Since boxing has returned from the sports hiatus, the sport’s linear television ratings have been in decline. Top Rank cards on ESPN have drawn just 332,000 viewers since June 9th (down -51% from the 680,000 viewers averaged between Aug.’19 and Apr.’20), while Premier Boxing Champions has seen -36% of its pre-COVID-19 Fox audience evaporate (down to 887,000 viewers since Aug. 8 from 1.39 million). DAZN’s viewership figures aren’t public, but the upstart streaming service has experienced its own problems of late. Within the last week the company announced it was laying off roughly 2% of its global workforce, and middleweight/super middleweight champion Canelo Alvarez announced he would be suing DAZN and Golden Boy Promotions for breach of contract. While it is indisputable that Coronavirus has negatively affected every pro league, one well-respected sports television insider said no sport has been hurt by the pandemic more than boxing. “Other sports have been able to prove their fan base and popularity through it (citing the UFC, NBA, NHL and MLB as examples). All [boxing] has done [since March], is prove it is a fading, niche sport. [Boxing] is now more in the category of cornhole than the UFC.”
Our Take: The sports programming insider we spoke to simply doesn’t believe the average American sports fan cares about boxing right now, citing television viewership as evidence. He/she said, “Fox is doing ratings they could do with the replay of a news show, the ratings on ESPN have been for the most part identical to cornhole; and viewership for fights on DAZN and ESPN+ is negligible. [Boxing] is failing everywhere.”
To clarify, our source was referring to reruns of 48 Hours (on CBS) that have aired head-to-head against PBC on Fox this summer. In August, the 48 Hours repeats averaged 2.11M viewers and a 0.3 A18-49 rating, whereas the PBC fights in the same slot eked out just 842,000 viewers and a 0.2 in the dollar demo.
Not everyone in boxing feels the way our television source does. While repeats of newsmagazine shows do regularly out-deliver PBC on Fox, Stephen Espinoza suggested that would be true of most sports; “48 Hours [reruns] are beating most NBA games,” the Showtime Sports President says, arguing the better frame of reference in gauging boxing’s popularity would be comparing the ratings with other sporting events. For example, on Sunday, Sept. 6, boxing on FS1 drew 1.1 million viewers—within 10% (1.2 million) of Sunday Night Baseball on ESPN. It does need to be noted that Saturday MLB games on Fox this summer drew an average of 2.22 million viewers.
There’s also an argument to be made that because boxing has been adversely affected by the pandemic more than other sports, the declining television ratings don’t accurately serve as a barometer of its current health. Remember, unlike the big four leagues, wherein schedules are centrally set, boxing fights don’t happen unless both fighters (and their promoters) sign off. As a result, the sport has been unable to put its best foot forward during a time when there is no gate revenue to split. Espinoza explained, “Certain big fights have been held back because of the lack of gate or the cost of putting on an event without fan and ticket sales revenue.” When one considers the quality of fights that have been put on over the last six months, it’s no surprise ratings have been down—and it’s reasonable to suggest if/when the cards improve, so too will viewership figures.
The quality of the fights booked and a densely populated sports calendar (which is also likely cannibalizing viewership – even if total consumption is flat or slightly up) make it difficult to truly gauge if boxing is dying in the U.S. But Fox Sports, ESPN, DAZN and Showtime have combined committed upwards of two billion dollars to boxing programming since 2018, and it’s hard to argue the sport has delivered for any of them. “DAZN looks like they’re in complete disarray; Fox isn’t happy with their ratings and ESPN views boxing as filler programming” (ESPN’s ratings are in line with what the AAF drew on NFL Network), the sports TV insider said.
Showtime’s deal with PBC runs through 2021; Fox Sports’ runs through ’22, and ESPN and DAZN have made long-term commitments to the sport, so it’s not as if boxing is any imminent danger. But indications are that the ‘bubble’ that formed with the rise of OTT streaming has sprung a leak. The sports programmer said, “All of the offers coming from Top Rank and PBC to fighters today are vastly reduced from [two years ago] and the opportunity for promoters—who aren’t already attached to streaming services—[has fallen off a cliff]” (because of their inability to sell tickets to local shows). He/she suggested many won’t still be in business by the time the pandemic ends.
It’s hard to pinpoint exactly what boxing needs to do to change its trajectory, but the sports TV insider suggested “central governance or a commissioner” would be a start. The existing leadership void seemingly contributes to the lack of integrity (see: selection of judges and thus questionable decisions) that permeate throughout the boxing world. For the record, Espinoza agreed, though he believes it is a pie-in-the-sky concept.
The networks would also do themselves and the sport a solid by avoiding exclusive broadcast partnerships with a single outfit the next time around. “Historically, every time we’ve seen essentially an exclusive deal with one promoter, it never goes well for the network because there isn’t one promoter with enough [high-profile] fighters to service the entirety of the network,” Espinoza said. While it is more difficult for networks to cobble together their own programming schedule, being able to pick and choose fighters amongst multiple promoters “almost always results in a better product,” the Showtime executive said. One must wonder if Showtime Sports is planning to alter its strategy (which is now heavily PBC dependent) at the end of next year.
Keeping the biggest fights on cable television – as opposed to PPV – would be another way to reinvigorate the masses (as Top Rank and ESPN will do with Vasyl Lomachenko and Teofimo Lopez on October 17th). Ross Greenburg (former president of HBO Sports) said, “300,000 buys might be a positive for the fighters and promoters who are making multi-millions off of the event, but it takes the [best fights] and narrows them to a very fringe audience. PPV has been failing the sport for 35 years.”
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