By Clive Bernath
Mike Lewis, the Head of Boxing Strategy for terrestrial broadcasters BBC has confirmed to SecondsOut.Com that they plan to stay in boxing for the long term. It is excellent news for both the boxing fan and everybody involved in the sport.
Up until now Satellite broadcaster BSkyB has been the lone provider of boxing to our television screens in Britain. But now the BBC has admitted for the first time that they will endeavour to bring British fight fans the very best world and domestic clashes, absolutely free.
Lewis, who has a long history in boxing, from his days as head of Radio 5 Live, now deals mainly with sport broadcast rights for the BBC, and told SecondsOut: “ Boxing is here for the long term. There’s no doubt that good fights have the ability to attract good audiences. I think boxing is a sport that has been crying out for terrestrial coverage.
“ I think Sky have done a fantastic job, they’ve kept the sport alive, basically. Ian Darke’s (Sky commentator) is a friend of mine, I don’t want to knock anything that Sky do. Ian’s a brilliant commentator. Him and Glen McCrory make a good team. And I gave Paul Dempsey, their presenter his first job in broadcasting, so I know their team well.
“At the moment, our strategy is to build boxing on the two major channels. It’s all mainly on BBC 1 at the moment but we’re talking to BBC 2 now about boxing. They’re quite interested but we haven’t really got the discussions very far. Our main outlet is Grandstand and Saturday on BBC1 and a little bit of mid week, that has gone quite well, too.
“You know we’ve only been back in the sport for 18 months. That sounds a long time but were still exploring what works best for us. Peter Salmon, our Director of Sport said to me ‘I’d far sooner take it slowly and try things out to get it right, then look to the long term to do more’.
“If your in something for the long term you need to have boxers at different levels on your channels. So you need the guys who are at world level. People who are nearly at world level and people who are at good domestic level, British titles, that sort of thing. And you need to have the young fighters coming through.
“We’ve shown Clinton Woods, Robin Reid, David Starie and Danny Williams. People like that who are up and at around genuine world level. And of course at the lower level we’ve shown the Real Class of 2002, the Carl Froch’ and Matthew Thirlwall’s, those sort of guys. You know you need different slotS to accommodate the different levels you have.
“The 4 o’clock slot on Saturday Grandstand is a terrific slot. It gets two or three million viewers. It’s a 50 minute slot but because of their budgets they can’t pay huge amounts of money. It’s a recorded show anyway. You know Clinton Woods against Roy Jones Jr doesn’t go in Grandstand. It’s got to go live somewhere. But that’s the place to put the Real Class of 2002.
Whilst Sky do a fine job, the BBC will provide welcomed opposition but Lewis stressed. They may be able to match Sky for quality but will not be able to compete with the quantity of coverage.
“ Sky’s policy has been to do a lot of boxing,” said Lewis. “The BBC could never compete with the amount of boxing they do. It’s just not possible, until digital television becomes part of the fabric of everybody’s lives, which it clearly isn’t at the moment. We’ve got BBC 1 and BBC 2 as our major channels. They have, documentaries, news, music, entertainment, Sport and Boxing has to fight for its place. So we will never be able to put on as much boxing.”
The BBC left professional boxing in the mid nineties when the promotional cartel of Mickey Duff, Jarvis Astaire and Terry Lawless left the sport. But it was not until Audley Harrison struck Olympic Gold in the super-heavyweight division at the Sydney 2000 Games that the BBC started to re-evaluate their position when they saw the phenomenal ratings Harrison’s fights were reaching, as he marched towards Gold.
“ He created a huge stir when he won the Gold medal,” said Lewis “We’d been talking about getting back into boxing for a while. Then Greg Dyke (Head of the BBC) arrived and he was quite keen. He quite likes boxing and he thought it could do good audience ratings. Then Audley won the Gold medal and became a hero overnight. He’s a good personality and when he turned professional, that became the catalyst to really drive the thing forward. Get back into boxing, use Audley and do some other boxing as well.”
But it is not all about ratings. Lewis is determined to give viewers value for money. “ Were not just interested in ratings, quality is important too,” said Lewis. “ The controller of BBC 1, if the ratings were shocking, would be saying, ‘I don’t like this, it doesn’t work, its damaging my share of the evening’. Well she’s not saying that at all. Audley’s doing very well.
“We did the fight(Negus) the other Wednesday and it peaked at 3 million viewers at 11pm at night and got 26% share of the audience watching that night, well that’s fantastic. I genuinely believe that Audley does attract interest from people who are not necessarily big boxing fans. There people who know him from the Olympics, saw him with a Gold medal round his neck and a big smile and a big personality.”
“He does get a lot of critisum, some of it is from people who have a vested interest in criticising him,” added Lewis. “He was very unlucky in his first year with injuries which kept him out for the first seven months of the year. That was really bad luck. It’s no secret that we have a 10 fight deal with him and we’ve only had six fights, it should be virtually up by now and we should be renegotiating.
“But the audience figures have held up really well, he is in the spotlight, he is topping the bills. He’s getting lot of Critisum for that but he is topping the bill because , with great respect, that is a commercial decision. If I go to the controller of BBC 1 and say I want to put boxing on at 10 30pm, live on BBC, she’d say ‘yeah great what have you got? And I’ll say Nicky Cook, she’ll say ‘yeah’, Robin Reid, ‘yeah’, then I’d say we’ve got Audley Harrison and she’d say, ‘great fantastic, no problem’.
“Now, I know that puts a lot of pressure on Audley and I get a lot of questions from journalists and see it in the press all the time but the fact is he’s the box office fighter that we’ve got at the moment.””
The BBC has so far screened 18 shows in the past year and expect to broadcast the same amount in the
coming season. But the biggest problem, not just from viewers but also the boxing fraternity is that no one boxer other than Harrison has had the chance to build a regular following, nor has a regular promoter other Harrison’s A Force Promotions, been put in place.
“We are aware of that,” said Lewis. “We’re looking at doing some more stuff with the real Class of 2002 because were trying to take them through. We’re looking at Nicky Cook, he’s a talented young boxer, who we’ve shown four or five times now . He’s got lots of ability. The guy he fought last week was very tough, he was giving away a lot of weight. We’ve shown Robin Reid and David Starie a lot as well. There is an attraction at being seen by several million viewers.
“ It is very difficult at the moment with promoters,” said Lewis. “ Sky have two promoters. We’re trying to get to a situation we’re we work with two or three. When he started we gave shows to Panos (Panix), Lion, (Lennox Lewis), Jess Harding (UK Presents) and Audley (A Force). We’ve been looking around at a few promoters but we’re now looking to tone that down and then that may make my life a bit easier.”