by Fox Doucette
Well, the initial fight card for Al Haymon’s Premier Boxing Champions has come and gone, and…meh. Sure, it drew three million viewers, but then again, it was advertised to hell and back—even the local Top 40 station here in Seattle ran ads for it during the break in its drive-time show in the morning. You could get 3.4 million people to watch just about anything if you carpet-bombed the ad space with it.
The part that will be more interesting is how this fares down the road. Nothing keeps a debut audience unless it’s a huge hit, and I’m not so sure this was a “huge hit” outside of boxing circles. The only people I heard saying a peep about it outside of the hardcore fight fans in my social media universe were the ones who thought of it as at best a flavor-of-the-week curiosity.
The more interesting question will be how the second installment does, when it is (a) on Spike TV, which is a lot less associated in the public mind with big-time sports, and (b) not the only boxing show in US primetime, with an episode of ShoBox (but notably not one of Friday Night Fights) up against it. Will the star power of guys like Andre Berto and Shawn Porter (not that either guy’s the star he may have been at one point in their respective careers) be enough to draw eyeballs, or will the show’s placement on Lad Mag-O-Vision have about as much draw as a Lifetime Original Movie to anyone who’s not regularly a viewer of the channel’s fare?
But more to the point, let’s take another look at that NBC broadcast. It was stodgy. Straight-laced. Clearly marketed at an all-access audience, which is to say that either Al Haymon or the suits running the network on which Haymon bought time said “make it so middle-class white people can like it.” No ring card girls, no hip-hop fueled entrances, no Mexican beer sponsor, nothing too urban or too street or too potentially sensitive…never mind that sensitivity kind of goes out the window when your product is two men punching each other in the head until one of them falls down unconscious.
Is that really a sustainable business model? What’s more, did anyone get the feeling that NBC treated that night as anything other than a cheap cash-in? Sure, they brought in the stars, but the way Al Michaels (an NFL guy and a guy who, to my knowledge, had never called a pro fight in his life) and Marv Albert (the voice of the NBA, not exactly Howard Cosell at ringside himself) called those fights, they were at best fish out of water and at worst guys who were only there because the network put them up to it and said “Look, Haymon’s paying us a bunch of money and he says he wants this to ‘look like NBC Sports’, so that means we bring out our brand, and you guys are part of that.”
Which is to say they mailed it in. Whole thing felt one part focus-group and one part executive meddling, and it detracted from the quality of the broadcast.
Al Haymon can’t keep running a business like that. You can snow the hell out of boxing hardliners—hell, the way some folks in the boxing media reacted to “my God, boxing’s on free television, this is the biggest thing to happen since that dude kissed that chick in Times Square on V-E Day” makes one think that any time people who aren’t boxing people talk about the sport at all, it’s somehow a sign that boxing is the most important thing in the universe.
Outside the echo chamber? “Meh…that was…OK, I guess, I mean, that first fight sucked hard. Is it Pacquiao-Mayweather yet?”
I can’t see this ending well. Right now, Al Haymon is spending money to do what is, in essence, buy infomercials—it’s the same business model from the TV network’s point of view. Risk-free guaranteed revenue, bought and paid for by the party wanting to put the show on the air. Doesn’t matter if they’re selling steak knives or political platforms or long-dead sports. The network doesn’t have to invest a dime.
Will that continue to be the case if, after $200 million worth of lost money on cards that fewer and fewer people watch because the quality’s no good and the schedule too inconsistent, Al Haymon decides instead to put the rights fees up for bid? He’s not finding any buyers. ESPN would just bring FNF back, HBO and Showtime have their own in-house boxing arms to put on shows without having to wet Haymon’s beak, and really, the Worldwide Leader’s got a multi-billion-dollar deal with the NBA starting in 2016 and they’re going to want to get their money’s worth airing more games.
All that would be fine if it were just one man failing in a vacuum. But look at it this way—Al Haymon is making the gamble of a lifetime that he, by being Dana White, can convince the public that boxing is a real sport worthy of mainstream attention, and if (as keeps getting speculated by boxing scribes) Haymon’s PBC becomes boxing’s UFC, he can crown credible champions as well.
Excuse me while I stop laughing. Al Haymon may call the winners of his squashes champions, but as long as there are promoters and sanctioning bodies, there will be other champs, probably guys that Haymon froze out or screwed over, and no small few people in the media who will trace title lineages that relegate PBC to its own special ghetto. All it would take would be the International Boxing Hall of Fame saying they won’t recognize PBC titles as true world champions and Haymon’s belt becomes a laughingstock overnight.
I realize I’m at odds with my own editor here—read his excellent Monday Rant for the upside to all this—but nothing here adds up. $20 million is a lot to spend for a block of programming time. Right now, the deal ESPN and TNT have with the NBA is a little under one billion dollars for the entire season every year—that’s going up to $2.66 billion in 2016-17, but for now, the two networks aren’t spending $20 million on a basketball game that in prime time during a marquee matchup weekend pulls better numbers than Haymon does and has far better established sponsors. There is no way by my reckoning that this thing can possibly be making money—is it a loss leader or is it an over-optimistic attempt to use a big war chest to make boxing catch on? Either way, eventually it’s going to have to turn a profit.
The worst part of this will be if it goes down, because if Al Haymon fails, he becomes a cautionary tale, a sign to future entrepreneurs trying to make money by changing boxing’s business model that the house always wins and boxing is the gambler at the blackjack table getting his money ground down by that dealer—in this case, the “dealer” is the rest of the sports landscape. No network will ever want to throw money at it, no promoter will want to venture outside the friendly confines of boxing as it’s now set up (which, if nothing else, at least makes money as a niche market product), and the sport itself will die on the vine.
The worst-case scenario is what I outlined three years ago in The Last American Pay-Per-View. The sport will never die, but then again, they still hold horse races too, and horse racing even gets its day in the sun when the Kentucky Derby happens (coincidentally the same day as Mayweather-Pacquiao this year.)
I hope like hell Al Haymon succeeds. But if you gave me the chance to bet fifty bucks of my own money on it? I’d fade the action of anyone who believes in this as a viable business. We’ll be back to the old guard by this day in 2017, mark it down.
This will be the last weekly installment of The Southpaw; future publication will be on a more irregular schedule, but will be when I have something burning a hole in my brain that absolutely has to be expounded upon. Getting this out every week when, unlike last time I wrote this column on the regular, I’m encumbered by a 40-hour office job, has led to me running out of ideas, and the quality simply hasn’t been where I’d like it to be week in, week out. As such, expect this on a “special” basis.
On the bright side, this will give me more time and energy to work on What If, and if you like that series, expect a bunch of great ideas coming down the pipeline, from the conclusion of the USSR series to much broader dives into where the history of the sport dovetails with the history of the world. Later on this summer, expect some word from me on the first book in that series, expanded with all-new content—a great gift for the history buff as well as the boxing fan. Stay tuned.
Fox Doucette covers Friday Night Fights for The Boxing Tribune and writes the weekly What If alternate-history series for this publication. Fan mail, hate mail, and odds you want to give on the Haymon bet can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.