By Steve Kim
While most boxing fans are talking about the return of Andre Ward against Edwin Rodriguez on HBO this weekend, it may not be the most watched fight on TV. That honor will most likely go to the heavyweight bout between Tomasz Adamek and Vyacheslav Glazkov on NBC (2:30 pm, ET/11:30 am PT). Yes, you heard that right.
Last year "the Peacock" dipped its toe back into boxing with a December 22nd bout featuring Adamek and Steve Cunningham, which was the most watched fight in the United States in 2012. Meanwhile, the April 20th NBC telecast that saw Tyson Fury taking on Cunningham drew this year's highest television audience for boxing.
Not to be left out, CBS (the sister network of Showtime) aired a Leo Santa Cruz-Alberto Guevara bantamweight bout that pulled in strong numbers (at least by American boxing standards in the 21st century), stacking up very well versus other sports programming on that day.
The bottom line is simple: while it's the premium cable operators like HBO and Showtime that feature the sport's biggest stars and write the biggest checks, it's major networks like NBC that still have the largest stage for boxers.
"Look, it's 100 percent of the country that can receive it, it's 120 million homes versus 25 or 35 million, whatever the numbers are on HBO and Showtime," said Kathy Duva, the head of Main Events, which is promoting the Adamek-Glazkov event and has an exclusive deal to provide content on both the NBC Sports Network and NBC. "No matter how you slice that, there [are] a lot of people who don't have premium cable."
There was a time when boxing was a staple on ABC, NBC and CBS all the way up to the late 80s, when you could see some of the games' brightest stars on Saturday and Sunday afternoons -- with the occasional weekday prime time card. Back then, the networks showcased dozens of cards a year with ratings that surpassed some of the bigger sporting events it went up against.
Of course, the boxing-television relationship was replete with many of the same dysfunctional issues that plague the industry today. But Duva still recalls that era fondly: "There were actually weekends where we had two fights going on in Atlantic City at the same time. There were weekends where we'd spend a Saturday in Texas and Sunday in Atlantic City or Las Vegas. We were on the road constantly. We were doing two shows a month at Harrah's Marina (in Atlantic City) on USA, in addition to the network shows. So there were weeks where we were doing five shows in a week."
In 1984, members of the highly touted U.S. Olympic team that dominated the Summer Games in Los Angeles made their pro debuts on a Thursday night telecast on ABC. Meaning that the quartet of Pernell Whitaker, Meldrick Taylor, Mark Breland and Evander Holyfield actually went up against "The Cosby Show," one of the most popular sitcoms of all time. This boxing foursome made regular appearances on ABC early and often and achieved differing levels of stardom in their careers. But they were all household names long before they attained championship status.
By the mid-80s, HBO -- no longer just a cable upstart -- began to bid increasingly more exorbitant amounts for prizefights, and the paradigm began to shift. The deal was made: large television license fees in exchange for a more exclusive audience willing to pay for an HBO subscription. Over time, as fighters became less exposed to the general public, the fanbase for the sport invariably shrunk. Kathy Duva, whose husband, the late Dan Duva, ran Main Events until his untimely passing in 1996, knew the price they were paying.
"The problem was how do you tell the fighter, 'Well, we can get you $100,000 to fight on NBC when HBO's offering your a million? We're not going to take the million to pay you commensurately because we don't want to erode our fanbase 45 years for now.' We absolutely knew it was happening but there didn't appear to be any other alternative," she said.
So is the genie out of the bottle for good? Can boxing become at least a somewhat regular presence on network television again? Or has it become a niche sport permanently relegated to the confines of cable and pay-per-view?
One thing about boxing that always made television executives balk is the presumed average age of its fans. Those who loved the sport (and could remember the Golden Age of Ali, Frazier and the rest) weren't between the ages of 19-34 that is so coveted by the advertisers. But the changing demographics in our country are beginning to move the needle in the other direction. "Our audience is getting younger and younger," claimed Duva. "A big part of that younger audience is absolutely Hispanic." Indeed, the Latin community in the U.S. -- especially Mexicans and Puerto Ricans -- still treat boxing as a major league sport, and this segment of the population will only grow in the future.
But regardless of the opportunity to reach a wider, younger audience, the amount spent by NBC for this weekend's card is a fraction of the multi-million dollars being put up by HBO. It's doubtful that the major networks will ever want to spend that much money on individual boxing matches. But Duva points out that the strong Nielsen ratings recently pulled in by HBO for their bout between Gennady Golovkin and Curtis Stevens last week could have partly been a by-product of the appearances made by Stevens on NBC's "Fight Night Series" throughout the past year. "Whether that came from NBC or whether they came from seeing more news about him on boxing websites," said Duva. "It's all about name recognition.
At the very least, the network broadcasts will expand the profiles of fighters before they appear on HBO or Showtime.
But whether they can recapture the glory days of network boxing broadcasts, well that's a different game altogether.
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Steve Kim began covering boxing in 1996 and has been writing for Maxboxing.com since 2001. He is also a regular contributor for Boxing News. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and he tweets (a lot.)