A few small PBC steps
A little while back, ESPN’s Joe Tessitore seemed to be searching for the proverbial “light at the end of the tunnel.” He was caught on a hot mike remarking about the sobriety of those attending the next “Premier Boxing Champions on ESPN” broadcast. Michael Woods of NYFights.com reported that Tessitore was simply speaking about what might transpire as a result of wedding celebrations for a coworker. Whether or not this is true, for many who have bemoaned the quality of PBC on ESPN, Tessitore’s remarks were a comical confirmation of their opinions. Perception can become reality very quickly, especially in the age of social media and digital communication. And, for a very long time, the PBC has been dogged by perceptions that it’s been on the road to nowhere. However, just maybe – there might be a very small, very dim and very distant light at the end of the PBC tunnel.
Keith Thurman vs. Shawn Porter and Carl Frampton vs. Leo Santa Cruz were two recent major PBC fights that seemed to make sense. By “make sense,” I mean, when watching the two broadcasts, I (a hardened PBC detractor) felt they were actually products that could one day draw interest from the wider public. If I remember correctly, there were no game show-like stages, no Hans Zimmer music and no overpaid announcers from other sports pretending to love boxing. Instead, we had four prime fighters representing the top of their respective divisions, matched in tough, competitive bouts. Neither fight was the “Fight of the Year,” in my opinion, but that matters little. For both fights were entertaining and the broadcasts were well-produced. It should be seen as no coincidence that the quality of the PBC broadcasts seem to improve when Showtime is at the helm. For whatever your quibbles with Showtime (or HBO), they know how to produce boxing matches for television.
One of the main goals of the PBC was to bring boxing back to network TV in a viable way. This goal seemed both noble and practical. Obviously, the wider the potential audience the sport has, the more chance it has to broaden its appeal. And the more customers to which the sport has access, the greater chance it has to sell its product. Yet, as I wrote a few months ago, there was little nobility to Al Haymon’s venture. He was not doing this for the good of boxing. He was doing this to be the last man standing. This is America after all, so Haymon is free to do as he chooses. However, I felt it was this “takeover” mentality that ultimately helped lead the PBC in the wrong direction. Yet, ironically, without the PBC’s troubles, one could argue they never would have turned to Showtime for assistance. And, in turn, they might have never gotten the two Showtime broadcasts (Thurman vs. Porter and Frampton vs. Santa Cruz), which could prove to be examples of a forward march.
The PBC has (and does) put on a lot of fights. Many of these fights have been forgettable, let alone ones you would want to rewatch weeks, months or years later. It always seemed like the edict from the PBC boardroom was as follows: “Just put boxing on any channel at any time and people will watch.” This proved not to be the case, of course. Some PBC backers chastise the PBC detractors who skip the PBC cards that show up on Tuesdays or Fridays, scattered across different networks. There is some merit to this criticism; I suppose. But even the PBC backers would have to admit – you have to give the consumer a reason to watch. And, on top of that, I’d add two other conditions the consumer requires: quality and consistency.
The issue of quality, when it comes to boxing on television, is pretty self-explanatory. Action and entertainment will draw audiences. This can, of course, happen through quality matchmaking and, sometimes, pure luck. A high-action fight with a certain measure of skill can be intoxicating to even the most casual of fans. And if a certain level of importance is added to the mix, that’s when the magic of boxing reaching its highest form is possible. By “importance,” I mean two fighters near the top of their division, in their prime, meeting under the blessings of a coherent narrative, with hopefully a title on the line. Fights like Joe Frazier vs. Muhammad Ali I, Roberto Duran vs. Sugar Ray Leonard I and Marvin Hagler vs. Tommy Hearns had this importance. Modern battles like Kelly Pavlik vs. Jermain Taylor I and Antonio Margarito vs. Miguel Cotto I had it, to a particular extent, as well. Keith Thurman vs. Shawn Porter and Carl Frampton vs. Leo Santa Cruz weren’t on the same level as these aforementioned fights but they did possess a level of importance and quality, which seemed to be absent from many of the previous PBC offerings.
Now, in any business, the quality of the product certainly matters greatly. However, consistency is equally as important, especially in sports or entertainment. Al Haymon flooded a variety of different networks (at different times) with boxing. Maybe he did this to try and appease the number of fighters in his stable or maybe he wanted to shock and awe the boxing world into submission. Whatever the case, this, again, seems to go back to his desire to take over boxing. For it was not the concerted, consistent or cautious action of someone looking to launch a boxing league, a boxing brand or whatever you wish to call it.
Most television shows have a set day and time when they can be viewed. With DVRs and the internet, this matters less than it did, say, 30 years ago. Yet the consumer is still able to identify the time a program airs with the program itself. Sunday nights on HBO, “Saturday Night Live” or “The Tonight Show” are all examples of TV programming whose time slot is embedded within the consumer’s consciousness. Live sports programming can follow this pattern as well. “Monday Night Football” or “Sunday Night Football” are the prominent examples, of course. Live sports programming also retains a certain imperative that it be viewed as it’s happening. Watching an important title fight on DVR the next day isn’t as desirable as watching the drama unfold in real time.
It is ironic that the only lasting, consistent TV program boxing had was done away with by the PBC. ESPN’s “Friday Night Fights” was not exactly home to the top current fighters in the sport. It wasn’t exactly broadcasting exciting slugfests, week after week. It wasn’t filling arenas or making headlines on a regular basis either. Yet, despite all this, it is missed by many of boxing’s hardcore fans. It is missed quite simply because it was there. For over 10 years, it was in the same place and that simple consistency imbued it with a certain affection. As older New York Mets fans like to say, “Shea Stadium might have been a dump but it was our dump.” Well whatever Friday Night Fights was – it became ours.
The veil of time is frequently used by the PBC backers to defend their product. “Give it time,” they’ll say. This defense does have some validity. Most new businesses or entertainment ventures rarely start from a point of ultimate success. According to some reports, the PBC took this into consideration from the beginning. The money invested was intended to cover years of losses as the enterprise grew and took shape. Yet it’s hard to take the “Give it time” excuse seriously when there is no consistency underlying the waiting. Giving Haymon’s scattershot programming approach time is akin to giving a severely schizophrenic individual time to go grocery shopping and cook a large meal for 10 people. You might be waiting for something that is not likely to happen.
I always felt the amount of money Haymon secured to launch the PBC automatically gave him the position which he then spent so much to secure. By acquiring the money which enabled him to buy prime time slots on network television, he had already “won.” He was the new power broker in boxing. He was almost to boxing what Robert Moses was to New York during his reign over the city. Imagine if he had purchased one or two Saturday night slots per month on CBS, NBC or ABC, along with one or two Friday night slots per month on ESPN. Imagine if he put on fights like Keith Thurman vs. Shawn Porter and Carl Frampton vs. Leo Santa Cruz, with simple, consistent production – week after week, month after month and year after year. And if one really wants to suspend disbelief for a moment, imagine if Haymon – satisfied with the power his funding provided – decided to open his TV slots to IBF/WBA/WBC middleweight titlist Gennady Golovkin, IBF/WBA/WBO light heavyweight beltholder Sergey Kovalev or even lineal middleweight champion Canelo Alvarez. As the one paying for the network time, Haymon would most certainly deserve the majority of any profits for a major cross-promotional matchup. And yes, I know the Israelis and Palestinians are more likely to strike a deal than Haymon and the rest of the boxing universe agreeing to broadcast a major fight on network television. I did suggest one suspend disbelief for a reason.
Yet, as is usually the case, the dreams of what could be must give way to the cold reality of what is. As of this writing, in a few hours, Errol Spence Jr. is slated to take on Leonard Bundu on NBC. The fight is scheduled to be broadcast from Coney Island, New York at 5 p.m. Eastern standard time – on a Sunday. The fight leaves much to be desired, in terms of quality, and the broadcast slot is not one born of consistency. PBC backers will laud the Olympic broadcast preceding the bout as a valuable lead-in to draw an audience to Spence’s talents. Yet one has to wonder if this one-off tactic will do much to advance the overall strategic goal of the PBC. Showcasing the talents of a young fighter is all well and good but building one’s brand by showcasing the best fights possible would seem to be more desirable. As former Golden Boy Promotions CEO Richard Schaefer told Thomas Hauser for his THE RING magazine piece on Al Haymon:
“One thing (Golden Boy Promotions President) Oscar (De La Hoya) always said, that I agree with, is the best should fight the best. If I were Al, I would make fewer fights. The schedule is too cluttered now. And I would try to make bigger fights with the best fighting the best.”
That statement describes a consistent programming strategy with quality as the underpinning for long-term success. Keith Thurman vs. Shawn Porter and Carl Frampton vs. Leo Santa Cruz took the PBC a few small steps in that direction. Let’s hope, for boxing’s sake, it decides to take a few more.
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