Reality bites: ESPN+ takes shape
Nearly 100 years ago, boxing was at the forefront of new technology when a 10-round lightweight match between Johnny Ray and Johnny Dundee became the first live sports broadcast over the AM airwaves. It was April 11, 1921, and sportswriter Florent Gibson made the call on location, thanks to the new technology radio station KDKA in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, had received shortly after being bought by Westinghouse. Radio had been around for the past decade, and so did long-distance communication, thanks to the telephone and telegraph, but the idea to follow a live sporting event had been around long before.
Technically speaking, the first real sports broadcast happened one evening in 1911, when Western Union set up a telegraph for about a thousand or so people in Lawrence, Kansas, to follow a recreation of a college football game happening at the University of Missouri. Each play would be wired in from Colombia and not only would there be an announcement of it but the play would be mapped out using a football field display for all to see. There were a few live broadcasts on the radio before using the telegraph as a middleman but never had anyone called action from the event itself and have it transmitted to such a wide audience. In true boxing fashion (some would say), the fight between Dundee and Ray turned out to be a draw but the headlines of the event were all about this new technology the entire city of Pittsburgh got to enjoy. The stories about it even included the term “wireless,” as in wireless telegraphy, and there were several events by the end of 1921, like a Jack Dempsey fight and the World Series, prompting a rapid radio boom. Radio was really the first medium that sparked the culture of entertainment that still exists today. New forms of art, news and entertainment thrived on a much wider scale, with it now reaching into American households, and, as it relates to today, so did the advertisers. Of course everything was put into hyperdrive once television came along but it still shares the basic principles radio first created. The personal computer, the internet and the smartphone took things a step further up until today, a time when they’re now in your pocket. However 100 years later, “cord-cutting” is still a thing, as the technology progresses.
Live events are really the only thing keeping television alive in 2018. Well, the form of entertainment isn’t going away, just how it’s consumed and the programming aspect of good old-fashioned television is evolving. Perhaps the biggest contributor to the live experience of TV – sports – has begun to make its shift out of that realm. If you’ve been watching the 2018 NBA Finals on ABC, you may’ve noticed plenty of advertisements for YouTube TV, which influences the cord-cutting craze that eliminates your cable bill. Streaming content isn’t something new in this day and age but the technology has been better served for television shows, movies, etc. – not so much live events – giving the edge so far to companies like Hulu and Netflix, that have an abundance of prerecorded content. However when it comes to live events, the technology hasn’t quite been there to be a reliable platform for the past few years, especially with everyone used to watching all these high definition and “smart” televisions. Even today, there’s still something official about television, especially because it’s worry-free and you’re already paying for it. Yet the live streaming technology is starting to get better, and, alluding to the eventual takeover, all the cable providers and television stations have been preparing themselves for this shift. Like many things, a change from old ways will take time for everyone to get used to. Realistically it could be 10 to 15 years until cable is thought of as the dying option for TV and entertainment but it’ll still be an option, even then, and may still be around even longer (as long as people are willing to pay for it).
Stepping into tomorrow, ESPN, the Worldwide Leader in Sports, has hit the ground running in 2018 with an over-the-top streaming service designed for the approaching era of sports consumption, and boxing is the main vehicle to help push it.
It’s called ESPN+, and it is available with a monthly subscription of $4.99, or $49.99 a year.
In the summer of 2017, Top Rank – the most established boxing promoter in the world – struck an exclusive deal with ESPN and created a shift in the boxing world that left HBO Boxing struggling to keep its head above water. Golden Boy Promotions had also made an agreement with ESPN, earlier in 2017, but its cards have paled in comparison to Top Rank’s, and it’s why most of them are shown on ESPN2. The Top Rank and ESPN partnership is glaringly different, and one could notice that in the mere build-up to each fight on the network. Kicking off this new era for Top Rank was a Manny Pacquiao fight on regular ESPN and nearly 3,000,000 people tuned in to watch the Filipino superstar lose a controversial unanimous decision to Jeff Horn in Australia. As expected, the ratings leveled off, once three-division champion Vasiliy Lomachenko and unbeaten two-division champion Terence Crawford debuted on ESPN but the formality of introducing them, among others, on this platform has now passed, and Top Rank has really had a great batting average, when it comes to producing fun, main event fights on ESPN.
February 3, 2018 – Gilberto Ramirez TKO 6 Habib Hamed
February 16, 2018 – Ray Beltran UD 12 Paulus Moses
March 10, 2018 – Oscar Valdez UD 12 Scott Quigg
March 17, 2018 – Jose Ramirez UD 12 Amir Imam
April 28, 2018 – Isaac Dogboe KO 11 Jessie Magdaleno
May 12, 2018 – Vasiliy Lomachenko TKO 10 Jorge Linares
After starting the year of with a big whiff, five of those six main events, so far in 2018, have delivered for Top Rank, in terms of presenting an entertaining fight. As for their televised undercards, it’s tough to even recall a good one but it’s more satisfying to have the most important fight of the night be the best one. Maybe the most underrated part of this list is that Top Rank has worked with other promoters in order to make most of these fights. However there is still a big divide within the sport and it can be easily classified with the fighters who fight on Showtime, or are with famed manager Al Haymon. With its recent scheduling in mind and the potential of great fights that lie ahead, looking at its roster, Top Rank has the wherewithal to help grow the sport of boxing through such a popular ESPN platform just about all sports fans are familiar with. On the other hand, even though ESPN+ has been around for a couple of months now, there’s probably still a large majority of people who have no clue what it is.
Any respected boxing fan certainly knows what it is by now. ESPN+ has already featured an exclusive card last month, and although that main event – Jerwin Ancajas UD 12 Jonas Sultan – wasn’t anything to rave about, the broadcast stream passed its practice run with flying colors, when it comes to the logistics. When ESPN+ first launched in early April, Amir Khan’s homecoming was picked up to help promote the service to boxing fans when it still had a free monthly trial (That trial is now reduced to one free week). Khan ended the fight and the stream within 30 seconds after knocking out Phil Lo Greco. On the Friday morning before its first ESPN+ card, the service also provided live bouts from Japan, where three-division champion Naoya Inoue and WBC junior flyweight titlist Ken Shiro provided two other exciting knockout wins. Instances like these in which random fights across the globe are picked up by ESPN+ are fantastic bonuses to the overall pitch of subscribing to the service – especially when the cards have nothing to do with Top Rank – but this aspect isn’t going to drive the motive of its boxing programming, nor is it driven solely by boxing itself.
Maybe it’s a great thing that the ESPN+ venture doesn’t rely on such a topsy-turvy sport like boxing for its overall intention but, as of right now, the Sweet Science is pretty much the biggest selling point. Here’s a quick list of what ESPN+ provides outside of boxing.
– ESPN’s entire “30 for 30” film and documentary series library
– One live MLB game every day during the regular season
– One live NHL game every day during the regular season
– Every out-of-market MLS game (subject to blackouts) and local-market Chicago Fire games
– College sports from these conferences (America East, ASun, Big South, Big West, Horizon, Ivy League, MAAC, MAC, MEAC, Missouri Valley, NEC, Southern Conference, Southland, Summit League, Sun Belt, WAC and “many more”)
– PGA Tour coverage, including Thursday, Friday and “some” Saturday and Sunday play
– “Grand Slam” tennis coverage (Wimbledon, U.S. Open and Australian Open)
– Rugby and cricket coverage
One might wonder about a few quick things on this list: The college sports part sounds vague but they will be providing coverage of virtually every sport in the NCAA – and I do mean “every.” As for college football – which is really the only footbal that matters – it remains even more vague.”ESPN+ will include hundreds of college football games each season, from across more than a dozen conferences in the FBS and FCS,” ESPN said in the press release. An NHL game a day sounds cool to the hockey fan, and two shows called “Quest for the Stanley Cup” and “In the Crease” are a nice bonus. The MLS soccer coverage seems more than enough but as for the MLB game a day, this is something that as been provided by MLB.tv for awhile now for free, and surely the avid baseball fan knows this. There was no mention of “Monday Night Football” or live NBA coverage for ESPN+ but it does have two exclusive NBA shows called “Year One” and “Detail” with Kobe Bryant, as well as “Draft Class” for the NFL. The golf coverage is expected to cover up to 20 events but none of them will be “major” tournaments. The tennis seems to cover all those majors other than the French Open. Rugby and cricket were probably too cheap to pass up. Last but certainly not least, the ESPN Films library will be a crucial addition to ESPN+, as it recently pulled everything from Netflix in order to be exclusive under its umbrella. Unless you’re a diehard Chicago Fire fan – whom should probably be forced to pay double for what they’re getting – the ESPN+ package is a slam dunk but I can assure you that isn’t the case.
As for the boxing – which should be the main focus for anyone reading this article – the coverage is extensive. Top Rank has opened up a library of classic fights, and it is certainly a great place to relive the past without having to rely on grainy and illegal YouTube videos (Fighters include Muhammad Ali, Sugar Ray Robinson, Sugar Ray Leonard, Floyd Mayweather Jr., Mike Tyson, George Foreman, Rocky Marciano, Joe Louis and many more, over 80 classics, in fact). Every single Top Rank show on ESPN and ESPN+ will be available for on-demand replay, and something that has eluded television for a long time – a boxing show – will also be available through ESPN+. “In this Corner” brings boxing journalists together to talk about the current news, “The Boxing Beat with Dan Rafael” gives its longtime boxing writer a forum of his own; “In the Ring with Teddy Atlas” made it’s debut on TV and “Camp Life” will be a docu-series that profiles fighters during their respective fight weeks. Press conferences, media workouts and weigh-ins will also be broadcast live, which have always been provided on watchESPN but those are now exclusive to ESPN+. The same goes for the undercard bouts of all the Top Rank cards going forward.
Your ESPN+ subscription is within the ESPN app, which has been revamped in the months leading up to the official launch. As of right now, still having a cable subscription is essential to seeing the ESPN app’s full potential because it essentially allows you to watch all the ESPN live programming anytime, anywhere.
Tonight, ESPN+ will have its biggest night to date when Terence “Bud” Crawford challenges Jeff Horn for the WBO welterweight title at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas, Nevada (10 p.m. ET/7 p.m. PT). Crawford, 32-0 (23), will be making his welterweight debut after holding a championship at lightweight and later becoming the undisputed champion at 140 pounds. It should be an exciting step for boxing fans, as one of the most talented fighters America has as to offer enters a weight class riddled with opportunity and will probably shape Crawford’s career, when it’s all said and done. Horn, 18-0-1 (12), is a hardnosed Australian riding a wave of confidence since upsetting Manny Pacquiao last summer. The 30-year-old has defended the WBO welterweight title once since, and, frankly, this match-up has been reserved for Crawford’s eventual debut at 147 pounds. There’s really no other way to put it: Crawford is expected to win but Horn may end up being a better opponent than people think, thanks to insane willpower, a life coach in his corner and nothing to lose – except a major title – as the underdog.
I would be remiss to not mention that fighting on ESPN+ in its early stages isn’t exactly the greatest form of exposure for Crawford. The Omaha, Nebraska, native can sell out arenas at home against anyone, at this point, and was able to sell a good amount of tickets from Las Vegas to New York within the past two years. Crawford is a star within the boxing world but not one who has completely crossed over into the mainstream just yet. Depending on how one’s point of view, putting Crawford on ESPN+ is a compliment to him, assuming he has the drawing power to get boxing fans to subscribe but it remains to be seen if that will work.
One major detail in the official ESPN press release, and not really mentioned by those promoting ESPN+, is that “ESPN Pay-Per-View” was mentioned and is presumably in the works for future events. Not to mention, Top Rank still plans to be on good old-fashioned ESPN on TV in the future, which, of course, won’t be available to watch on ESPN+ until it’s uploaded for on-demand replay. Another thing some viewers may take issue with, is that ESPN+ is only available in the United States, at the moment, which makes an already limited audience even more pigeonholed, in terms of getting these fighters more exposure in a world sport. If you ask people at Top Rank, they will tell you that the ESPN+/ESPN/ESPN PPV is a fluid situation, and perhaps that’s the best strategy early in this venture, as they figure out what works and what doesn’t.
When you look back at all the times society has had to adjust to new mediums over the course of 100 years, the transition has never gone without obstacles or pushback, nor has convincing viewers to change old ways been all that easy. The driving force behind boxing’s viewership on television, for the past few decades, has typically been males over 40, and if you tell them about this whole ESPN+ streaming service, there will certainly be questions, one of which would be why it has to be watched on a computer or smartphone. In such a case, technology has already passed them by because not only are TVs being made to connect to the internet and watch streams, there are simple ways of casting a stream to your TV from your computer via HDMI cables or receivers. Maybe how bad they want to watch will coincide with how willing they are to learn. It’s why the onus will be on Top Rank to consistently deliver good fights on ESPN+ for it to be worth ones money. One thing is for certain: These OTT streaming services will not be going away, and the younger generation is more than ready for them. Soon there will be competition for Top Rank and ESPN+ when DAZN makes its United States launch, over the course of this summer, and staying true to the economics, competing businesses will always be better for the consumer. Progression in technology has also been good for business – just think of how many radios were sold back then and throughout time – and when it comes to boxing, just think of how much better the sport can be if there is good cash flow going into it through services like ESPN+. That sounds like something a promoter would say, and it’s why some boxing fans may feel apprehensive about spending their hard-earned money. For well over 100 years, there’s always been some sort of gambit with boxing promoters, and there will always be a lack of trust, thanks to the many times they’ve been bamboozled before.
“People say, ‘You know, you shouldn’t be charging,’” said Top Rank founder and CEO Bob Arum, at Thursday’s final press conference. “Well, we’re really not charging because you can get the ESPN+ app for seven days on a trial basis, and, once you watch it, you’re gonna keep it forever for $4.95 a month but, if I’m wrong and you just want to watch this fight, just get the app. You get it for seven days, and then, if you want to cancel, you cancel. Anybody who has seen that app, and seen just the – forget the other sports but there’s baseball, lacrosse, basketball, all other sports – but boxing is a feature. There’s 80 fights from history, some of the greatest fights. If you want to see the great career of Bud Crawford, every one of his fights is on that app. It’s really something special. I ask you all: Try it out now. If I’m wrong, if I’m giving you promotional baloney; cancel it after seven days and it doesn’t cost you a nickel. But get that app and see out great it is.”
Sampling ESPN+ is really the way to go, in determining if you want to support it. Maybe there are things on there you never knew you’d like before. (Just be sure to cancel before the seven-day mark, or it will cost you 100 nickels.) Besides Top Rank’s forward thinking with this venture is the right idea, especially since boxing has been a step behind with almost everything. Now it’s just their job to make it worth our while.