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Boxing on Primetime Network TV: Things Came To An End in The 90s

by Charles Jay

The age of the top fights appearing on primetime network television would eventually come to an end, and it didn’t have anything to do with the sponsors shying away from the sport itself. Going back many years, big fights, primarily involving heavyweights, had occasionally found their way to an audience paying through a closed circuit hookup, who watched the fights in theaters. But the technology was starting to make it possible for fans to watch the mega-fights from the comfort of their own homes. The “Thrilla in Manila” between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier was offered to some customers on pay-per-view, as was the first fight between Sugar Ray Leonard and Roberto Duran. The first Leonard-Hearns clash in 1981 was a major success, selling to 48.6% of the 1.2 million addressable homes it was offered to. Within ten years, there were a little more than 17 million homes that could be addressed for special events on pay-per-view. In October of 1991, the Ray Mercer-Tommy Morrison fight sold 200,000 subscriptions, which was a 1.2% buy rate.

Needless to say, the attractions that were the most popular were going to be directed onto the PPV platform, and boxing on the networks, for the most part, became something of a second choice. To put it in some perspective, ABC paid $3.5 million for the television rights to the Larry Holmes-Earnie Shavers rematch in 1979. That was a major, major event during that particular period, because it was for the recognized heavyweight title; the “people’s” heavyweight title, if you will. In 1980, the Leonard-Duran fight generated over $1.5 million alone out of buys from the home pay-per-view universe, which was very limited at the time (this didn’t include closed circuit revenue). As that universe grew, you didn’t have to sell a huge percentage of the audience to produce nice numbers. The Mercer-Morrison fight, which was for the WBO heavyweight title, took in $4.1 million from that 1.2% rate of pay-per-view subscriptions in 1991. A WBO super middleweight title fight between Thomas Hearns and James “The Heat” Kinchen in 1988 realized $5.4 million in television revenues on the basis of a 2.5% buy rate. Both of those events were attractive, but did not have as much mainstream appeal as Holmes-Shavers.

As for cable television, which was obviously emerging during this period, it was indeed starting to serve the niche audience quite well, with a plethora of activity on outlets such as ESPN, USA and Prime Network, though it is fair to say that its feature events would not have otherwise wound up in a primetime broadcast slot. As such, the impact was minimal. If anything, it served for a time as something of a feeder for headliners who wound up on the networks on Saturday and/or Sunday afternoons.

If there was any stronger evidence that the primetime party was over, it was served up in November 1984, when six U.S. Olympians – Pernell Whitaker, Tyrell Biggs, Meldrick Taylor, Mark Breland, Evander Holyfield and Virgil Hill (in a backup role) – were making their professional debuts, and ABC decided to make a primetime event out of it. Boxing got substantial coverage during the Olympics, and all of these fighters had a certain amount of recognition with much of the sporting public. But there was simply not enough strength for the show to compete for the mainstream television audience. In the Nielsens, the show’s rating was 9.8 with a 15 share. It just didn’t belong. Out of 66 prime-time programs that week, it finished 65th. The Cosby Show on NBC had a 25.7 rating and 39 share in that slot, while Magnum P.I., on CBS, did a 16 and 24, respectively. In fact, everything else that competed with the boxing show during the same two-hour time period finished in the top 25. When the Olympians eventually were ready to go to the world championship level, it generally happened on HBO.

Without the most-accomplished, highest-profile fighters to put on the air, boxing was suddenly not such a wise primetime investment any more. And it didn’t have many supporters in the executive suites. David Poltrack, who handled TV research for CBS (and still does, as Chief Research Officer for the company) told a reporter, aside from the Olympics themselves, which had more of a crossover interest for the casual fan, “the only boxing that has ever done well in prime time is heavyweight boxing.”

Well, that might be entirely accurate, but heavyweights did reappear again, when the Fox Network decided to televise a Mike Tyson comeback fight against Buster Mathis Jr. in December 1995. The third-round KO win by Tyson did a 16.1 Nielsen rating with a 28 share, and up to that time, it contributed to Fox’s highest-rated night ever in primetime. It was estimated by the network that as many as 43 million people were watching the telecast at one juncture or another.

Of course, there are not too many Mike Tysons out there, or on the horizon, so we may have to wait a while for boxing to make its big primetime network comeback.

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