I have to admit that I liked Top Rank’s comeback card on ESPN, headlined by Shakur Stevenson vs. Felix Caraballo. Apparently, however, not all that many sports fans were eager to even give the show a chance– even during the pandemic shutdown where, almost literally, there’s no other sports to watch.
According to the Nielsen TV ratings, Tuesday’s card averaged a paltry 397,000 viewers with a peak of just 609,000 in prime time. I’m not going to pull my punch here. That fucking sucks.
Like I said, I thought the show was good. While I had some problems with too much time-padding between fights, I liked the feel of the program and didn’t think it was hurt one bit by the absence of an audience. Yeah, it was a bunch of showcase squashes, but they were entertaining showcase squashes and it was about what I had expected from boxing’s return to the main stage. A newly offense-minded Stevenson and heavyweight prospect Jared Anderson made the show a hit for me and it should’ve been a hit for those watching. If they had been watching.
The Thursday show two days later, headlined by Jessie Magdaleno vs. Yenifel Vicente, had more competitive action, but did even worse in the ratings. With an average of 311,000 viewers and a peak of 392,000, the Top Rank show was a total flop. If late night George Lopez Show reruns on Nick at Night delivered such numbers, programming eyebrows would be raised and changes would be made. But this was PRIME TIME on ESPN when, again, THERE WERE NO OTHER LIVE AMERICAN SPORTS programmed against it.
But these poor showings are not necessarily a “boxing” thing. They’re a HERE AND NOW boxing thing.
On April 18, also on ESPN, an average of 699,000 viewers tuned in to watch a presentation of the 1975 Muhammad Ali vs. Joe Frazier “Thrilla in Manilla.” Hell, a replay of Oscar De La Hoya vs. Julio Cesar Chavez I at 2 p.m. that same day did better than both Top Rank/ESPN comeback shows.
So, what does this say about boxing in the present tense?
Man, at this point I almost don’t want to go any further because it seems like I keep writing the same article over and over again about how boxing has fallen off track. I’ve been sounding the alarm to no avail for years.
In short, boxing has fucked itself.
Boxing has been cutting itself off from the mainstream sports world for 40+ years, enclosing itself behind paywalls and making loyal fans pay twice and thrice for the privilege of watching the fights. And now, with the business dynamic having changed following the fall of HBO Boxing and more entities building more walls for their own exclusive boxing content, fans are paying more than ever for lesser and lesser fights. Many of the bigger/better matchups are blocked by this new business dynamic.
The end result is what happened this past week. The mainstream doesn’t care one bit about boxing in the here and now. The casual/curious have stopped caring as well since they’ve been kept away by the isolationist business practices. And some formerly loyal fans have walked away as well. I know of several hardcore followers of the sport who just no longer have the passion they once had because big fights, good fights are so increasingly hard to come by these days.
As evidenced by TV ratings for the Thrilla in Manilla and the occasional “big” event, people want to embrace boxing. They’ve just been so effectively cut off from the current product that they have no idea who’s who or what’s what. It’s hard to be “into” something you’ve never really been exposed to and it’s absolutely unrealistic to ask people to pay for something they’re not really “into.”
The shortsighted business practices of grabbing easy money from networks who want to jealously keep “exclusive content” for their own bottom-line needs has hobbled the sport. We’re not talking two entities dividing boxing anymore, preventing a small handful of unifications from happening. We’re talking the sport divvied up into four, five, six, or more pieces– spread out over networks, platforms, and countries– built upon the idea of all sides staying “in-house” at all cost, building small, self-contained, but ultimately inferior universes behind their own walls.
The goal is no longer to establish the best and then sell the best to the masses The goal is now to get the fighters as big as possible while staying as safe and protected as possible within a network’s own self-contained universe and count on being able to exploit fan loyalty to foot the bill for everything.
And all of this piss-poor management comes to this. Not being able to sell the proverbial cup of ice water in hell. With no competition and a fan base supposedly hungry for its return, boxing could only muster a relative handful of viewers. ESPN/ESPN+ is scheduled to have six or seven more televised cards before the end of June and that kind of aggressive continuity has to gradually improve ratings.
But even if viewership is up double or triple by the end of the month, the numbers will still be bad and the problems with boxing will still be there. It could very well be that the Covid-19 shutdown was the equivalent of removing a deathbed patient from life support.
Fans had a chance to step back and reconsider their support of a sport that is giving back less and less– and maybe a lot of them aren’t going to come back.
In the long run, this may be a good thing, though. Sometimes you have to burn down the village to properly rebuild the village. Maybe a heavy round of revenue loss and near-ruin is the only thing that will convince boxing’s powerbrokers that cooperation and not isolation behind endless paywalls is key to success.
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