Grapevine Whispers: FOX and PBC Might Break Up Before Contract Ends
Premier Boxing Champions came out of the gate hard, looking to shift the established paradigm, and get boxing back to a glory days era vibe. That would come by putting the fights not behind paywalls or “moats,” but on over the airwaves TV.
You remember, the old guard OGs, NBC, ABC, CBS, the so-called “networks” which used to dominate the TV space, until technology disrupted the norm, and cable wiring enabled platforms to be easily shared.
This is how the PBC push got handled in a March 5, 2015 NY Times column: “Al Haymon makes a habit of not speaking to reporters, but that’s fine. What Haymon is attempting speaks louder than anything he might say anyway. Haymon, a Harvard-educated boxing manager and adviser, is challenging the pay-per-view model that has enriched a few people at the expense of an entire sport. Beginning Saturday, Haymon will begin a bold, three-year initiative with NBC to bring top-notch boxing to the public on network television. Haymon will spend at least $20 million annually to buy airtime on NBC and NBCSN to televise bouts that will feature some of the many fighters he manages…But the $20 million question is: Are there enough boxing fans to make this work? More important, is there enough blood lust to bring boxing back into the sports mainstream in America? The answer to that question is, definitely; all one has to do is look at the meteoric rise of mixed martial arts.”
Five years later, we can pull apart that take, and offer some feedback. The last two lines there in the piece by William Rhoden, we have to take issue with it. Because, really, there wasn't enough “blood lust” to get boxing back into the mainstream.
But give Haymon credit, right, because he gave it a shot.
You remember the feeling of optimism, or at least cautious open-mindedness, at the thought that just maybe if boxing were placed prominently on networks, we could grow the fanbase and push back MMA from being the fight sport on the ascent?
The PBC concept got introduced to the masses on Jan. 14, 2015, with a press conference.
NBC Sports would televise 20 cards in 2015, some at night and some during the day on the network and others would unfold on NBC's cable sports channel on prime time. The series would kick off March 7 in Vegas with welterweight titlist Keith Thurman (24-0, 21 KOs) facing former two-division titleholder Robert Guerrero (32-2-1, 18 KOs) and Adrien Broner (29-1, 22 KOs) facing John Molina (27-5, 22 KOs) in a junior welterweight co-feature.
And we learned NBC wouldn't be sending advisor and Premier Boxing Champions creator Al Haymon checks, because Haymon's organization, backed by investment firm money, would purchase time on the networks for at least $14-plus million a year.
Haymon gave this effort the ole college try; he bought time on Fox, CBS, ESPN, you might have forgotten that, and Bounce TV. His PBC fare ran on Spike TV, too. It was hyped as #FreeBoxingForAll, I still have the promo tee-shirt, and it all went the way of many ambitious plans to subvert entrenched business practices. That is to say, the takeover didn't take off, to heights that were hoped for. Along the way, some fine fights were shown, plenty of fighters got paid handsomely for their efforts and some decent ratings were enjoyed, too. Nielsen reported that some 3.37 million people watched the Thurman-Guerrero fight. And the pop that the Errol Spence-Leonard Bundu bout received on Aug. 21, 2016—six million people watched the bout from Coney Island after a U.S. Olympic men’s basketball gold medal lead-in from Rio de Janeiro–bred another surge of hopefulness that “free boxing” could once again be a thing that was more than something that about 1.2 million hardcores in America were devoted to.
But we know human nature, the dips get talked about more than the pops. A Deontay Wilder title fight should've on paper been a buzz magnet, but he got matched with Johann Duhaupas on Sept. 26, 2015 and only 2.18 million watched. Same as it ever was, the quality of the faceoffs would correlate hard to the number of eyes affixed to the screen. And no, it's never been explained to me the thinking behind not coming out of that gate hard, and over-delivering from the start, because you only have one chance at making a first impression.
Actually, why the Premier Boxing Champions push got off the runway but didn't soar over the dark cloud patch and restore pugilism to being more than a niche is varied and reasonably complex. For one thing, the negative pub that hung a cloud over sports which feature mens' brains getting rattled in their skulls and the resultant lingering head trauma helped build a ceiling as to how high the sport can fly.
And negativity period bubbled up surrounding the plan and the execution, all of it. By the fall 2016, we started to hear chatter about the inevitable fadeout of PBC. Over at HBO, Jim Lampley foresaw the end-game to this Haymon play. On his “The Fight Game” magazine show, he said, “For the most part, PBC stars have been given faint-hearted matchups against lackluster opponents, followed by long layoffs, with predictable results in TV ratings and advertising sales.”
But the Premier Boxing Champions train kept chugging, and HBO lost steam. By the end of the 2018, their door would be shuttered, with suits deciding that boxing's limited appeal meant that they'd be smarter to gamble $30M or whatever annually toward production of a show that might blow up, appeal to the masses.
Wallace Matthews broke that story, in the NY Times. “DAZN represents the next wave of boxing programming,” Matthews wrote for the Sept. 27, 2018 paper. “Its streaming service will cost $9.99 a month and will be available through the internet and smartphone apps. DAZN made its debut last Saturday with a heavyweight fight between Anthony Joshua and Alexander Povetkin before 80,000 fans at London’s Wembley Stadium. According to Hearn, a million fans watched Joshua’s victory on DAZN’s various platforms. In August, ESPN completed a seven-year deal with Top Rank to present 54 boxing shows on its various outlets, including its ESPN Plus, its subscription-based streaming service. And Showtime, whose fights were once used as a feeder system by HBO, presented 22 live boxing events in 2018. It says it has committed to “a more robust schedule for 2019.”
HBO essentially announced that we will never again return to a time like when Muhammad Ali or a Mike Tyson were at peak. And Haymon, from where-ever he makes his home, continued to add pieces to his board, make moves, adapt to the times, and keep the PBC brand prominent.
A “landmark four-year, multi-platform agreement,” that was the phrasing used in the release touting the hookup between Al Haymon's Premier Boxing Champions (PBC) and FOX Sports, three weeks before HBO threw in the dirty white towel.
This was right smack dab in a crazy-flush time for certain entities and people in the boxing sphere, if you recall, what with the DAZN push to gain subscribers to their streaming service spotlighting pugilism, and ESPN's pairing with Top Rank also part of a capital injection and interest surge into the sweet science. And for Haymon, it would present a shoveaway from the “Free Boxing For All” angle.
That angle would get used by the DAZN gang, and affiliate promoter Oscar De La Hoya would gleefully at press conferences after DAZN and Golden Boy hashed out a content deal. Canelo was in October 2018 brought to DAZN to build their subscriber base, help popularize their streaming setup, and so his fights would not be placed on PPV. At the same time, Haymon's time buy experiment was over, and Haymon would again work under a “normal” arrangement, with Fox Sports cutting checks to Haymon Boxing. Fox would also incentivize growth by doing pay per views, getting a cut from that, and also tying the success of the PPVs into the size of the PBC on Fox budget.
The Wall St. Journal sounded impressed in a Sept. 4, 2018 story by Joe Flint:
‘Terms of Fox’s deal with Premier Boxing Champions weren’t disclosed. Typically, rights fees are determined on a per-fight basis, according to people familiar with the matter. A fight between two highly ranked contenders commands as much as $5 million, while contests of lesser known fighters can be priced significantly lower. The annual rights fees could reach more than $50 million, people familiar with the matter said.
Pay-per-view fights, as a rule, feature those at the top of the sport, with the boxers getting the lion’s share of the revenue and the TV programmer and distributors splitting the rest.
Fox Sports National Networks President Mark Silverman said, “We believe this will be a very profitable deal for us.”'
Do you remember the PBC-Fox deal being hyped? This would make Fox “the preeminent broadcaster for PBC's top-tier championship fights featuring its biggest and brightest stars.”
We all know, don't we, that press releases and reality don't always match up. That's not being a cynic, that's being a realist. It comes from knowing that PR folks tend to play up the best-case scenario during those heady times when deals have just been consummated and all parties are in a confident head space about the inroads that will be made, the triumphs that are to come.
We are at the more than midway point of a four year deal, judging by the original wording off that 2018 release. And it's perhaps as good a time as any to take a harder look at the Fox-PBC pairing, and try to figure out the level of strength, or lack of, in the relationship. Especially because I've heard chatter that the FOX-Premier Boxing Champions union will not go that four year distance, that Fox is planning to allocate resources and time on their schedule to non-boxing fare.
A fight-game titan told me a few weeks ago that was the word on the street…and then after the fight citizen analyst Nayka Mercedes touched on it, on her YouTube channel, on the “Knockouts With Nayka” show. She said a “little birdie” told her that PBC on Fox will be no more, and PBC would move their content to CBS.
Would Fox really pull that plug early? Since the union was made official there've been some good shows, and some bad shows, and great fights and stinkers put together by Team PBC and launched on the Fox platforms. That’s not breaking news, all the promoters and leagues, the Top Ranks, the Matchrooms, the PBCs, they're all in that same boat, the track record of hits and misses is mixed.
A note about my process, here. If you hear a rumor once, often you just say, hmm, OK, interesting. But if the rumor is repeated by someone else outside that sphere, then it might make you wonder if there's some fire to along with the added smoke. So then you might reach out to a source you trust, who has a good track record of being straight with you. That's how I operated with this story.
I hadn't heard any whispers of Fox not being happy before they hit the two year mark on their Premier Boxing Champions partnership until a couple weeks ago. Yes, I did wonder if it meant anything when in June 2020 Fox axed “Inside PBC Boxing,” a magazine type show which got pretty good reviews, even among the notoriously hard to please pugilism Twitterati. That offering, hosted by the superlative Kate Abdo, typically featured Shawn Porter and Abner Mares, and ran twice a month. But the pullback on shoulder programming raised no eyebrows, really, because most businesses that would be negatively impacted by the pandemic at least considered cuts to help make the lean times less draining. ESPN has been trotting out the guillotine and firing staff every few months, it feels like and both ESPN and Fox Sports had high earning folks agreeing to pay cuts while the pandemic stuck the voodoo pins in revenues.
Layoffs get reported, sometimes with some specificity, because it is a public matter when a public figure gets laid off. They often Tweet about it, and it's obvious when a regular on SportsCenter is suddenly out of the rotation. But a possible story like this one, the possibility that Fox Sports might end their relationship with Premier Boxing Champions early, it's less likely that sort of story will get done in this era of media diminishment, not until the companies involved were ready to share their version of the news. Of course, chatter is omnipresent in the boxing game; the sport lends itself to being gossiped about for good reason: there is no central league office crafting the schedule, and managing the message. It's an every man and woman for themself sport, and that's part of what makes it fascinating at times, the freelance aspect of it all. But just because it's a freelance sport it doesn't mean lips get to flapping and details about business ins and outs make it to the media. You have maybe heard the saying, “The stuff that ‘they' don't want you to print is ‘news,' everything else is PR.” Most of what gets to us and we share is PR stuff. That is, sadly, the case as much now as maybe ever, because the shrinkage in the power of mainstream media means that ‘they' enjoy far more power than press persons. And the appetite for doing real reporting has been reduced, as the number of respected outlets drops year over year. There isn't a single “boxing beat” reporter at a mainstream non niche specific publication or platform, someone whose first-love beat is pugilism.
And while there are some decent pros still working in the space, the number sometimes seems less than it actually is, because some of the people who can pull off doing real reporting do side hustle gigs for the promoters or platforms. So, think of it this way–are you going to rely on the Washington Post to gain scoops on the inner workings of Amazon, which is owned by Jeff Bezos, who also owns the Washington Post? That is a rhetorical question…
Anyway, Fox showcased fights last Saturday evening on “regular” Fox, with a main event featuring Caleb Plant defending his IBF super middleweight title against Caleb Truax. Before this card, Fox had shown PBC fights Dec. 26, on a Saturday night, with a David Morrell v Mike Gavronski super middleweight main event. Morrell went to 4-0, and while he may well grow to be an A-grade pugilist and multi weight titlist, he is not very well known, even to the hardcores.
But as was pointed out to me by a friend who read the original story on RING, it's wise and fair to understand the context here. Morrell wasn't supposed to be the main event on that Dec. 26 card. The top fight was to be between former junior middleweight champion Julian ‘J-Rock’ Williams 27-2-1 and Dennis Hogan 28-3-1, but PBC learned Williams tested COVID positive on or around Dec. 1. They didn't have much time to slot in a replacement, and sometimes I forget, the pandemic removes lots of options to add to a card. Fighters from some nations can't come to the US, plenty more that would ordinarily be in fighting shape for a gig three weeks away are not in acceptable condition to make weight. Long story made shorter, PBC on Fox fights that ran during the pandemic period are ideally seen through a softer filter. Basically, booking fights during the pandemic is much harder than it looks from the outside.
Regarding how the public is viewing these PBC on Fox fights: Nielsen said that the Dec. 26 four-fight telecast drew an average of 920,000 viewers, with a peak viewership of 1,027,000 during the main event. Before that, PBC on Fox had offered a heavyweight main event, on their Nov. 7, 2020 show, with Luis Ortiz in against ultra underdog Alexander Flores. The numbers for that set of bouts and others are best digested by someone who can do a proper compare and contrast, and know what the network typically gets in that same time slot, how much they pay for the product that is placed in the slot, etc.
Ideally, to get a clear sense of what FOX thinks of their four year deal at this juncture, you'd also want to know how the suits there interpreted the Errol Spence-Danny Garcia pay per view promotion, which was offered on Saturday, Dec. 5. It's no secret, probably, to hardcores reading this that doing PPV during the pandemic economic slowdown is not an easy lift, so it wouldn't be shocking if FOX executives didn't get a “good news” lift that they'd wanted from the Spence comeback event. You'd also want to know how executives at FOX interpreted data from the Feb. 22 PPV, the Deontay Wilder-Tyson Fury faceoff, a collaboration with rivals across the aisle, at ESPN and Top Rank. The fact the offering didn't resonate more massively did raise eyebrows at, say, the Top Rank offices, and so maybe right then a Fox exec or two started to doubt boxings’ drawing power.
That’s not to fixate solely on “misses.” The PBC on Fox marriage has provided fodder that has entertained fight fans quite effectively. The Jeison Rosario upset of Julian Williams on Jan. 18, 2020 sure did press all the buttons, it was dramatic as hell and reminded us all that underdogs should be treated with respect.
Back to the present….No diss on Caleb Truax, he showed himself last Saturday to be what I told you he was, by and large, in this story posted hours before the fight. But “landmark” and “pre-eminent” would have been more along the lines of Caleb Plant against Canelo Alvarez. Truax was a massive underdog, in the same sphere arguably as Alexander against Ortiz and Gavronski versus Morrell.
Of course, it can be argued that, hey, c'mon, Plant was just satisfying a requirement from the IBF, that was a mandatory defense. Noted. But this issue most certainly pops up again and again in the sport, outside the Premier Boxing Champions realm too. Too much reverence for the title belts isn't good, because that helps encourage lopsided fights that are mere ‘stay busy' affairs.
Go to Fightnews.com, and look at all the champions, all 763 of them. And look at the people rated No. 1 by each of these sanctioning bodies…Way too often, these are people that are totally unknown to even hardcore boxing fans, and for good reason. It's because they haven't performed in a manner which built their public profile. And yeah, they often don't belong or deserve to be rated No. 1 by any oversight body. That is a persistent problem that will continue as long as the sport, the power brokers, the fans, the media, condones the system as it is today.
If you were like me, you might have been pondering to yourself that Plant v Truax match, and the meaning of it, inside the bigger pictures within the sport. There are always bigger pictures to look at, and oftentimes, to be very frank, you and me are not invited for a sneak peak.
How the sausage gets made, it's more under wraps in this sport than the probably all the others, because the lack of centralized power, and the leeway the promoters and managers and platform providers and “sanctioning bodies” have in crafting the schedule, which is a year-round construct. So that means I don't know what Plant was paid, or what Truax made, or what the size of the money pot PBC has to play with for making such a card. And I don't know what sort of rating they ideally want to achieve from fare presented from 6 PM till after 10 PM on Fox over the air channels…or for that matter, their cards that screen on FS1, the main cable channel.
But when you don't know, you ask. So I poked around Sunday into Monday and reached out to another bigwig. This person has no direct dog in this hunt, but told me a similar story. That it's being talked about in certain circles in fancy offices that Fox and Premier Boxing Champions will part ways, and that four year deal will not hit the finish line. The CBS part of the move, that person said, doesn't sound at all plausible.
I reached out to Tim Smith, vice president of communications for Haymon Boxing, and asked about that rumor. In good humor, Smith answered and riffed off the fact I'd told him “another high level person” told me that Fox and PBC parting ways early was something they'd been made aware of.
“Original reports in Sept. 2018 were of a four year deal, Tim…So, is PBC currently looking for a new platform because Fox has chosen to end their involvement in PBC boxing?”
“Your source is high,” he cracked back. “Have your “high’’ level source put this in perspective for you. FOX PBC Fight Night scored 1,608,000 viewers in primetime on Saturday for a three-fight card that featured Caleb Plant’s dominant win over Caleb Truax via unanimous decision in the main-event. That’s 23% better than last year’s 1,304,000 viewers for the comparable telecast on 1/18/20. That ranks as FOX’s best PBC Fight Night performance since 12/21/19. The main event portion of the telecast averaged 1.887 million viewers. The telecast peaked with 2.019 million viewers from 10-10:15p.” He continued, with more meat attesting to the strength of the PBC product on Fox. “Earlier in the day, PBC’s prelim bouts averaged 871,000 viewers, +4% better than FOX’s last PBC Prelim performance of 837,000 viewers on 6/23/19. Audience peaked with 1.221 million viewers from 8-8:07p.”
On Monday, early evening, I reached out to FOX media relations, and asked for a confirm/deny from their end. I've been told by two different very high level boxing people that it looks like the FOX deal with PBC will end early, I said. It was reported in Sept. 2018 that it would be a four year deal, but FOX is seeking to end the partnership early, that's the gist of it on the grapevine, and no, neither source told me WHEN this split might occur.
A reply, attributed to a Fox spokesman, was furnished late afternoon Tuesday: “On the heels of our best PBC Fight Night viewership performance since December 2019, FOX Sports greatly values our partnership with Premier Boxing Champions (PBC), and are excited to continue showcasing top-notch bouts throughout our contract, including our next event on February 27.”
As of now, pretty much all there is to do is wait, see how things play out. If you want to, you could riff in your head on where PBC might place their product, if indeed FOX is looking to go in a different direction with their boxing plans. And you should probably make sure you do that with this in mind–Al Haymon has a decades long track record at finding solutions, and finding home for Haymon fighters to ply their trade.
Richard Schaefer, then the chief executive of Golden Boy Promotions was perhaps in semi ass kiss mode when he spoke to the NY Times and Greg Bishop in 2011. It was for a story shedding light on the man who does his work from a virtual vault, but actually has a decades long history in promotion and in succeeding in several business arenas. Al Haymon is, Schaefer said to the Times, “easily the smartest man I’ve ever met.”
One final set of notes: The original version of this story ran on RING, and some people reacted like I had spray-painted “God is dead” on the Pope's face.
This is an era which features intense tribalism in places where that hadn't been the case so much. Social media is to blame, because the ease of communicating with persons halfway around the world encourages more interaction and also incivility. You assume the person you are insulting won't punch you in the face, when they can't…Also, so much of the time, the dart throwers are anonymous. How can I punch you in the face if I don't know who you are?
Over-zealous attachment to persons or entities is a hallmark of an era where self worth is harder to find and hold than ever. You'd think, judging by the passion in their ALL CAPS ATTACKS that people taking issue with the RING piece were drawing sweet paychecks from Premier Boxing Champions. But no, the payoff these folks get is from feeling like they belong to something larger than what might be a sub-scintillating existence.
I see every week another high level boxer taking to social media and lamenting the amount of flak they get from strangers on the internet. Just last week, I saw such a post and weighed in. “Eff 'em,” I said, put them on ignore. Previously, I have noted to an athlete here and there, ‘hey, at least you get a really sweet paycheck. That is a nice antidote for times when being a public figure in a society which encourages discourteous behavior in the virtual village square leaves you feeling low.'
I sometimes have to take my own advice, minus the paycheck-grade part. Seeing the comments on an article you write is often counter productive, because the vitriol on display is at a level that isn't appropriate for the subject. And for a story like this, you will see folks who root hard for PBC and don't care for, maybe, Top Rank weigh in.
Names will be called, critiques will be furnished, and all in all, people get heated in a way that suggests projection is taking place.
If you are not in that bubble, it probably would seem bizarre to you. Guys, and yeah, it's almost always guys, 95% anonymous, not using a real name or sharing any identifying characteristics, throw insults. And yep, it's ludicrously hyperbolic at times. I saw one by an anonymous circle jerker who said the RING story set journalism back 20 years. I blocked this dude because engaging with people like that wastes my time, and helps them get excited for their jagoff sessions. I guess ideally they get a surge of superiority getting a rise out of me, while feeding their self glorification narrative that they know better. It's weird, all these cats that know better, being so talented, yet wasting their energy doing it for free on a social media timeline. Sometimes people tell me that a couple guys critique me in the Bad Left Hook forum. And my response is, that's strange, if they don't like it, they can feel free to not read it. Do the balls-busters ever ask themselves why they invest that time and energy into the critiquing and what the actual payoff is? Also,when I take a step back and breathe, I sometimes remember, WHAT-EV. Let 'em rant, in a way it's a minor compliment. They probably would like to have a job where people care a bit about what they do and how they do it.
I have been known to message a person who fires a barb, and tell them to feel free to not follow me if they don't like my style. I did that recently, and a guy suggested that I should change my style. I told him that I grew up in the 70s, into the 80s, and beyond, and so my “style” was formed and influenced from that age.
This style, I said, may not appeal to you. If that's the case, reading my stuff doesn't cost you one thin damn dime. So, why are you talking to me like you are my employer, and editor? The interaction, which was quite civil, ended on a high note. The person who threw the dart apologized, and told me he better understood where I was coming from.
All that is to say that, actually, the demented critiques aren't glibly dismissed by me as the rantings of basement apartment shut ins. After wiping off some of the excess spittle, sometimes I see a point well made, or a facet I hadn't considered. To that end…the main focus on this version of the status of the PBC/Fox Sports deal story is on Premier Boxing Champions, for sure, but ideal practices and top echelon practices I lobby for must be applied consistently or we don't all share a reality.
So, when I opine that I'd very much like to see more “50-50” fights and hope that PBC shares the sentiment moving forward, it should be assumed I feel the same way about content offered from Top Rank, Matchroom, Golden Boy, all of them.
But I really probably shouldn't get my hopes up in that regard all that much. Because me seeing that would mean a pillar of the foundation of the business would have shifted. Right now, as much as ever, we see buildups to big fights. Marination is the order of this day, very often, and to an extent, that's the way it always has been.
When done right, that construct helps makes boxing what it occasionally is–the best purveyor of sporting drama, bar none. Over in MMA, the UFC model isn't that so much. The people tuning in to watch UFC events are lured more by the knowledge that the bulk of the fights on the card are going to be competitive. Squash matches, or that very incremental build, in the way that, say Gervonta Davis is doing it, are not the norm in MMA as they are in the boxing space.
Another element is the political divide, which has as much chance of getting sorted as things in DC do. Nowhere has that been so disappointing as in the welterweight class, where a super fight between Errol Spence and Terence Crawford will not take place while those two are in their fighting primes. Also, at 160 we darn well should have seen Canelo Alvarez versus Jermall Charlo by now, but haven't, because of politics. I will hold out hope that politics don't keep us from getting a round-robin at 135, with Teofimo Lopez, Gervonta Davis and Ryan Garcia, and maybe Vasiliy Lomachenko. But old habits and patterns are hard to break, so I won't allocate too much wishing to such a switch happening. But neither will I stop hoping in total. Surrendering sucks, it only takes a change in mindset of one or two influencers and the sport can do more in delivering for fans, the people that shovel money into the machines that keep boxing moving, if not grooving like it could be.
This coda is my way of saying, if it is decided by Fox that they only want to do three years with Premier Boxing Champions, not four, and they want to move away from boxing, then wherever the PBC content does land, more coin-toss matchups will result in those shows being embraced more universally.