By Thomas Hauser
"Boxing," says Lou DiBella, "is in the worst state that I can remember. It's now a cable/satellite-TV business on the verge of imploding from lack of corporate support. It's a money-losing business. It's not a major sport anymore. And in five years, unless something happens to cause a change in direction, it will be a fringe sport."
Those are strong words. After all, on the surface, boxing seems very much alive. There's more boxing on television now than ever before.
HBO will televise 26 shows this year (twelve Championship Boxing, ten Boxing After Dark, and four pay-per-view fight cards). It just finished a five week run featuring Klitschko-Mercer, Ruiz-Johnson, and the much-anticipated Forrest-Mosley and Barrera-Morales rematches. The network is planning a twelve-part series on the history of HBO Boxing to air in 2003. And on June 8, it joined with Showtime to produce record numbers for Lennox Lewis versus Mike Tyson.
Showtime, for its part, will air 51 fight cards in 2002 (22 Showtime Championship Boxing, 26 ShoBox, and three SET pay-per-view). And ESPN plans to televise 70 shows this year (48 on ESPN2 Friday Night Fights, ten on ESPN2 Tuesday Night Fights, and 12 ESPN specials). Add in Fox, Univision, Telemundo, and spot programming, and things look good. But beneath the surface, there are problems.
In boxing today, as in the past, the world sanctioning bodies acting in concert with a handful of promoters wield enormous power. Several superstar fighters have formed promotional companies to control their own destiny. And there are other players. But the primary power rests with television.
One reason for boxing's distressed condition today is that ABC, CBS, and NBC stopped broadcasting fights due to a shortage of advertisers. And the situation was exacerbated when NBC made a decision to no longer broadcast Olympic boxing.
There was a time when the Olympics generated instant stardom, after which exposure on "free television" would build further interest in a fighter. In 1976, many Americans actually planned several evenings around Ray Leonard, Howard Davis, Leon and Michael Spinks, and the rest of the United States boxing team at the Montreal Olympics. But now, the public-at-large is unfamiliar with most boxers. The last superstar to come out of the Olympics was Oscar De La Hoya 10 years ago. And there's little hope for change in the near future. Most network executives today are unfamiliar with the boxing business and wouldn't feel comfortable making deals to televise fights even if circumstances warranted. Thus, ABC, CBS, and NBC have been replaced by ESPN, Showtime, and HBO.
There's a school of thought that HBO saved boxing; that if it hadn't made a franchise out of boxing in the post-network era, the sport would have gone under years ago. That may, or may not, be true. However, it's undeniable that HBO gave the sweet science an enormous boost just as it was disappearing from network television.
HBO did for boxing what ABC did for pro football. Prior to 1970, NFL games were seen on Sunday afternoon and Thanksgiving. Then Roone Arledge took the same game with the same teams and the same rules, created Monday Night Football, and turned his broadcasts into a cultural phenomenon. Similarly, HBO undertook to televise fights in prime time. It made a financial commitment to production values, broadcast talent, and marketing that went beyond anything that had been done before. It became the home for major fights. And it created an event that thrust boxing into the national spotlight.
HBO is the money tree of boxing. Unlike the broadcast networks, it's driven by a need for subscribers, not advertising revenue. It's the psychological leader in determining which fights matter most. And it's still televising the big fights that it's expected to televise. But there are questions regarding the future of boxing at HBO.
Taking HBO's signature boxers one at a time: Roy Jones won't fight the big fights. Oscar De La Hoya's hand injury is more serious than has been publicly acknowledged. Shane Mosley has lost twice to Vernon Forrest. Felix Trinidad has, at least temporarily, retired. Floyd Mayweather and Fernando Vargas have been beset by problems in and out of the ring. And Lennox Lewis is expected to retire in the not-too-distant future. The two new stars that HBO recently spotlighted (Bernard Hopkins and Vernon Forrest) aren't tied to longterm contracts. And HBO has been benefitting from fighters it developed on Boxing After Dark such as Arturo Gatti, Marco Antonio Barrera, Erik Morales, Junior Jones, and Kevin Kelley without replacing them.
Moreover, there's a perception that the new stars of HBO Sports are Bob Costas and Bryant Gumbel; not the fighters.
For years, boxing was the engine that drove HBO Sports. Now (HBO Sports president) Ross Greenburg seems to be seeking a broader image, and boxing is no longer assured of dominance in the mix. Seth Abraham (Greenburg's predecessor) speaks to that issue when he says, "Ross brings a different sensibility and a different view regarding what HBO Sports should be. And I say that uncritically. Ross has every right to recreate HBO Sports the way he thinks it should be. Also, you have to remember; there's an ebb and flow to sports. So I would expect boxing to diminish as a percentage of HBO's overall sports programming in the future. In fact, the process has already begun."
Greenburg takes issue with Abraham's comment. "I respect Seth a lot," he says, "but that's not an accurate observation. I think he's mistaken. Boxing is still our number one franchise. We have an unwavering commitment to the sport."
HBO hopes to prove that commitment by re-signing Jim Lampley as its blow by-blow commentator. Lampley has the ability to go on camera and, by virtue of his presence, add to the importance of a fight. To the viewing public, he is the authoritative blow-by-blow commentator in boxing. HBO is paying Bob Costas $2,500,000 a year to host On The Record. Given the fact that boxing is HBO's most important sports product, what will Lampley ask for? And what will he do if he doesn't get it?
Right now, Lampley and HBO are reported to be close to an agreement. Larry Merchant's contract expires the same day as Lampley's. Merchant and HBO are also in negotiations. On a parallel track, HBO has made overtures to Teddy Atlas about coming onboard as an analyst for Boxing After Dark, although Atlas is expected to remain at ESPN2.
If HBO pulls back on its commitment to boxing, it will redefine the economics of the sport. There will be far more pay-per-view shows. And a lot of fighters, managers, and promoters will make less money.
Showtime is boxing's second television power broker. For years, it had its own version of multifight longterm contracts when it allowed Don King to be its exclusive provider of boxing programming. Then it moved away from King and, in response to HBO's policy, started signing fighters to multifight contracts. That practice has now ended, although the network still has agreements with Kosta Tszyu, Acelino Freitas, and Joe Calzaghe under its old longterm-contract model.
"What we learned," says Showtime boxing czar Jay Larkin," is that multifight contracts don't work for us unless opponents are designated in advance. When you have them, you're constantly worrying, 'Will this hurt the fighter's feelings? Will that make the fighter angry?' And multifight contracts prevent good fights from happening. Showtime should have one constituency; its viewers. But with a multifight contract, your constituency becomes the fighter, his manager, the promoter, and the world sanctioning bodies. You get stuck with a lot of mismatches and mandatory defenses that no one cares about. And it clouds your mission, which is to deliver the most entertaining fights possible. So eventually, we came to realize that we can get better fights for less money and far fewer headaches by cherry-picking individual fights. We decided that Showtime is going to put on the fights it wants to put on; not fights that we're required to put on by contract."
Showtime is an important component of the boxing landscape. It funds its share of major fights. "But we try to do it on a rational basis," says Larkin. By Larkin's reckoning, "What's happening to the industry now is partly the result of HBO saying, 'We'll pay whatever it takes to get everything we want.' That's what HBO has done over the years, and it's the same sort of irrational thinking that led to the boom and then the bubble bursting in high-tech stocks. Showtime was paying Naseem Hamed $125,000 a fight," Larkin continues. "Then HBO stepped in with ridiculous numbers. HBO is giving Roy Jones six million dollars a fight to get into the ring with mailmen and cops. Their numbers are simply off the charts. So our view is, if two guys don't want to fight on Showtime Championship Boxing for five hundred thousand dollars, maybe they'll get lucky and HBO will pay them millions of dollars. Otherwise, they can fight on ESPN2 for 10 or 15 thousand dollars each."
ESPN is also a player. Since the advent of its Top Rank Boxing series in 1980, the cable network has introduced a national television audience to thousands of fighters ranging from preliminary pugs to main-event stars. It has telecast more than one thousand fight cards and done more than its share to keep boxing in the public eye. Indeed, Mike Tyson's first nationally televised bout was a scheduled four-rounder on ESPN. HBO and Showtime might be the ones who are putting big money into boxing today. But ESPN did yeoman's work in keeping the sport alive in the 1980s.
Unlike HBO and Showtime, ESPN has two revenue streams -- advertising and subscriptions. Miller Beer is the flagship sponsor for ESPN2 Friday Night Fights. And ESPN's parent company is paid by local cable companies for each customer who receives ESPN, ESPN2, ESPN Classic, and other ESPN channels as part of a cable package. Thus, ESPN keeps a close eye on ratings because ratings dictate how much it can charge local cable companies.
"We're ratings driven; not just profit driven, "says ESPN's director of boxing Bob Yalen. Thus, it's more than a matter of academic interest that ESPN2 Friday Night Fights averages about 600,000 homes, with that number occasionally exceeding one million.
ESPN has great cost controls. Its license fees are relatively low ($50,000 to $60,000 per show). It has a modest production budget. It gets advertising. Why don't the broadcast networks simply follow the ESPN formula?
The answer to that is simple. A broadcast network needs far more than a million viewers in prime time to make a program profitable. Still, ESPN2 is a plus for boxing. It gets the sport into a lot of homes on a regular basis. Teddy Atlas is great. And Max Kellerman appeals to a younger demographic that boxing needs to be successful.
Still, it's worth remembering that HBO, Showtime, and ESPN don't have any more of a moral obligation to support boxing than ABC, CBS, NBC, and Fox have to support the NFL or the National Basketball Association. Yes, boxing has been responsible for selling cable television to a lot of customers. But Milton Berle was responsible for selling many of the nation's first television sets, and the networks dumped him when his usefulness expired.
Thus, Ross Greenburg, Jay Larkin, and Bob Yalen each acknowledge that their fiduciary duty to their respective networks far outweighs any fidiuciary duty that might exist with regard to the good of boxing. And that belief extends to calls that the networks help "clean up boxing." Greenburg speaks for his brethren when he says, "Our job as network executives is to put together the best fights and the fights that the public wants. There's no reason for us to obsess over the sanctioning bodies and state athletic commissions. We assume that they'll all take care of their business and we'll take care of ours."
That view was evident in the decision of HBO and Showtime to join forces in promoting Lennox Lewis versus Mike Tyson. The Nevada State Athletic Commission made a decision based on law and principle to deny Tyson a license. Then other state commissions fought to get in line to ignore the Nevada ruling, and the bout took place in Tennessee.
Did the public want to see Lewis-Tyson? Apparently so. In fact, post-fight research indicates that an astonishing eighty percent of the fans who bought Lewis-Tyson I are interested in seeing Lewis-Tyson II.
Tyson has already exercised a clause in his bout contract and demanded a rematch. Under the terms of the original agreement, both Lewis and Tyson are allowed one interim fight. Then proceeds from their rematch, if it occurs, will be split sixty percent to the HBO-Lewis camp and forty percent to the Showtime-Tyson camp.
Showtime would like Tyson's next bout to be against a genuine contender. David Tua, Vitali Klitschko, and Jameel McCline have been suggested by the network as worthy opponents. Team Tyson holds to an alternative view and is reported to be searching through intensive-care wards for Iron Mike's next foe.
One of the problems with all this is that boxing can get stuck on Lewis-Tyson. Tyson is an anomaly. The Tyson business is not treated like the rest of the boxing business at Showtime or anywhere else. Moreover, there's no evidence that Lewis-Tyson did anything to change the public perception of boxing in a way that would help the sport thrive again on a broader scale. As George Foreman notes, "Boxing has been good to Mike Tyson, but I don't think Mike Tyson has been good for boxing."
So what does the future hold for the sweet science?
Don King opines, "Boxing is going through a period right now where the superstars are fighting with diminishing regularity. That's temporarily hurting the sport, but it's not dying."
Ross Greenburg is a bit more expansive and declares, "Boxing has always been cyclical, but you're always just one superstar away from lifting the entire sport. In the 1970s, there was Muhammad Ali. Then Sugar Ray Leonard came along and inherited Ali's mantle. After that, there was the young Mike Tyson. We're waiting now for the next big superstar."
"The big thing for me philosophically," Greenburg continues, "is that boxing has to reclaim the average sports fan. We've lost the average guy who watches the World Series, the Final Four, the Kentucky Derby, and the SuperBowl. We have to find a way to get that guy back for the big fights. The best thing for the sport and business of boxing that could happen right now would be a return to free network television. And the fighters have to be willing to fight the tough fights. Ray Leonard didn't worry about the 'L' on his record when he was deciding who to fight next. Pernell Whitaker didn't worry about the 'L' on his record when he was deciding who to fight next. Those guys went from great fighter to great fighter. They understood that it doesn't destroy your career, you can always come back if you lose to another great fighter. And if you beat another great fighter, it makes you even greater. I'm not a boxer, so it's easy for me to say, 'Go in against the best.' But there's nothing better for the sport."
"Also," adds Greenburg, "I think it's time for promoters to start promoting again. A lot of promoters think their work is done once they sign a fight. Then they stop working and wait for the bell to ring. They should go to the dictionary and look up the definition of the word 'promoter'."
Meanwhile, in discussing the state of boxing, three more factors should be thrown into the mix.
The first of these is the Hispanic market. The Hispanic audience is boxing's fastest growing market. Univision and Telemundo have drawn consistently high ratings for boxing telecasts. Many pay-per-view shows do particularly well in Hispanic neighborhoods. ESPN has a fledgling Spanish-language station called ESPN Deportes. And starting in January 2003, HBO will televise twelve monthly shows promoted by Golden Boy Promotions on HBO-Latino.
Still, the fact that boxing people have been talking about the Hispanic market to the degree that they have been lately is proof that, for boxing to be healthy, its fan base has to be broadened. Major sports like football, baseball, and basketball don't have the same degree of fractionalization in caring about who's in their viewing audience.
Second, those in the know in boxing are keeping a close eye on the internet.
Historically, the boxing beat was one of the most desirable jobs in sports journalism. But now, the public perception of boxing comes primarily from an ill-informed mainstream press. Most newspapers don't cover boxing on a regular basis. It's impossible to open a major daily in the United States anymore and get complete quality boxing coverage. When newspapers list sports today, boxing comes under the heading of "other sports." As publicist John Beyrooty notes, "The way things are now, I can send something to ten newspapers and it won't run in any of them. Except for championship fights, most of the newspapers don't even carry fight results."
Two years ago, Michael Katz left the New York Daily News to write fulltime for Houseofboxing.com. When he did, it gave new credibility to internet boxing coverage. Now, almost every major story in boxing is broken on the internet. The internet brings improprieties to light far more aggressively than the maintream media ever did, and internet links pages give every story national exposure.
The internet has become the primary means of communicating information within the boxing industry and to hardcore boxing fans. More and more often, internet articles are making their way to the desks of CEOs. The boxing dot-coms are sending ripples though the pond and, on occasion, waves across the ocean. As Ed Keenan of Media Works notes, "If you get something on the internet, everyone in the industry is reading it."
There are a lot of problems with internet boxing coverage. Many of the sites lack proper editorial oversight with regard to fact-checking and other issues of quality control. Also, to date, entrepreneurs have been unable to harness the economic potential of the medium. Ad revenue is scarce, subscription sales are rare, and most internet boxing sites are losing money or barely breaking even. But no less a personage that Don King declares, "Boxing is moving now with the technology, and the internet will be the next big new frontier. In about five years, you'll get millions of dollars from the internet alone on the big fights."
And last, no discussion about the state of boxing would be complete without reference to the need for a federal commission.
The business of boxing today is a perfect metaphor for a society that's being overrun by a tidal wave of white collar crime that the authorities are powerless to stop.
There's a culture of corruption in boxing that's so powerful and so inbred that virtually everyone in the sport participates. And virtually everyone in a position of authority who might help improve the sport has washed his or her hands of trying. Most state regulators are incompetent and have glaring conflicts of interest. They sit back and do nothing while managers steal from their fighters and ring judges connive with promoters to fix fights. And if one state commission does its job properly, other states rush in to sully its work.
When Vernon Forrest fought Shane Mosley in Indianapolis on July 20th, both camps had runners who relayed the judges' scorecards to their fighter's respective corners as the bout progressed. Three nights later, not to be outdone, the New York State Athletic Commission bungled its way into allowing Mario Diaz of ESPN2 to look at a judge's scorecard after round four of the Aaron Davis versus Ross Thompson fight to see if a trip to the canvas had cost Thompson a 10-8 round.
Meanwhile, the NYSAC is still without fulltime leadership. Bernard Kerik (the new chairman) has stated that he will not give up his other jobs and will serve only on a parttime basis. Five weeks after his June 20th confirmation by the New York State Senate, several NYSAC employees report that they have yet to see Kerik in the office.
On the federal front, the Muhammad Ali Boxing Reform Act was a well intentioned piece of legislation, but it suffers from three glaring flaws: (1) it accepts the present form of corrupt antiquated state regulation; (2) it has too many loopholes; and (3) no one is enforcing it.
Boxing needs a federal commission.
In May of this year, Senators John McCain and Byron Dorgon introduced legislation known as the Professional Boxing Amendments Act. This bill, if enacted into law, would create a United States Boxing Administration that would work in tandem with the various state and Native American commissions to oversee the boxing industry. Key personnel would be an administrator appointed by the President of the United States, an assistant administrator, and general counsel.
The United States Boxing Administration would (1) set minimum national standards regarding the health, safety, and general wellbeing of boxers; (2) license various personnel and corporate entities within the boxing industry; (3) suspend and revoke these licenses where warranted; (4) establish a national medical registry; (5) promulgate ratings criteria that the various world sanctioning organizations would be obligated to follow; and (6) develop guidelines for minimum contractual provisions to be included in boxer promoter bout agreements and boxer-manager contracts.
The bill envisions a strange hybrid of state and federal regulation of boxing. Essentially, it says to the various state and Native American commissions, "You can run things within your own jurisdiction, but you have to meet minumum federal standards."
It will be interesting to see what new legislation, if any, is enacted by Congress and whether the new law is properly implemented by a knowledgeable administrator and staff.
Meanwhile, it would be nice on occasion to hear outrage expressed by the powers-that-be when something egregious happens in boxing. The exploitation of Manny Pacquaio and the concomitant silence from HBO and other leaders of the boxing establishment is a case in point. Why can't the "heart and soul of boxing" hold a press conference and demand fairness for the boxers who risk their lives for viewer enjoyment? At the very least, HBO, Showtime, and ESPN should publicly announce what they pay for fights. That's what happens with the sale of television rights for every other sport. But boxing doesn't make that information available. Also, governmental regulatory bodies should track how much of each fighter's purse actually winds up in the fighter's bank account. And the television networks should refuse to do business with promoters and managers who don't provide financial tracking information under oath in return for their TV license fees. It's not just about a legal fiduciary duty. It's about decency.