Immediately following this Saturday’s telecast of the NCAA men’s basketball regional finals will be the second round of Main Events’ NBC Sports “Fight Night” aired simultaneously with a solid HBO doubleheader.
Despite this, both NBC and Main Events nurse high hopes as their card, featuring former two-division champion Zab Judah against the unbeaten Vernon Paris in an intriguing junior welterweight scrap, capitalizes on both the former’s star power and the sports fanaticism of a captive audience.
“What we are trying to take advantage of is two things — Zab’s name recognition and being right after the quarter-finals of the NCAA Tournament,” explained Main Events CEO Kathy Duva, who spoke with TQBR earlier this month.
Though the momentum of March Madness may offer “Fight Nights” a fighting chance to earn a solid rating, NBC and Main Events are definitely taking a gamble on the live gate based on Duva’s previous experiences.
“The last time we tried doing tickets during the tournament I believe was in 1991. We tried doing a fight in Reno going up against the NCAA and nobody came,” Duva said. “We usually hesitate and avoid those dates. For this situation, all those people in bars and at home and are big sports fans who stayed in because they want to watch those tournaments. When their choices are to watch reruns of shows on the networks and they happen upon our fight, we have a good idea that they’ll stick around and watch.”
With the fight set in the Aviator Sports Complex of Judah’s native Brooklyn, a lively turnout is expected. Adding to the appeal is Main Events’ other big draw, Tomasz Adamek (who hasn’t fought since his September attempt to seize the heavyweight crown from Vitali Klitschko), slated to sharpen his claws with gatekeeper Nagy Aguilera.
The co-feature, like the main event, is a crossroads bout. Undefeated Philadelphia heavyweight Bryant Jennings meets former titlist Siarhei Liakhovich in a ten-rounder. Liakhovich, originally scheduled to headline the inaugural NBC Sports card in January, had his appearance thwarted by the withdrawal of his opponent, Eddie Chambers. In a proxy bout, Jennings faced off against then-unbeaten Maurice Byarm and pulled out the decision win, prompting Main Events to award him another opportunity.
Saturday’s card could prove pivotal to the future of boxing programming on NBC Sports. If “Fight Night” reels in good numbers while competing with HBO’s twin bill (powered by fistic stars Erik Morales and James Kirkland), the network may be incentivized to invest further in a sport that hasn’t proved fruitful since the turn of the millennium.
2003 and 2004 saw NBC’s first collaboration with Main Events, having turned out a number of afternoon cards featuring the likes of Juan Diaz, Rocky Juarez, Francisco Bojado, and Kermit Cintron before they had cemented themselves as legitimate contenders. However, only a handful of quality fights emerged from said cards.
Main Events had also forged an output deal with ESPN in an effort to build towards a pay-per-view platform with the same group of fighters. Thomas Hauser illuminated the drawbacks of that deal in one of his signature exposes, pointing out that, despite the high licensing fees, the Main Events matched cards drew smaller ratings than the $15,000 license fee regular ESPN cards.
Despite past runs, Duva was able to sell NBC on giving boxing another try. When the deal was first announced, many in the boxing community assumed that the sport was returning to the big show right away. Versus hadn’t yet been rebranded as NBC Sports. According to Duva, the NBC Sports network will be a good place to start.
“On regular NBC your only avenue is advertising. It costs more to put a fight on NBC than it does to put it on a cable channel,” she said. “There’s a different revenue on cable because there’s subscriptions. There’s revenue there to pay for sporting events, advertising is a second revenue. NBC also has the regional sports networks.”
Duva sees potential in the regional sports networks, especially given NBC’s partnership with Telemundo.
“We are looking into how we can bring Telemundo into this, how we can use the regional sports networks (RSNs) to promote the shows,” she said. “One way is we plan on repackaging the undercard fights that don’t end up making TV and airing them on the RSNs.”
That more fights will be available is never bad news. Showtime has recently extended their Showtime Extreme network to air not only a card’s main event, but also oft-ignored undercard bouts. How it will work with NBC, considering a majority of the programming is already set, remains to be seen.
“They can’t do it live, it will be on delay,” explained Duva. “We’ve got all of these good cards top to bottom. That is what we went into this with an eye towards doing.”
Another avenue discussed by Main Events and NBC is the possibility of televising overseas fights stateside.
“We talked on Friday about picking up a foreign fight and the decision was made it was too soon and we aren’t ready for that yet,” she said. “If the ratings hold up and things keep working, it is something we would like to do.”
Along with actual fight coverage, NBC aims to offer other boxing related programming. This week, a thirty-minute program called “Fight Night 36: Zab Judah” aired; in essence, an extended commercial for their card this weekend. Fight fans can expect similar content in the future.
“When Versus was taken over and renamed, from my understanding, they had a lot of programming that remained,” Duva said. “They don’t have a clear channel of programming until next year. But there is certainly a number of ways in which we would like to be involved. There are magazine style shows, boxing update style shows, and of course reality based shows.”
Ratings will predicate the successful implementation of these plans. Luckily for boxing fans, Main Events is seemingly going all in on March 24, featuring a trio of fighters who have previously battled it out on the premium networks. All three have seen their fair share of action-packed scraps, and two bouts of the three are evenly-matched with plenty hanging in the balance — nothing like a little drama to maximize the entertainment quotient.
Though the majority of boxing fans have expressed distaste for output deals in years past, a tweak in formula — the inclusion of all willing promoters — may win this deal some new supporters. There is little unappealing about the programming promised by NBC and Main Events—all we can do is hope that they deliver.