Despite not being available in the same number of households or bringing the same kind of budget, the New York based premium network EPIX has, in a short amount of time, been able to make an impact on the boxing landscape by finding value where the “Big Two,” HBO and Showtime, don’t see any.
A comparison could be made to the early 2000s version of Major League Baseball’s “Moneyball” Oakland Athletics, of which a major motion picture and book was based on, starring Brad Pitt and Jonah Hill. Call EPIX’s strategy “Moneybox.”
“If you say so,” laughed EPIX Executive VP and Chief Creative Officer Travis Pomposello on the analogy in a phone interview with TQBR on Tuesday afternoon. “Just don’t make me Jonah Hill, I’d rather be Brad Pitt.”
If you’re unfamiliar with the film or what it was loosely based upon, the A’s were a small market team that were able to compete with the big budget New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox despite being outspent by a heavy margin in a professional sports league that has no salary cap. The way the Oakland A’s were able to do so was by finding value in players that had largely been put on the scrap heap by other teams, “an island of misfit toys” as the Jonah Hill character called it.
EPIX’s first boxing broadcast took place in March of 2011 as they showcased the heavyweight bout between Vitali Klitschko and Odlanier Solis. The heavyweight division in today’s landscape is the definition of undervalued. HBO denounced the division publicly, even going as far as saying the American boxing public has a hard time telling the two Klitschko brothers Vitali and Wladimir apart. Showtime has had limited involvement with the heavyweights over the past decade, often not making a play for the bigger fights available.
Though the result of their first boxing telecast left something to be desired with Solis suffering an injury en route to a one round technical knockout loss, EPIX soldiered on and has shown a commitment to boxing that should be celebrated by hardcore fans. They’ve continued with presenting the heavyweight division’s marquee matchups, and aside from Wladimir against David Haye and Vitali against Tomasz Adamek, they’ve televised every title fight in the division over the past few years.
“I feel that the heavyweight division is still the marquee division in boxing and probably always be because of such storied greats,” said Pomposello. “And the Klitschkos, every time they fight it is an event. 40,000 seats in the arena, the huge lighting package. It is such a great production and such an incredible vibe. Who sells 40 thousand seats? Yeah the fight against [Jean Marc] Mormeck was a lopsided fight, but it was still an event and there is an audience for that.”
Though the network needs to reach a broader range of cable providers in order to make more of a mark, they have aggressively marketed their company, particularly in helping people setup free trials or fixing the quality of their web streams through their Twitter account, @EpixHD.
Though they are relatively new to the boxing business, don’t mistake that for a lack of experience, as the network is in the hands of someone who has proven to be very capable, president and CEO Mark Greenberg. Greenberg headed Showtime as an executive VP and was with the company for 17 years.
“Mark Greenberg used to run boxing at Showtime,” said Pomposello. “He is responsible for the [Mike] Tyson-[Lennox] Lewis fight which was brokered between HBO and Showtime. He is responsible and one of the architects of that. I came to EPIX with 25 years in creative and marketing, with a boxing background as an amateur and a sports background as well. And when we started EPIX as a premium movie service similar to HBO and Showtime which are the other big premium services out there. Boxing has always been part of that tradition. We always knew and started to get our foothold in distribution and on the air that boxing would eventually become part of our program.”
EPIX has thus far only televised fights from abroad, but that doesn’t mean they won’t venture outside of Europe for a fight.
“There [are] a lot of opportunities for EPIX to pick up those fights and broadcast those fights because for various reasons have generally been ignored by our competitors,” said Pomposello. “I and my team here are huge boxing fans and those are fights that we feel that fight fans want to see and we are able to give them a home here. Those are opportunistic buys as opposed to some of the other networks who go for marquee value. We are able to choose in a much more opportunistic fashion. So far, those have been all in Europe but that doesn’t mean that if they were in the United States or South America or anywhere else that those opportunities still wouldn’t be looked at in the same way if they ever presented themselves.”
Many competitive and intriguing bouts have found their way onto EPIX, but the crown jewel thus far might have to be one of the more recent ones, the Nottingham clash between Lucian Bute and Carl Froch that took place in May. Showtime passing on this fight was covered by TQBR, leaving some unanswered questions as to why it was a fight that slipped through the cracks and into their lap.
Since then, TQBR has been able to touch base with HBO on that matter, but not Showtime.
“The business parameters did not work for us but it wasn’t an indictment of the fight,” said HBO’s Ken Hershman to TQBR in a phone interview that took place in mid-June. “Obviously I’ve seen a lot of Carl Froch and a lot of Lucian Bute but I think it was a canvas fight.”
When asked about his thoughts of EPIX’s increasing involvement with the sport, Hershman was positive.
“I think that for me, more boxing on television is a positive, the opportunity to see more fights and fighters is a good thing so I welcome their participation,” he said. “I thought they did a great job putting on that fight.”
When asked if he was surprised that Showtime and HBO passed on the fight, Pomposello made it quite clear that he saw that they could potentially land the fight.
“It was and it wasn’t [a surprise],” Pomposello said. “The double regime changes, the end of the Super Six, the relationships of the fighters with the network, the timing of that was key. I was a little surprised that one of them didn’t go for it. They both kind of bluffed, and we capitalized on it.”
When it came to Froch-Bute, EPIX stepped things up a bit. Along with producing a nice build-up program to the fight for their network, they took the commentators out of their New York studios and put them ringside.
“When we had Froch-Bute we decided to take the team ringside and call it ringside as opposed to the studio show,” said Pomposello. “But the studio show has worked out really well for us, because of the time difference and being able to put a show on in the afternoon. The quality of production that we get from an international feed is as good as anything I can get in the truck. I don’t know how much difference it would really make to the fans or to the viewer when those guys are in the studio.”
It has been confirmed recently that the rematch clause between Froch and Bute was invoked and that the fight will take place in Montreal in 2013. Whether or not that fight will be on EPIX remains to be seen.
“It will be a fight that is up for grabs and I think it’ll be interesting where that fight goes,” said Pomposello when asked if there was anything contractually that gave them first rights to the rematch.
Gauging what kind of impact the boxing programming has effected on their network in terms of subscriber impact is difficult because the raw data does not exist.
“I wish I could answer that because I could go in and ask for a bigger budget but the reality of it is we don’t know,” explained Pomposello. “I’ll give you an example. We had a free preview in May during where we had that heavyweight trilogy that we did three weeks in a row [Povetkin-Huck, Wlad-Mormeck, Vitali-Chisora]. At the same time we had Captain America, Thor, Iron Man 2, a bunch of those other big titles and we had a big jump in subscriber growth. The cable company doesn’t go to you saying, ‘Hey you’re buying EPIX, what are you buying it for? Iron Man or Klitschko?’ So I don’t really know but I know when we show these fights we are getting more subscribers.”
HBO has made a few dalliances with afternoon boxing programming, having shown a number of live Klitschko broadcasts with a tape delay in primetime. With EPIX, their boxing programming has been exclusively European fights which take place in the afternoon domestically.
“That was the old format, when those guys fought on ABC and stuff, in Saturday afternoon, which was obviously successful,” said Pomposello. “Right now, we think here strategically, having it on in Saturday afternoon and following it up with a really big movie in prime time, is a very palatable experience for people and for families. I don’t know how much families sit around and watch a boxing event on a Saturday night anymore. It is almost something nice for the whole family to have the event in the afternoon and the movie in the evening. The third part is the recent validation that we’ve had that there is an appetite for this that NBC is announcing that they are going to start doing boxing in Saturday afternoons.”
If EPIX is able to increase their visibility, there is no reason they can’t factor as a major player in boxing. Anyone that is a fan of the sport should be rooting for their success, as competition only breeds more opportunity for the fighters and for the fans.
If you are interested in what EPIX is bringing to the table, don’t hesitate to call your cable providers and demand they offer it. The network has rolled out a social media campaign called #DemandEPIX.
DAVID HAYE-DERECK CHISORA
EPIX has a big fight coming up this weekend in the anticipated heavyweight grudge match between David Haye and Dereck Chisora, which takes place this Saturday. The buildup for this fight would be hard to summarize in a paragraph, but it is one of the most controversial fights to be put together in recent years. Check Alex McClintock’s boxing schedule for the gist if you’re in the dark.
“Let me tell you why it is an important fight for us. One of the things we want to do with boxing and is hard to do with boxing and this one has perfectly played into for us, is having storytelling,” Pomposello said. “We were fortunate enough that we had the Chisora-[Robert] Helenius fight when people were just finding out about Chisora. He had the terrible Tyson Fury fight which we didn’t have. And then he fights Helenius this big up and comer and gets robbed in that division and he is completely controversial in the whole thing. All the antics, all the stuff, what a character, this guy is made for TV. Three months later he is fighting Vitali Klitschko, spits in Wladimir’s face, has a press conference and gets glassed by David Haye. It is a perfect story arc. And if you ask me and ask my colleagues, storytelling is what the sport needs and what every sport need. Like Dereck Chisora or not, he has given us a great story arc. He is going to get in the ring with his arch nemesis and one of them is going to come out the winner.”
One interesting sidecplot to the EPIX partnership with Haye-Chisora is an angle involving ESPN.com’s Dan Rafael. Rafael does the commentary for EPIX broadcasts and has a long-running pseudo-feud with Haye dating back to before his title fight with Wladimir Klitschko, which ended up being an extremely boring fight that saw Haye blame a hurt toe for many of his woes. That fight was in July and we still have the misfortune of hearing toe jokes through all the mediums where Rafael has prevalence. When asked if that was something he was worried about, Pomposello gave an honest answer.
“This is how I have always looked at it when I chose to hire Dan Rafael. In my opinion, the stuff he writes about David Haye, is for his main employer, ESPN.com,” he said. “As he writes about any fighter and any promoter, you and I both know he is outspoken. When he comes on EPIX, he works on EPIX. And yes I want him to be honest, which is a critical part of the announcing because it is important in our sport that we don’t lie to our viewers.
“I’ve always asked him leave the work he does at the door when he comes to work for us. I’d like to think his grudge or argument with David Haye is Dan Rafael with ESPN.com. And he won’t be on EPIX making all the toe jokes. Maybe I’ll let him get one or two in there if they are funny,” Pomposello said, laughing. Rafael has been able to hide his disdain for Haye relatively well since the fight was announced as an EPIX fight. Hopefully that carries through the end of the broadcast.
EPIX is the newest premium entertainment network delivering the latest movie releases, classic library titles, plus original films, comedy, music and sports events on TV, on demand, online and on devices. Launched October 2009 as the first multiplatform premium network with online accessibility for subscribers through EpixHD.com, EPIX pioneered the development and proliferation of TV Everywhere for American consumers. EPIX was the first premium network to launch on Xbox consoles, first on Android tablets and phones, first on Roku® players and is available to authenticated subscribers on hundreds of devices including Apple® iPads®, iPhones®, Samsung® Smart TVs and Blu-ray™ players and more. Today EPIX remains the only premium service providing its entire monthly line-up from new Hollywood hits to original programs on all platforms and provides more movies than any other premium network.
EPIX is a joint venture between Viacom Inc. (NASDAQ: VIA and VIA.B), its Paramount Pictures unit, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios Inc. (MGM) and Lionsgate (NYSE: LGF), available to over 30 million homes nationwide through distribution partners including Charter Communications, Cox Communications, DISH Network, Mediacom Communications, NCTC, Suddenlink Communications and Verizon FiOS.
Mark Ortega can be reached via e-mail and followed via Twitter. Mark also contributes to renowned boxing publications RING Magazine and Boxing Monthly, and is a member of the Boxing Writer’s Association of America and RING Ratings Advisory Panel.