Womens Boxing Fights for PPV Niche
When Christie Martin or Mia St. John used to step into the
boxing ring to fight during a major pay-per-view boxing event, it was considered by
hard-core boxing fans to be a laughable or lighthearted attempt by promoters to pass time
before the men's boxing main event.
In recent years, however, women's boxing has moved from
second-class status to an expected and often highly anticipated part of the PPV-boxing
Now, the women are hoping to fight their way out of the
shadows of their male counterparts and to establish themselves as a legitimate PPV-boxing
revenue source for operators.
Event Sports, for example, will distribute a June 11
all-women's PPV-boxing card, which it hopes will lead to a series of events that could
turn into a lucrative PPV franchise for the industry.
But some industry observers wonder whether the sport, which
has few marquee names, can prosper without riding the coattails of the highly successful
and well-established men's boxing cards.
While women have been boxing professionally for years, the
sport tittered in relative obscurity until the late 1990s, when Don King and Showtime
Event Television began showcasing Christie Martin as an undercard fighter for Mike Tyson's
successful PPV events.
Even then, industry sources said, the prospect of women's
boxing was nothing more than a curiosity for boxing fans, and it was not taken very
FOCUS GROUPS SHOW SHIFT
At the time, results from SET focus groups showed that
women's boxing was almost resented by the viewing public as a nuisance, rather than seen
as a legitimate sporting attraction.
But as Martin, who has the skills of a professional boxer,
continued to appear on SET fight cards, viewers began to gain a greater appreciation of
A recent May SET focus-group survey showed that women's
boxing had gone from evoking resentment from audiences to generating a desire to see
quality women's events on PPV in a little over three years.
"Women have now become a mainstay as part of the men's
boxing cards," Event president Rick Kulis said.
That growing desire for women's boxing has been reflected
in ratings for the sport on basic cable. Event has been distributing all-women's boxing
cards on both PPV and basic cable since 1997, and it has seen a significant increase in
its appeal to boxing audiences. Female fights on ESPN2's Friday Night Fights series
and on USA Network's now-defunct Tuesday Night Fights cards have generated some of
the highest boxing ratings for both networks, Kulis said.
In fact, both ESPN2 and USA aired consecutive all-female
cards last June, with ESPN2 generating a 1.1 Nielsen Media Research rating -- double what
it typically pulls for all-men's cards -- and USA earning a 3.3 rating, at the time its
highest rating in five years.
Similarly, TVKO and SET executives said, women's boxing
events on major PPV men's boxing cards have become strong draws for the networks.
Women fighters such as Christie Martin and, more recently,
former Playboy model Mia St. John have become eagerly anticipated staples of many
PPV-boxing events over the past two years.
"Clearly, women's boxing has added a new dimension to
the PPV telecast, and it has become a marketable attribute to an event," TVKO senior
vice president of programming Mark Taffet said.
In fact, a May 1999 Showtime boxing survey indicated that
Martin had greater name recognition among PPV-boxing viewers than some well-known male
fighters, including Prince Naseem Hamed, Felix Trinidad, Francois Botha, Ricardo Lopez,
Henry Akinwande and Lou Savarese.
But when Martin lost to Sunya Anani earlier this year --
which will be featured on Event's June 11 card -- it allowed other women fighters the
opportunity to establish themselves as the best in the category.
"When Martin lost her fight, the whole world of
women's boxing opened up," Kulis said.
However, some in the business said this might not be a good
thing for the emerging category. Some experts said it would be difficult for women's
boxing to establish itself as a premiere PPV category without a marquee fighter like
Martin leading the awareness of the sport.
"The key to men's boxing is that the public knows the
two fighters. In women's boxing, at best, the public is familiar with one of the
fighters," ESPN manager of programming Bob Yalen said. "There aren't the
dramatic confrontations between competitors that you often see in a strong men's
Taffet added that there needed to be more name recognition
of the boxers, as well as a greater consistency in the quality of the bouts. "There
needs to be broader exposure of the fighters," Taffet said.
Yalen also pointed out a wide disparity of quality among
fighters in the sport. As with many upstart sports, there are only a handful of women's
boxers with true professional skills. They are mixed in with a lot of mediocre and often
amateurish fighters. "There aren't enough quality fighters out there. But we're
trying to get people used to watching it," he said.
TOO MANY MISMATCHES
Unfortunately, Kulis said, many of the PPV women's fights
have been mismatches, which hurts the sport. Those fights are often used to showcase a
particular fighter, and not the true competitiveness of the sport.
"Those [appearances] relegate women's boxing to a
sideshow status," Kulis said.
Observers said there would always be some segment of
viewers that think of women boxers as a novelty. Indeed, the SET survey reported that
there is still a segment of viewers -- mostly male -- who view women boxers as sex objects
more than as professional athletes.
Nevertheless, Kulis admitted, such events have done more
good than harm to women's boxing. "It's not great business for us, but it sells
tickets and buys," Kulis said. "It's the women who have attracted attention to
the male PPV events."
Whether that attention translates into a business outside
of men's boxing shows is still up in the air.
"It's hard to say. We've had some terrific
performances as part of several men's boxing cards. Some of the fights have even been
better than the men's bouts," Viewer's Choice senior vice president of programming
Michael Klein said. "There is some interest and, hopefully, that will translate into
more purchases for the show."
"Down the line, who knows what can happen?" Yalen
asked. "It's piqued the public's interest, and it does have a future. But whether it
can be as marketable as the men's [category] remains to be seen."
Kulis promised that his fight card would showcase the best
and most competitive fights women's boxing has to offer. And at $19.95, it's much cheaper
than most men's boxing cards.
"This is a big business that the industry can get on
the ground floor," Kulis said. "It hasn't materialized yet, but success is out
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R. Thomas Umstead serves as senior content producer, programming for Multichannel News, Broadcasting + Cable and Next TV. During his more than 30-year career as a print and online journalist, Umstead has written articles on a variety of subjects ranging from TV technology, marketing and sports production to content distribution and development. He has provided expert commentary on television issues and trends for such TV, print, radio and streaming outlets as Fox News, CNBC, the Today show, USA Today, The New York Times and National Public Radio. Umstead has also filmed, produced and edited more than 100 original video interviews, profiles and news reports featuring key cable television executives as well as entertainers and celebrity personalities.
By David Bloom