In Live Sports, One Ring to Guide Them

The re-entry into the boxing business by CBS and NBC might be a head-scratcher for some industry observers, but the move makes perfect sense to the networks. To them, it’s a win-win situation, part of a new era quite different from decades ago, when dwindling viewership resulted in all Big 3 networks dropping boxing from their schedules.

Since the new multiyear deals CBS and NBC recently signed with Haymon Boxing to televise Premier Boxing Champions (PBC) series’ live matches are time buys, the networks get their money upfront and don’t have to worry about selling advertising to recoup a rights fee.

In the process, the networks have the opportunity to air live sports events that could potentially draw more viewers than the programming they are currently airing on Saturdays, revive interest in the sport and ultimately lead to new programming franchises that they can eventually buy the rights to at reasonable prices.

Under terms of the new deals, CBS and NBC will be able to sell advertising for any PBC shoulder programming they produce to air on their respective cable sports networks. NBCSN on Feb. 25 televised a one-hour special titled PBC: Corner to Corner that profiled the four boxers—Keith Thurman, Robert Guerrero, Adrien Broner, John Molina Jr.—who will fight on NBC’s first primetime card March 7.

While neither the networks nor boxing manager Al Haymon have publicly discussed the fees that were paid to the networks to air the series, it’s been reported by several media organizations that NBC received $20 million for its multiyear deal.

Stephen Espinoza, executive VP and general manager of Showtime sports and event programming, says getting back into boxing this way allows the broadcast nets to test the waters. If the telecasts are successful at drawing audiences, paying a rights fee down the road is not going to break the bank. “In the context of TV sports rights fees, boxing is a relative bargain,” Espinoza says. “It’s a way for TV networks to provide live sports at a reasonable cost.”

“Our goal is to develop and grow these telecasts into major events,” says Jon Miller, president of programming for NBC Sports and NBCSN. “At one time, the heavyweight boxing champion was the most well-known athlete in the world. We’re committed to putting the full face of NBC and the power of our production and promotion teams to make these telecasts a success.”

The “PBC on NBC” will be televised live this year on five Saturdays in primetime, as well as on six Saturday afternoons. Cable network NBCSN will also televise nine events in primetime on Saturday nights. NBC will use its top announcing talent on the telecasts, with Al Michaels hosting, Marv Albert doing the blow-by-blow announcing and Sugar Ray Leonard serving as analyst. The network has signed up former boxer Leila Ali (Muhammad Ali’s daughter) to report from the fighters’ corners.

CBS, which will televise all of its PBC bouts on Saturday afternoons, last regularly televised boxing in 1987, with the exception of one afternoon title fight in 2012. CBS is also planning to use some of its CBS Sports and Showtime boxing announcing talent on its live telecasts, along with some new faces, although specifics have not been announced. The first CBS telecast, on April 4, will feature WBC light heavyweight champion Adonis Stevenson defending his title against former super middleweight champ Sakio Bika.

To get even broader reach, all PBC on NBC events will be streamed live on NBC Sports Live Extra via TV Everywhere, which will allow viewers to see the bouts on multiple digital platforms.

NBC’s Miller says the reason the network originally walked away from boxing was that promoters began moving all of the best fighters to pay-per-view. Miller believes that Haymon Boxing, which manages close to 200 fighters in assorted weight classes, will make all of its rising stars in the sport available for these broadcast bouts—with the exception, of course, of the Haymon-managed champ Floyd Mayweather Jr., who is set to battle Manny Pacquiao in a longanticipated pay-per-view matchup on May 2.

Another reason the broadcast networks might be trying this comeback is the lack of viewership in the time periods they will be televising the boxing events. NBC is currently doing paltry ratings on Saturday nights airing scripted drama repeats. Live sports may be a more welcome option.

Season-to-date the network is averaging about 2.3 million viewers and a 0.4 18-49 demo rating on Saturday nights in primetime. While CBS is doing better on Saturday nights, averaging just under 5 million viewers and a 0.6 demo rating, it has a void to fill on Saturday afternoons without college football or basketball.

“NBC hasn’t found a good revenue stream with their drama repeats on Saturday nights,” says Sam Armando, senior VP, director of strategic intelligence at Starcom MediaVest Group. “Boxing gives them a chance to offer live programming and pull in better ratings. Plus it opens up a broader range of advertisers for the network if the initial telecasts in the deal do well. For CBS, they have more of a programming void on Saturday afternoons.”

Armando adds that both broadcast networks can also use the telecasts to promote their other sports programming to new viewers, and it also gives them opportunities to develop boxing-related programming for their cable sports networks.

Neither NBC nor CBS believe that two broadcast networks televising PBC events is going to oversaturate the market; they do, however, believe that the additional exposure will draw in more viewers.

“We think the more networks that carry boxing, the better it will be for all of us,” Miller says.

Meanwhile, the task of selling advertising for the events falls on the Haymon Boxing organization. Both Espinoza and Miller believe the boxing audience is an attractive one for many advertisers—young, urban, hard-to-reach males. And if the events can draw viewers in, the networks could reap the benefits if a next deal returns to the old model of the networks paying the rights fee and selling the ads.

“If you survey the current televised boxing events on cable, there is a good diversity of advertisers and categories who are in the telecasts,” Espinoza says. “There’s a well-established group of boxing sponsors.”