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Why Has Boxing Been Off The Networks?

by Charles Jay

Those who are relatively new to boxing (i.e., those who have started to follow it in the last ten years or so) may be wondering why boxing has not had a foothold on network television of late.

After all, with TV networks always on the lookout for affordable sports programming and avenues like social media open to support the promotion of such programming, all of the ingredients should be in place. All it takes is to make great fights, and perhaps get a little lucky. Right? Well, many television people, including NBC’s own Jon Miller, who is their programming head, will tell you that the uncertainty of boxing matches, which sometimes suffer from pullouts, and the tendency on the part of promoters to protect their “properties” at all costs, thus resulting in a lower quality of matchups, are contributing factors to the hesitation sponsors have had in going “all in” behind the sport.

There is an inherent problem, of course. The nature of the sport is such that pullouts are always going to be part of the game, and it often can’t be helped because of injuries and illness. While an injury wouldn’t necessarily ruin a football or basketball telecast, it could greatly change the nature of a boxing telecast, particularly if one or both of the combatants are well-recognized as a brand. This is one of the reasons why networks had been known in the past to deal with a small circle of promoters. When a commitment is made to a TV boxing date, and something unexpected happens, it is often what a promoter is able to do afterward that can salvage things.

This is where the “double-edged sword” comes in. Some promoters have been known to substitute garbage, acknowledging that there is certain leverage created by the short notice. There have even been inexperienced, unprepared promoters who have let an entire show fall apart, leaving television people scrambling for a solution. Others might prefer to insert something that may not have the marquee value but is even MORE competitive. That may not often occur; it depends on how strong the network’s position is and how much the promoter actually “gets it.” Regardless, there is a great deal of value placed on “deliverability” as a key to a promoter’s ability to secure dates. And the promoters who are able to secure dates, in turn, usually have quite a few fighters under contract – fighters for whom they have bigger plans.

By and large, when it came to the network level, there was some point at which the promoters began to have a tendency to protect their own; that is, the fighter they had under control, as promotional deals became more and more prevalent. Then it was a matter of getting away with the LEAST competitive fight they could, with was at odds, ideally, with what the network was seeking.

What we’re trying to explain is that there is something in the fabric of how this business currently operates that has made it somewhat less user-friendly for the broadcast networks to do business with, and some changes in philosophy have to take effect for things to get back to the level where boxing on the networks is a more frequent occurrence.

Many of the people working in the fight game right now were weaned on the weekend fights that appeared on all three of the networks (ABC, NBC, CBS). They were considered a very important part of a chain of development, not only of the fighters, but of those fighters as attractions. Generally the progression went from the local club show, to cable (as it started to blossom), to network television, to premium cable (HBO, Showtime, etc. as it was available) to pay-per-view. At one point at least one link in that chain was skipped – the role of the networks. Perhaps it was a combination of the fights that might normally be earmarked for that destination winding up on either basic cable or pay (premium) cable – more often than not the latter.

That notwithstanding, the aforementioned solipsistic attitude on the part of promoters – with more of a stake in fighters and therefore less interest in risk – has hurt boxing, both on network TV as well as cable. When the networks were paying good money for fights, and not making “output” deals (package deals with promoters, in the absence of buying individual fights), they were able to command better matchups, at least if they sought to use their own leverage to the fullest, and it was more about the cream rising to the top. Certainly, network people were not blind to the fact that there was the possibility of some genuine stars emerging, and they did, on occasion, make allowances in terms of the matchmaking to affect that.

One thing you would see on the networks, however, was some depth on the cards. NBC in particular would have backup fights, and interesting ones, just in case a main event unexpectedly ended early, or in the case of John “The Beast” Mugabi, quite expectedly. By having other boxing programming at the ready, advertisers knew that viewers would stay interested. And they did.

But that involved a spirit of matchmaking that is intended to serve the viewer, not the promoter. There’s a big difference there. NBC is going to do a couple of network fights over the air as part of its cable deal with the New Jersey-based Main Events promotional outfit, which is working with J. Russell Peltz, a Hall of Fame promoter/.matchmaker who truly understands what it takes to put together a fight the public is going to like, even if it means the “house” fighter may be in tough. Peltz’s career extends back to an earlier era, before promotional contracts began to dominate the landscape, so his sensibilities are probably a bit different than some fight people who arrived long after him. Ask anyone who has ever attended the shows he used to do at the Blue Horizon in Philadelphia.

But really, how many more Russell Peltzes are there? This sport will need more of them to make a compelling case for once again becoming a regular staple on broadcast television.

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