Boxing Problems and Opportunities

By Tom Donelson
Updated: October 10, 2005

NEW YORK — Recently, one boxing pundit predicted the end of boxing by 2020 or something like that. Okay, boxing has a lot of problems but its demise has been predicted at least every decade and despite boxing best efforts to commit suicide, it is still around.

Similar to other sports, Boxing is becoming a niche sport with a select fan base and unable to expand further. It is not the only sport with that problem when it comes to public viewing.

ESPN featured a movie about Roger Bannister becoming the first man to break the four-minute mile. Track, in particular the Mile event, featured a large fan base and many key track meets were on major networks. Today, it is relegated to cable late at night and the only time that track gets any significant airtime is during the Olympics.

Tennis majors are still featured on network television but the majority of those are actually broadcast on cable. There are very few sports that are actually featured on network television and every sport has substantial portions of their events broadcast on cable. Cable has replaced the networks as the major place for sports viewing.

Only football can actually claim that the majority of its events are broadcast on network television. The majority of baseball and basketball games are televised on cable stations, not major networks of FOX, ABC, CBS or NBC. Most sports are niche sports depending upon cable to broadcast their events.

Hell, boxing has better television coverage than hockey, which finds most of its events on the Outdoor Sports network. Hockey competes with bicycling for television presence.

Boxing is no different in that it depends upon PPV stations just as HBO and Showtime as well as cable networks such as ESPN. Regional networks just as Comsat and Fox regional network carries boxing. Boxing has a lot of problems but it also has opportunities.

In the past, I’ve mentioned that if boxing adopts a smarter strategy, it could at least increase its own market share and discover new audiences. Both Golf and Tennis has their own networks and certainly boxing has enough of following to consider such an experiment. A boxing channel could feature up and coming fighters, regional match ups and enough program to promote itself.

Right now, boxing can use various regional hooks up to promote local headline cards. As I have mentioned before, regional telecasts can build up local heroes. As fighters creates excitements among a local following, this only helps create local interest.

A few months ago, British promoter Frank Maloney bemoan the collapse of local promotional cards and while television has highlighted the big fights, there is very little promotion of young, upcoming fighters.

One of the biggest failures in boxing promotion is boxing growing emphasis on PPV fights. There are too many fights being offered on PPV. What this does is place many fights out of the financial reach of many hardcore and casual fans. It is one thing to have a Diego Corrales-Jose Castillo as a PPV; it is another to have Shannon Briggs on PPV fighting Ray Mercer.

What boxing needs to do is to promote its up and coming stars. ESPN and ESPN2 as well as ShoBox have provided vehicle to promote young fighters but more can be done. Guilty Boxing, with its emphasis upon Hispanic fighters, has produced a series showcasing young fighters. With various cable sports programming such as Comsat and Fox Sports Network, more of these fights can be televised.

The biggest problem facing boxing is that too many promoters, television networks, and sanctioning bodies have not chosen to think long term. There is no real hope with reforming the sanctioning bodies but television and promoters need to wake up on how they are killing the golden goose.

By over dependence on PPV for money and the various championship belts within the same division have both confuse fans and fail to build interest in the sport.

Tennis and Golf has various events throughout the year to build up interest in the major events. Boxing does not always follow that strategy. Just look at the heavyweights, where there are four champions but none has yet to fight one another in any attempt to unify the title. Arguments over money and control have delayed any attempt to settle who is the Heavyweight champion.

Can you imagine any other sports where the leading athletes or teams would be prevented from competing against one another? Could you imagine the NFL telling New England Patriots last year that instead of the NFC champion Philadelphia Eagles, they would play the Arena Bowl champion for the Super Bow?

That is what boxing did recently when they had Darryl Williamson fight for Chris Byrd’s IBF title in a televised fight. Nothing against Williamson but he earned his shot by losing to Wladimir Klitschko.

It would actually make sense for Byrd to fight one of the other three champions: Brewster, Ruiz, and Vitali Klitschko. (Consider that Don King promotes three of the four champion, you would figure that King should be able to set up at least a Ruiz-Byrd or Ruiz-Brewster.)

When HBO featured Samuel Peter-Wladimir Klitschko fight, these were two boxing heavyweights challenging each other with much on the line. This is the way that boxing should be- the best fighting the best. When the best fight the best, fans flock to the arena and yes, they even take the time to watch the event on television!

Boxing, like many other sports, have become a niche sport with a passionate fan base but needing to find a way to expand upon that base. Other sports are in a similar position as boxing.

Tennis and Hockey has similar passionate fan base but neither are breaking beyond that base, except in special events. Boxing suffers from many problems but a smarter television strategy would go a long way to expand upon its fan base.