What has harmed boxing more in the last 20 years than promoters hiding the top tier fighters on premium cable?
As the years have gone on, two things have hurt boxing’s popularity. There’s an argument to made for boxing being a niche sport, as the national interest wanes to a point where most fights are seen by only hardcore fans. The first part of the problem is that boxing is dangerous and so few people are actually any good at it. This has led to more and more kids who would otherwise box join up in basketball or football, team sports where the lonely hours of training are replaced with group activity.
Kids with a taste for violence can play football, and those without that desire can play basketball or soccer. Why expose yourself to a lifetime of punishment if you don’t have to? To find a boxing gym, you have to look in the rougher areas of town where fighting is still a viable career choice. Even then, if you find someone who wants to fight, there’s a microscopic chance they’ll have the aptitude for it.
Still, there are boxers. The problem of popularity is most noticeable in America, as Latin America and Europe continue to pump out high quality boxers. The larger problem for popularity is television. Our fearless leader Michael Woods recently wrote about the damaging effects of networks going head to head instead of being collaborative, explaining how counter programming helps no one and hurts everyone – especially the fans.
On March 3rd, I’m going to watch the Deontay Wilder vs. Luis Ortiz fight. I am going to have to DVR the great light heavyweight card that HBO is airing featuring Dmitry Bivol and Sergey Kovalev, because I cannot watch both at once. Fans in New York will have to choose which fight they go to. Anyone who is without Showtime or HBO subscriptions will watch neither, unless they resort to illegal streaming options – a problem which the sport has created for itself.
When Gennady Golovkin and Canelo Alvarez finally decide to fight again, it will be on pay-per-view, which is stupid. No one wants to shell out $100 to watch a fight. The best showcase of two great champions should be accessible. People like me, purists they call us, want the sport to return to its former glory. How can that happen if no one can watch the fight without opening their wallet?
The fight will be great. All indications are that both fighters felt they were too timid in respecting the other’s power, meaning the likelihood of a Hagler-Hearns style war is high. Imagine if the first mega fight of 2018 was on the Worldwide Leader? An entire demographic of fans who do not want to pay exorbitant PPV prices would suddenly be accessible. Golden Boy could use the opportunity to showcase some of their up and coming prospects, which would provide further visibility to fighters that may never break through otherwise.
The obstacles to this are enormous. Canelo’s fights have been on HBO PPV for years, because he is the last reliable draw in the sport. Golovkin’s promoter Tom Loeffler has a longstanding working relationship with Peter Nelson at HBO, including the Superfly card coming up in February. And of course, money is an issue. PPV broadcasts will bring in $100 per household, whereas ESPN would need to make that back through advertising rights. The shame of it all is that greed will keep this and other great fights stashed away on premium cable for the foreseeable future.
Golden Boy and Top Rank’s relationship with ESPN is expanding, but still really in its infancy. The network has had trouble finding the formula for broadcasting the sport given the need to air commercials. Their broadcast team could also use some work; I think Stephen A. Smith is a good guy, but he knows as much about boxing as I do about airplane engines. Teddy Atlas has been mercifully removed from the play-by-play crew, but they’ve failed to find a suitable replacement as of yet. Still, the sport needs this to work out before the wave of popularity passes by.
While 2017 was an outstanding year for the sport, the underlying problems remain. If people can’t watch boxing without premium subscriptions, the sport will remain a niche. It will take someone much smarter than myself to figure out the formula, but it needs to be figured out.