Boxing has been losing its relevancy and attractiveness in a saturated sports market, but with NBC’s prime time debut of its Premier Boxing Champions series, prizefighting will have an opportunity to resurface to the public eye.
On Saturday night, Keith Thurman (25-0, 21 KOs), a knockout specialist, retained his WBA welterweight title in a thrilling unanimous decision over challenger Robert Guerrero (32-3-1, 18 KOs), a former four division champion. Both are widely considered top-10 contenders in boxing’s most talented weight class, and the bout did not disappoint on national TV.
Even as the first undercard fighters made their way to the ring, the electric feeling in the MGM Grand seemed nearly tangible through the screen. NBC has assembled an all-star announcing crew featuring Al Michaels and Marv Albert calling the fights and Sugar Ray Leonard as the color commentator.
This fight is only a jumping off point for Premier Boxing Champions, though. CBS as well has guaranteed eight fights this year, all of which are being billed as pay-per-view-quality bouts. Similar contracts have been signed with Spike TV and Bounce TV. ESPN, according to the The Guardian, is in contractual negotiations too.
Seventy-three fights are in place through 2017 on NBC, NBC Sports Network and Spike alone, and $20 million has been put down up front for 20 of the prime time slots.
And the dough is all coming from Al Haymon Boxing, backed by private investors. Both the creation and proliferation of Premier Boxing Champions is Haymon’s attempt at opening the sport back up to mainstream viewers, while of course pocketing a hefty paycheck for himself.
Haymon, for those of you not familiar, is the clandestine version of Don King with a degree from Harvard in economics. He is rarely seen in public, he never has granted an interview to anyone and he’s probably the most influential figure in the sport today. Premier Boxing Champions was Haymon’s idea, and he’s overseen every step in its nascent production.
In direct defiance of the Muhammad Ali Boxing Reform Act—aimed at separating promoters and managers into distinct entities—it is thought Haymon, a titular manager to scores of fighters, acts as both for Floyd Mayweather Jr., the wealthiest athlete in all of sports.
But Boxing was born with a sleazy business aspect attached to it and grew up embattled in outside-the-ring controversy. So why would those looking to get rich of the sport change the model now?
Regardless, if Haymon’s plans meet with success, Premier Boxing Champions could prove doubly beneficial: to the bottom line yes, but more importantly to the recirculation of interest in the sport.
Haymon has 170 fighters signed to contracts, and with a pool of pugilists this deep to choose from, NBC is bound to come up fights that rival the stature of overpriced pay-per-view bouts, on average costing upwards of $70 to order.
Regularly scheduled boxing on cable television hasn’t been featured on NBC in three decades, and though the prestige the sport once held can never again be captured, Premier Boxing Champions will make it more accessible to the majority of folks not willing to shell out a wad of cash for lackluster prelims and a main event that may or may not be worth the buy.
The announcement of the new boxing series was timed perfectly to trigger excitement and maximize the viewing potential for the upcoming Mayweather-Pacquiao fight on May 2. “The Fight of the Century” is projected to generate more money ($300 million) than any other event in the sport’s history. This fight, of course, won’t be on Premier Boxing Champions. You’ll have to go ahead and spend $89.95 ($99.95 for HD) to see this one.
But the upcoming unified title fight is a welcomed and long-awaited anomaly.
Boxing’s waning popularity can be in part attributed, among other more self-inflicted wounds, to UFC’s taking over as the leading combat-orientated sport in America. Fox is currently under a seven-year contract with the comparatively new sport to show 32 live fights per year, and it was UFC’s focus on cable programming and mass availability that has been the impetus behind its growth into a global success.
So perhaps Haymon is taking a page out of the UFC marketing playbook to bring prizefighting as near to its glory days as it will ever again come. But business aside, it’s just great to see boxing on TV again.