Will The Fight Night Boxing Series On NBC Sports Network Pave The Path For Boxing On Network Television?

When I received a press release email from Main Events Promotions headlined, “NBC Sports Group Presents Fight Night Boxing Series,” with the subhead, “Quarterly Boxing Matches Saturday Nights on NBC Sports Network,” I instantly Googled “NBC Boxing Series” and expected to see an explosion from the boxing blogosphere in reaction to what I hastily interpreted as boxing’s long-anticipated return to network television.

After receiving a grand total of six hits for my search, all of which basically consisted of replications of the press release I had seen, I stopped being stupid and actually read the entire release, which describes that the current Versus network (which was previously known as the Outdoor Life Network, which was previously known as going outside and living life rather than watching it on TV) will be rechristened NBC Sports Network. In skipping past the word “Sports” in the network name, I had grossly misinterpreted what I was reading. Starting on January 21, 2012, the rebranded network will work with promoters J. Russell Peltz and Main Events to put together four scheduled two-hour fight cards (whether four cards comprises a “series” is an argument for another time and place), with the remaining three cards taking place on March 24, June 16, and Dec. 8.

Hence the lack of boxing blogosphere excitement.

However, more than revealing my illiteracy and the impact of Twitter (follow me @SDKraus if you appreciate shameless plugs such as this!) on my ability to process more than 140 characters at a time, I think the announcement merits discussion of what to expect from the series and what this could potentially mean for boxing returning to network television on NBC, if anything.

What To Expect

This is not boxing’s first foray on Versus/NBC Sports Network/whatever it ends up being called in 2013. Top Rank Promotions previously collaborated with Versus to air one of the most derided and meaningless fight series of all time, with cards often headlined by heavyweight non-prospect Tye Fields against even bigger no-hopers than Tye Fields. Versus also aired the fourth season of the boxing reality show, The Contender, also known as, “Wait, there was a fourth season of The Contender?”

Despite this less-than-illustrious history, Versus has had some modicum of success in broadcasting fights, particularly with Main Events involved. For example, the classic slugfest between Tomasz Adamek and Steve Cunningham for the Ring cruiserweight championship aired on the network and was promoted by Main Events. Less successful, but still notable for the headline fighters involved, Versus aired bouts featuring Bernard Hopkins and Roy Jones, Jr. to help build up the duo’s long-overdue rematch.

While boxing is not new to the network, and although previous results with boxing programming were middling at best (Adamek-Cunningham excepted), I think there are reasons to be optimistic about the new series.

First and foremost, the promoters involved are capable of making this work. Main Events is not the top promotional stable it was in the heyday of Lou Duva, when some of the biggest bouts in boxing history were fought under the Main Events banner, Kathy Duva and her team demonstrate a clear understanding of how to build fighters and how to put together exciting events capable of drawing crowds. Recently, Main Events greatly elevated the career of Adamek, turning him into a major draw at the Prudential Center in Newark, NJ, building him into a cruiserweight champion and capable heavyweight contender, and getting him big fights on HBO against CHris Arreola and Vitali Klitschko. Main Events has shown an understanding of the importance of regional appeal, which is evident in the deal struck with NBC Sports Network; according to the press release, “The Fight Night cards are being scheduled in cities that are served by a Comcast Sports Group regional network, and the regional networks will help promote the events and have the ability to re-air fights.” This sort of local marketing has been key to Main Events’ recent success and has been an element of promotion seemingly lost on HBO, where fights are often scheduled with complete disregard to a fighter’s local appeal (the most recent example being the Hopkins-Chad Dawson fight being held in California, despite one fighter hailing from Philadelphia and the other from Connecticut).

The involvement of Peltz further strengthens the ability to promote Fight Night Series cards regionally. Peltz is renowned in the Atlantic City/Philadelphia region for his well-matched, entertaining fight cards, usually put together on a budget substantially smaller than that of the big promoters like Top Rank and Golden Boy Promotions. In the press release, Peltz is quoted as saying that he derives his matchmaking philosophy from the late Madison Square Garden matchmaker Teddy Brenner: “Do the fighters’ styles mesh to make an exciting fight? Does this fight lead to something? And would I buy a ticket to it?”

It’s hard to imagine Bob Arum or Richard Schaefer asking himself such questions, since they seem more concerned with asking themselves, “How much money will this make me? And is there any way to make even more money?”

Although Peltz and Main Events will be involved in the series, it is not clear exactly what their role will be. According to a statement in the press release from Jon Miller, president of programming for NBC Sports and NBC Sports Network, Peltz will serve as a “quality control expert” and his role will be to “[ensure] that boxing fans will enjoy exciting and competitive matches.” And the press release touts a multi-promoter strategy in which any promoter can be involved in the series, “designed to produce the best quality fights.”

Given the epic failure of the Top Rank series on Versus, it comes as no surprise that the network would take steps to ensure that an isolationist promoter does not use the platform to further the careers of third-rate talent in uncompetitive match-ups. The emphasis in the language of the press release on quality fights and the reputations of the promoters and matchmakers involved leave me heartened that this series will genuinely strive to air strong, competitive fights without playing favorites with one promotional group or another.

Of course, whether or not Top Rank and Golden Boy, with their huge stables of high-caliber fighters, decide to become involved with the series would impact the ability to put top fights on the network. There is no way of knowing what level of third-party promotional involvement we can expect until more details about the first card emerge.

What It Means

Although this is not the bombshell return of boxing to broadcast television as I initially misinterpreted, the deal with NBC Sports Network could potentially help pave the way for the return of boxing to network television should the series go well.

Despite the inglorious history of boxing on Versus, Jon Miller and NBC Sports Network have nonetheless decided to make boxing an early part of the rebranding of Versus/NBC Sports Network, which implies that executives found something to like about the previous boxing series on Versus, even if the fans didn’t. Whether it’s that boxing scores well in a coveted ratings demographic or that the network is simply desperate to maintain footing in the world of combat sports with the imminent loss of World Extreme Cagefighting, something inspired the NBC executives to make boxing a part of their network strategy going forward. This, clearly, is good news for boxing as a whole. Any interest from networks, cable or otherwise, in airing fights should be seen as a positive sign for the future of the sport on television.

Another good sign is the presence of boxing on a network with the letters “NBC” in the network name. While I have no information on the number of homes in which NBC Sports Network will be available compared to Versus (though I assume they would be identical), the fact remains that branding the network NBC Sports Network instantly gives it more prestige than Versus.

While NBC is something of a joke in the circles of television critics (especially since they put my beloved “Community” on hiatus, those cocksuckers… sorry, they deserve it, “Community” is awesome), the marketing reality is that the name NBC Sports Network will resonate far more with viewers than either Outdoor Life Network or Versus ever could. The “NBC” part of NBC Sports Network instills the history of the NBC network, the network that aired “Seinfeld” and “Friends” and continues to air the Olympics, into a cable station that will be airing boxing. While this is far from the days of boxing being a fixture on ABC’s Wide World of Sports, it nonetheless represents a step forward for boxing, especially when it comes to cross-platform marketing.

Boxing promoters have shown a greater understanding of cross-platform marketing lately, starting with CBS airing episodes of Fight Camp 360 featuring Manny Pacquiao and Shane Mosley in the build-up to the Pacquiao-Mosley Showtime pay-per-view, and continuing with the airing of 24/7 on CNN and the appearances of HBO PPV fighters on CNN’s “Piers Morgan Live” prior to recent HBO PPVs, as well as advertisements for those PPVs on cable networks affiliated with HBO like TBS.

However, the regional marketing strategy outlined by the Fight Night Series press release indicates that local NBC affiliates will be airing commercials for the Fight Night Series fights, representing a clear step forward. With the HBO deal, cable networks were advertising fights for an affiliated premium network. In this case, network television stations will be advertising fights for an affiliated cable network. Despite the decline of the network audience in recent years, the networks still represent the broadest reach in television. Having boxing advertised on network affiliates can only be good for the exposure of the sport.

Of course, if the series is a big success, there is always the possibility that Miller and NBC could decide to experiment with fights on the NBC network platform. As I said, NBC is struggling with critical reception and a diminished audience in recent years. While one could justifiably criticize boxing for jumping on a sinking ship by making a deal with NBC, the reverse argument could also be justified – that boxing could be taking advantage of an opportunity with a struggling network to get back to a level of exposure that has been missing in the sport for a long time: a national network audience.

Ultimately, we will have to see how this series plays out and how NBC Sports Network is promoted and developed by NBC. However, it is difficult to see how this could be bad for boxing, as at the very least it means four more televised cards a year for hardcore fans. And the potential for this to open doors long closed means that you don’t need to completely misinterpret the announcement of the Fight Night Series on NBC Sports Network to get excited by it.

About Tim Starks

Tim is the founder of The Queensberry Rules and co-founder of The Transnational Boxing Rankings Board (http://www.tbrb.org). He lives in Washington, D.C. He has written for the Guardian, Economist, New Republic, Chicago Tribune and more.