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Boxing on NBC Tonight! Could This Be the Best Thing For Boxing in Years?

By Charles Jay

Numerous members of the media are speaking of the Floyd Mayweather-Manny Pacquiao fight (May 2 in Las Vegas, in case you’re unaware) as something that could be a genuine windfall for the sport. A shot in the arm, if you will. One may debate whether boxing badly needs a so-called “boost” like that, but if there is something forthcoming and long-lasting, it’s not likely to come from this pay-per-view spectacular.

This is the same conversation we had when Mayweather fought against Oscar De La Hoya, as folks were talking about how it could become a showcase that would have a carry-over effect. And there have been, over the years, quite a few mega-fights that have generated considerable numbers of subscribers. Did they produce an elixir of some kind for boxing’s difficulties, real or imagined, in connecting with the general public? Let’s put it this way – we wouldn’t be exploring this conversation if those big fights had a lasting and powerful effect. When Mayweather beat De La Hoya, it may have made him much more bankable as a pay-per-view attraction. That was good for Mayweather, but was it a windfall for boxing as a whole? These events can sell a boatload of tickets and/or PPV subs, and even set new revenue milestones, and that invariably requires that the casual fan buys in, but do they stick around afterward to become anything more than casual?

Sure, the Mayweather-Pacquiao spectacle will keep boxing in the news between now and May 2, and perhaps a short time after that, as we discuss the possibilities for a rematch, ad nauseum. Then what? Will the Mayweather-Pacquiao fight represent a seminal moment that shapes boxing’s long-range future? Probably not. Yes, is a stand-alone “event” that will attract a load of attention. But its effect will be ephemeral; after it’s over, those occasional fans will probably disperse, until the next “mega-fight” comes along.

What might be more important to the sport of boxing, in the long run, could be the chapter that gets underway tonight, as NBC returns as a carrier of boxing on its broadcast network, and with a prime-time debut no less.

It’s national broadcast television, available to everyone and free of charge, and whatever path it took to get on the air, it signals a step ahead. It is the beginning of a virtual feast of boxing programming, and should it be successful, we might see even more.

Sure, it may be objectionable to some that this, and the plethora of activity that is about to come, is all under the direction of Al Haymon, who seems to have this sport in the palm of his hand right now, ready to corner the market on talent. And his dual role as de facto promoter and manager is troublesome to those who are sensitive to the concept of conflict of interest. That is a subject for future material, to be certain. But if Saturday night’s show, not to mention some of the other content that has been announced, is any indication, viewers are not being short-changed as a result of his unusual arrangements.

And seriously, isn’t it useful to look at this from the spectator’s point of view, and not through the lens of Haymon’s detractors? How can one object to seeing quality fights – some of which could be plugged very seamlessly into any HBO or Showtime date, at the very least – appearing on free television or basic cable? At every outlet where Haymon has brokered air time, he is either establishing something where nothing has existed recently, or upgrading what was there previously. And if it is going to be delivered on a consistent basis, could this possibly be a bad thing? Only for those who didn’t, or couldn’t, take the risk first, one could suggest.

In point of fact, this is potentially the best thing that has happened for boxing in years. You see, in order to get to a level which would enhance their pay-per-view viability, fighters need a forum through which they can develop and prove their merits, while at the same time being “sold” to as wide an audience as possible. HBO and Showtime have been supplying that for the most part, but not everyone has both of those premium channels. When the networks were in place, there was an apparatus through which fighters became stars and earned their stripes, and everybody could see it. This was particularly true during the 1980s at NBC, which saw value in the so-called “crossroads” fights that usually provided no quarter for either competitor. Haymon isn’t stupid; he understands that no one is going to stand very long for fights that function as little more than vehicles for fighters he is looking to push, and so far it looks as if he is acting accordingly.

If boxing fans get a steady diet of “survival of the fittest” mentality, it’s liable to improve the image of the sport greatly, at least as far as their own perception is concerned, and that is the perception that counts right now.

We couldn’t let you go without some of the sobering facts, of course. As their commercial states, NBC has not had prime-time boxing on its air in thirty years. And well, there is a reason for it. Boxing as part of the regular night time schedule on the networks has experienced great highs and lows over the years, but it has been a very shaky proposition since the emergence of home-based pay-per-view. When NBC last dove in, with a fight between Larry Holmes and Carl Williams, it drew an 18.5 rating, which was very good. But the year before that, ABC’s telecast of the coming-out party for five members of the 1984 Olympic team ranked 65th among 66 prime-time shows that week.

All we can say is that it remains to be seen. Rome wasn’t built in a day. But by the nature of this deal, boxing is going to get a decent shot, which is all anyone could ask. Saturday night fights won’t get a lot of competition for viewers. And the repetition will give the sport a chance to develop an over-the-air audience, with something that is new to an entire generation of sports fans.

Sure, if he can sustain the losses for a while, Haymon will exert an extraordinary degree of control over this game. And more than a few critics see him as someone building an “evil empire.” The jury remains out. But who knows? He may just turn out to be a benevolent dictator after all.

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