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Boxing on free TV: Are the PPV and HBO / Showtime models outdated?

Lee Cleveland Updated
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This past weekend's bout between Manny Pacquiao and Jeff Horn was the most-watched boxing telecast on cable television since 2006.

The fight peaked during the final half hour of their fight with 4.4 million viewers across ESPN networks, averaging 3.1 million viewers across ESPN, ESPN Deportes, and ESPN’s streaming options.

Solid numbers, especially considering Jeff Horn was an unknown in the U.S.

Vasyl Lomachenko and Terence Crawford will also be showcased on ESPN later this summer.

America still loves boxing... But if Americans' interest in the Sweet Science is healthy, why are PPV numbers down, and why are HBO and Showtime getting progressively stingy with their boxing budgets?

Answer: The demise of PPV boxing business model can be directly attributed to illegal online streams and the sport's inability to stop them as well as fight footage that often appears on sites such as YouTube and Facebook minutes after the bout.

The same holds true for subscription channels HBO and Showtime. 

Many of those fights get milions of views on YouTube alone.  So, Americans have an interest in boxing but are less inclined to pay for it. After all, why pay for HBO, Showtime or a PPV event if you're getting everything shoved down your throat for FREE?

The old business model, introduced in the 1980s and perfected in the 1990s, doesn't work today.

During the 80s, big-time boxing in the U.S. ditched the free airwaves for the financial spoils of pay-per-views and broadcasts on paid cable stations such as HBO and Showtime. While that move has made a lot of people wealthy, it has relegated boxing to a niche sport in America in addition to becoming an outdated model.

In boxing these days, everyone is looking for a freebie via illegal broadcasts, real-time highlights and immediate full fight posts on YouTube. In fact, one doesn't even have to look anymore.

Counterpoint: But Canelo vs Chavez generated 1.1 million buys in May.

Today, there are 3 types of fight cards:

a) Cards that fans are 'excited about' and will pay for

b) Cards that fans have a 'high interest in' but won't pay for. Hence, they will watch the fight via an illegal stream or on YouTube a few days later, and

c) Cards that fans have a 'mild or no interest' in that they won't pay for.

Fans will still pay for a fight card that's very special, especially if big names are fighting each other. Mayweather vs Pacquiao, Mayweather vs Canelo, Canelo vs Cotto, and Pacquiao vs Marquez to name a few.

However, Pacquiao vs Horn would fall under "b" above. As this past weekend's ESPN ratings have shown, a lot of Americans were interested in Pacquiao vs Horn even though they would not have purchased it. But since the fight was broadcast on free TV, fans who wouldn't have purchased it were treated to the live event without having to search for one of those absurdly low-quality streaming links or look for the fight on YouTube well after they know the result.

...And those numbers far exceeded those of PPV events as well as HBO and Showtime broadcasts.

Counterpoint: But why haven't PBC's bouts on free TV garnered excellent ratings too?

Answer: The mainstream isn't familiar with fighters like Keith Thurman and Danny Garcia. Casual fans want to see familiar names. You can't simply put two guys in a ring and tell them to fight, even if they are well-matched world champions  Promoters have to do a better job introducing their fighters to the masses.

Perhaps a fighter of Pacquiao's prominence on free TV was a step in the right direction for the overall health of the sport?

The demand for boxing exists and mainstream fighters can pull big numbers in the U.S., but generating the kind of revenue to pay $10 Million to one or both fighters likely remains a challenge.... But it can be done with intelligent marketing and promotion.

Super Bowl 50, aired on free TV, earned $620 Million so a high-profile boxing card should be able to produce $ 80 Million.


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