PBC Year One: An Argument For Optimism

It has been almost a year since we’ve welcomed “Premier Boxing Champions'” version of free boxing for the masses into our lives, living rooms and Twitter feeds.

I haven’t seen any formal surveys on the matter, but sticking of a finger into the cyclonic winds of boxing opinion, it seems like the average fan’s reaction to the first season of PBC has been at best tepid and laced with skepticism, and at worst skeptically indifferent and derisive.

It has been easy to find the flaws in the first season. Most of the criticism is wholly valid.

At the same time, from a boxing fanatic’s perspective, there was a lot to like about PBC’s inaugural campaign. In fact, I’d go as far to say that it was successful in many ways.

Here are the things I felt PBC did well in 2015:

PBC Migrated Boxing Off Premium TV

There’s no denying that, in its first year, PBC made boxing more available via network and basic cable TV than the sport had been in decades.

More than 3.3 million viewers tuned into the March 7 series premiere on NBC headlined by Keith Thurman vs Robert Guerrero. The Sep 26 NBC broadcast of Deontay Wilder vs Johann Duhaupas averaged 2.2 million viewers and peaked at three million. Most PBC on ESPN telecasts checked in well above the one million viewers mark.

These numbers were all better than what you’d normally see from a Showtime or HBO boxing event. (For context, Canelo Alvarez vs James Kirkland peaked at 2.3 million viewers, HBO Boxing’s highest figures in years. By comparison, Gennady Golovkin vs Willie Monroe, Jr. registered a 1.5 million peak rating.) Of the top-10 most viewed fights of 2016, PBC shows hold six spots, while HBO claims four. It’s not a stretch to say that fans could only previously find fights like the major PBC cards on premium cable.

Critics can rightfully argue that fights on free, prime-time network TV should be hauling in more eyeballs. While there’s certainly room to grow, the fact that PBC has touted a cumulative audience in excess of 85 million people means that a transition — even incrementally — into the mainstream is indeed happening.

I’m bullish on the prospect of these numbers growing.

PBC Was A Financial “Wait And See,” Not A Failure

Rumors of PBC’s financial ruin seem greatly overstated.

It’s been estimated that PBC could lose as much as $200 million in its first two years of existence. That’s a hefty chunk of change by any standard. But all reports indicate that Al Haymon and his team of investors have always viewed PBC as a long-term effort and are prepared for short-term losses. We don’t know just how deep his pockets go, but his agreements with ESPN, NBC and Fox Sports all included multi-year commitments, indicating that PBC isn’t going away any time soon.

And besides, haven’t boxing fans always wanted industry bigwigs to have more skin the game? Haymon has made an unprecedented investment in growing the sport. He has plenty of leeway to iron out the kinks and grow the bottom line. And if he doesn’t? Then PBC will fail. But it’s too early to judge.

PBC Delivered Quantity And Quality, Even From Unexpected Places

There were mismatches on paper. There were snoozers in the ring. But there also were upsets, fireworks and KOs aplenty, many of which happened in fights that wouldn’t have even been televised were it not for the sheer quantity and frequency of televised PBC cards throughout the year.

TQBR’s lists of nominees for Knockout and Fight of the Year were littered with PBC bouts. Our staff gave the nod to Round 1 of Edwin Rodriguez vs Michael Seals as Round of the Year. The bout held no significance to the light heavyweight picture, but did offer three knockdowns over three wild minutes of action. (In fact, that entire PBC card went four-for-four with stoppages, maintaining a viewer-friendly 100% kayo rate.)

Even some of the most lackluster PBC cards delivered considerable entertainment value to fight fans. I won’t bother listing these surprises here, because I know the list of disappointments is of comparable length.

But I liken this all to the quantity-quality balance of nationally televised NFL games. There were plenty of rubbish matchups of no consequence in the second half of the football season, but fans still tuned in — not because they had a rooting interest or cared, but because they love the sport and it was available for free that night.

If PBC’s product continues to be accessible and entertaining more nights than not, fans will continue to find it and tune in.

PBC Offered A Place To Tag-along As Prospects Developed

The volume of PBC cards has allowed viewers to get a glimpse at many fighters who may not have been televised in the pre-PBC era. It’s really that simple, and it’s a big plus.

It has never been easier for prospects to turn into recognizable attractions. The economics of modern boxing require  a pugilist to build a following of fans who want to see (and will pay to watch) him in marquee fights. This means he should be seen as early and often as possible — and, yes, that he looks great at times.

But for the savvier fan, isn’t it nice to peer behind the curtain and see padded records take shape? To get a feel for a fighter’s style, gauge his development, and understand the “how” behind his “0”? It doesn’t matter whether you forecast an upset or spot the next big thing before his breakout. What’s important (and fun) is getting exposure to said prospect before he pays up or goes bust. (Isn’t it?)

PBC isn’t telling us that these build-up fights are the biggest of anyone’s career. (OK, maybe they do sometimes.) At the end of the day, though, these are just prospects taking one bout before another. The only difference is that more of them are being televised, earlier in fighters’ careers. Personally, I’m glad PBC has made more fighters’ career arcs more accessible to fans.

The Long And The Short Of It

PBC had its share of failures in 2015, but it had an equal number of successes (if not more) — the biggest of which was breaking down the premium cable paywall boxing had built around itself.

Will PBC survive? I think so, in some form. Will it thrive? That’s to be determined. Major adjustments will be necessary. That’s a whole other article. But in the meantime — and I might be naïve and overly optimistic — I’m enjoying the fights.

Ratings figures as reported by Yahoo Sports and Bad Left Hook.