willing to put their name fighters in against comparable competition. Consequently, the result was a lopsided fight.

“The problem was the tomato can would go down after one round and then you’d be stuck with 90 minutes of programming that you couldn’t fill with live boxing, so the advertisers would under deliver,” Miller said.

Advertisers needed to go some place where they knew they’d get value, so they plunged their resources into college football and college basketball. Programming they knew was dependable, that was going to endure and be competitive throughout the time window.

“Eventually, we knew (we were) not getting good matchups and the fighters we were interested in had migrated to pay cable, so there were other options that came down the pike. Boxing did a terrible job of managing their future,” Miller said.

Boxing trail-off for NBC occurred in the mid-1990s and by 1998-‘99 the network was out completely, dabbling a little into the sport in 2004.

“The ratings were fine,” Miller said. “There was no problem with the delivery. In fact, the ratings were better than a lot of other programming out there, but at end of the day, if a network can’t sell advertising and the affiliates aren’t supportive, it becomes a losing proposition.”

What changed NBC’s thought process toward boxing has been the success of Fight Night, which debuted in January of this year on the NBC Sports Network, owned by powerful Comcast. Gary Quinn, the senior director of programming for NBC Sports and the NBC Sports Network, oversaw the network’s new foray into boxing. He put together a template, along with Main Events’ Kathy Duva and Hall of Fame promoter J Russell Peltz, which received strong feedback.

“We didn’t originally plan to get back into boxing on the network side until we saw how well Fight Night went,” Miller admitted. “It’s been successful because of the concept of putting together good, even-matched compelling fighters, with good stories who understand the value of being on linear television, getting their names out there and growing their brands. When the guys came to the table and we saw how successful it was, we jumped on it.”

NBC is looking at six-to-eight Fight Night shows in 2013 and possibly a few that could make the network.

“And I’ll never say never about primetime if the right fight comes up on a Saturday night, but right now, we’re slotted for weekend afternoons,” Miller said. “I’m not ruling out the possibility that something could be prime time, but the financials of that could make it difficult to pull off.”

As for CBS, their plan is more nebulous. Santa Cruz-Guevara, in what promises to be an action fight, is more of a lead into Showtime’s Kahn-Molina broadcast.

Still, Showtime Sports executive vice president Stephen Espinoza is excited about the prospect of being part of something that hasn’t been shown on CBS in over a decade. Espinoza grew up watching boxing on Saturday afternoons on network TV, and witnessed the sport’s subsequent exodus the sport made to cable.

“I think the pendulum is swinging back the other way,” he said. “I think boxing has been more active and more vibrant in the last 18 months to two years than probably any point in a couple of decades.

“I’m very bullish on the sport and the future of it on network TV. If this works well, I would love to see more shows on network TV. I can’t imagine any other way for fighters to get more exposure. I won’t rule out a possibility that there could be more shows on network TV. Right now, we want to take our best foot forward and be grateful to CBS for giving us this opportunity on a one-time basis.”

 

 

Photo / Gene Blevins – Hoganphotos/Golden Boy Promotions

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