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A deeper dive into PBC on NBC

11
Mar
Photo credit: Naoki Fukuda

Photo credit: Naoki Fukuda

With such grandiose expectations – man, have you ever hear the words “prime time” so much as in the last few weeks? – it would have been hard for the first #PBConNBC show to meet or exceed the high bar set.
And guess what? It didn’t.
Really, though, it couldn’t have despite all the fabulous technological bells and whistles and all-star cast of broadcast talent and prime time slotting and all the other things the first championship boxing card on prime time network television in 30 years had going for it.
It couldn’t have blown us away, “saved” the sport and made up for decades of stagnation in luring fans, new blood, to the ranks, not unless the two fights offered were classics along the lines of Diego Corrales-Jose Luis Castillo I and Micky Ward-Arturo Gatti I.
Viewers got a bit more insight into the mission of “Premier Boxing Champions” on fight night and rest assured, the whole of the industry is still trying to figure that out, what the longer-term plan is for Haymon Boxing, curious how the spotlight-averse mogul will proceed moving forward. Can he sustain the robust spending practices? Will he empty out his war chest before he sees a return on his investment? Will he try to build fighters into pay-per-view attractions or build a “league” of which he can then sell content for a bloated rights fee? Is he going to pull a Vince McMahon and sell subscriptions “over the top” (aka “the delivery of audio, video and other media over the Internet without the involvement of a multiple-system operator in the control or distribution of the content”) as the WWE owner has moved toward with the belief that the cable companies will be dinosaured in a few years?
Host Al Michaels told watchers they would see “many of the top fighters” in the sport on network television “making boxing far more accessible to fans” with “less than an emphasis on jockeying for belts and more of a focus on competitive fights.”
If you glanced at Twitter, a pitchy note was served up when we saw publicity pics of the two fighters in the TV opener, Adrien Broner and John Molina Jr., gussied up in evening wear. Yep, bowties for the guys. Mixed messaging, that was my thought, and this was the first time I pondered the phrase “change for change’s sake” during the show.
Now, before I get some of you kicking over to Twitter and labeling me a “hater,” let me say I saw some things to like in the two-hour show, which kicked off with – perhaps, in hindsight, not the ideal choice – a Broner-Molina scrap. But when all is said and done and I make my assessment, give a grade to the show, the vast bulk of the grade comes from, duh, not the set, not the tweaks, not the scoreÔǪbut THE FIGHTS.
It’sÔǪ
about
the fights.
Repeat after me, my friends: It’s about the fights.
So before delving into the commentary team, the egregiousness (LOL!) of not having an in-ring emcee or card gals strutting their boobalicious brand of information presentation, let’s talk fights.
The Broner bout lacked drama because Broner is what our rational brains knew he was: a much more talented pugilist than Mr. Molina. Our hearts tilted Molina; heck, mine did when I talked to him and he said he was dedicating the fight to his deceased grandpa and childhood best buddy, who died from cystic fibrosis. But when we did our homework and slid away from heart and emotion territory into a cold dissection of past and even more telling recent history, we had to think Broner’s arsenal would be of a higher grade than Molina’s. In fact, that was the case; the judges gave AB the nod by scores of 120-108, 120-108 and 118-110. Yes, the scores told the tale of the first PBC scrap and that bummed me out. Yes it did because I do have a rooting interest. That is for the event to succeed, so the fans, too long having had to pay out too much moolah to fund their addiction, in premium cable fees and PPV splurges, would have more options to watch their favorite sport without having to cut into the household budget.
I feared, after that Broner triumph, that too many folks who I’d informed that BOXING IS BACK would have tuned in, checked out a couple rounds of a lopsided fight and drifted away. Because you do know the human brain is hard-wired to seek new sensory excitation every two-and-a-half minutes, right? Ah, but those fears were misplaced as a ratings dissection told us that momentum built steadily throughout the show, happily for the Harvard Business school alum Al Haymon, the originator, the grand disruptor-in-chief whose new model for the sport and its presentation has the industry, as a whole, in a tizzy unlike any other in the lifespan of all involved (yep, not over-stating, not like a couple members of the commentary team did when they over-sold the main event as an insta-classic, a leading candidate for “Fight of the Year 2015.” More on that unfortunate tendency a bit later in this piece, friends).
But if we are all in agreement that this Haymon plan includes widening the depth and width and breadth of the fan-base, to include casuals and non-casuals and ultra-newbies, then I don’t think I’m off base to say the way to get ’em hooked from the get-go would not have been off a showcase for Broner. That’s old-school matchmaking; that’s the “Build the fighter as a brand” thinking that had Haymon getting so much heat in so many fan quarters for so long. If he wants to build up individual fighters as brands and does that by building their resumes to get to a glossy place, then that Broner fight was in keeping with his desire. But I had high hopes and indeed still hold them, that THE FIGHTS would be the brand, as they are more so in Dana White’s UFC, rather than THE FIGHTER being the attraction. Magic in the ring occurs when two people collide and provide more drama than the best screenwriter can concoct.
This brings us to the feature bout (yes, there was one feature bout, there cannot be two main events, Al Michaels. Why bother trying to over-sell, unless you are looking to have the cred of an infomercial pitcher? The Broner bout was the undercard attraction and the Keith Thurman-Robert Guerrero fight was the single main event. I mean, I guess I can see an event comprised of two main events…if the Beatles and the Rolling Stones were on the same show, I wouldn’t be the man to tell either band they were NOT the main event. But that’s a relatively minor quibble and I don’t want quibbling to pile up into an overall package that skews too negative because, remember, I want this push to prominence on network TV to succeed!):
It was a decent scrap.
Nope, wasn’t an insta-classic. The scores told you that. The judges saw it wide for Thurman and they got it right; bless ’em. Thurman won by scores of 120-107, 118-109, 118-108. Guerrero was never really in it and despite his smart spin, post-fight, about winning the hearts of America, he did that by absorbing punishment. That is testament to his guts and heart, abso-effin-lutely. But this fight was the second wide unanimous decision we saw and that isn’t what you want, long-term, in building a new brand. Now, let me not pretend I’m Mr. Smartiest of Pants here; I saw this as a coin flip fight coming in. “The Ghost,” never having been stopped, having been in with a better grade of fighters than Thurman had, I figured would be the stiffest test of Thurman’s career. Arguably, he was but their fight wasn’t one that had ’em collecting at proverbial water coolers, on Twitter or real ones at the office, recounting the ebbs and flows of drama on Saturday night.
The degree of love shown on social media to that face-off bewildered me a tiny bit and I had to ask myself if my take was too too stern. But no, I’m comfy with it; the judges tallies sent word what this fight was, a comfy win for Thurman. So, two scraps, two wide UDs. For a guy who thinks the fights are the story and the focus and the be-all/ end-all, that bummed me out.
But this series isn’t being aimed at me. They got me. I got the stuff in my veins. I need it. I’m hooked. We need new addicts. And apparently, they hooked some. The rating that popped up Monday told a tale of victory or, if not that, then at least suggested that people did respond to the event.
Promoter Lou DiBella, a Harvard Law grad, called the ratings for the kick-off show “encouraging.” He will promote the second PBC event, which unfolds in Brooklyn, NY., at Barclays Center, April 11. That card is topped by a Danny Garcia-Lamont Peterson fight and a middleweight title bout, matching WBO champ Andy Lee against challenger Peter Quillin.
“The event was a success,” DiBella told me. “It was great main event, a very exciting fight and good for people being introduced or reintroduced to boxing. It was an excellent action fight. It was produced really well and it was the first time they did it, so the announce team will get stronger. The ratings in that 18-49 demo – which they always say boxing fails in – did extraordinarily well. That’s a great, great sign, hugely encouraging. The ratings were very strong, much stronger than they usually do in the time slot. It beat the Duke versus North Carolina game; that’s a huge success the first time out. And I expect a higher rating on April 11. And I think the fights are even stronger, so the people that watched will continue to want to watch!”
I put it out there to other top dogs in the industry. Kathy Duva of Main Events, who sold content to NBC’s cable outlet, weighed in. “Can there be any doubt that boxing is enjoying a resurgence? And the very excellent [Sergey] Kovalev-[Jean] Pascal unified light heavyweight championship fight, scheduled on HBO for this coming Saturday, March 14th at 9:45 p.m. ET/PT, is undoubtedly part of that resurgence. I think that Main Events helped kickstart that resurgence when we brought boxing back to NBC just over two years ago. Did you realize that both Steve Cunningham and [Vyacheshav] ‘Czar’ Glazkov, who fight in Saturday’s co-feature on HBO for the right to face world heavyweight champion Wladimir Klitschko, each fought two times on NBC during 2012 through 2014? And Kovalev, Isaac Chilemba and Vasily Lepekhin were all built on the NBC Sports Network “Fight Night” boxing series. It will be a great night of world championship boxing. A world title fight, dramatic ring entrances, round card girls and even Michael Buffer! Don’t miss it!”
Bless her soul; she is a promoter to a T. Her daughter, Nicole has been a most vocal critic of the Haymon moves, which includes the “time buy” model and quite generous paydays for the fighters.
First off, I point-blank asked her about the “hater” tag which some have affixed her with.
“Maybe I am,” Nicole said. “Doesn’t make me wrong! I’d like to believe that if they were doing everything right and finding success, I would not like it but would have to acknowledge it,” the attorney told me. “For the money, they spent, this cannot be called a success for the PBC. In the short-term, it’s great for the fighters and NBC but not for the PBC.”
OK, to her eyes, what were the missteps?
“Rome wasn’t built in a day,” Nicole said. “Growth must be organic. For our $150k budget, we did great ratings in the afternoon. Smart thing to do might be double that budget, stay in the afternoon, get some consistency with more dates. If that works, double it again and move to prime time. As for the production, same story. Definitely innovate and try new things but not all at once. Start with extra cameras and go from there.”
I told her that in my mind, it all begins and ends with “coin-flip match-ups.”
“I agree! And all Haymon has done over the past few years is make those match-ups impossible,” she asserted.
Success in our world is often measured by numbers. Ratings points speak loudly when we’re talking TV. For now, it seems as though that measurement means more to the Haymon crew than does revenue generation. Here is the release sent out to tout the good news numbers:
STAMFORD, Conn. – Mar. 9, 2015 – Saturday night’s debut of the Premier Boxing Champions (PBC) on NBC was the most-watched professional boxing broadcast since 1998, according to Fast National Data from The Nielsen Company.
The PBC on NBC telecast averaged 3.4 million viewers, ranking as the most-watched professional boxing broadcast in 17 years (“Oscar De La Hoya’s Fight Night” on FOX, 5.9 million, Mon., March 23, 1998).
Viewership increased every half hour through the telecast and peaked at 4.2 million from 10:30-11 p.m. ET during the exciting Rounds 7-12 of Keith Thurman’s unanimous decision over Robert Guerrero, which The Associated Press called “the kind of fight that had the crowd on its feet and gave a much needed boost to boxing.” With the victory on NBC’s first major prime time boxing broadcast in 30 years (Larry Holmes vs. Carl “The Truth” Williams, on May 20, 1985), Thurman improved to a perfect 25-0 (21 knockouts).
The PBC on NBC also led NBC to a Saturday prime time victory among Adults 18-49, with a 1.08 rating in the demographic.
I asked independent analyst John Chavez to weigh in on the ratings we got from NBC for the first PBC. “This was a solid start that it appears NBC is very happy with, regardless of time buy or not. Being in an outlier city like Vegas didn’t help the numbers or gate, which provides promise for future shows. Long-term, the potential is there. We have seen the boxing basement numbers over the years on NBC so it wouldn’t be a surprise to see a three million average as sustainable. Very comparable to ‘UFC on FOX’ numbers the past few years.” He offered his theory on Haymon’s end game: “This is a play to build the PBC brand quickly within 24 months…then sell the product back to the networks once the proof of concept is well-defined. This is an “investment” period, much like many start-up ventures. It takes the spending of money “at a loss” to build the brand equity necessary to establish itself as an undisputed market leader… not unlike all business ventures in every industry. This is not a mom-and-pop set-up like most boxing promotional firms. This is the big play. One last thing…for critics viewing the success of PBC on an event-by-event basis, it makes no sense. [Haymon’s] contracts with the networks extend for a minimum of 24 months and some for 36 months. This is a brand establishment phase and if the ratings dip severely at 18 months or no other blue-chip sponsors are acquired by then, there might be some issues but this plan takes time. Obviously the funding is in place to carry it out in its entirety for the duration of the contract with the various networks.”
There was silence, the choice not to comment, from many if not most of the other giants of industry. Team HBO chose a no-comment; Team Showtime didn’t respond. Oscar De La Hoya, who has already said he’s more keen on concentrating on what Golden Boy Promotions is doing rather than the competition, chose a no-comment. Top Rank Promotions’ Bob Arum, notoriously unshy about such matters, didn’t answer. I didn’t get a response from the Roc Nation Sports brigade.
There are likely different reasons for different folks not responding, I think. HBO and Haymon have no love lost between them. Showtime still buys content from the mogul. Others, perhaps, were busy looking ahead to the May 2 super fight between Floyd Mayweather Jr. and Manny Pacquiao and see no sense in stirring the waters.
Some other tidbits which emerged as I watched:
– People seemed to have a hard time with some of the changes, top of that list was the ring walk. The fighters came out by themselves, sans posse, and social media didn’t dig it. I know there is always resistance to change but I didn’t care for it. Some of the fighters looked maybe less sure of themselves than they would have with entourage. The sport is more of a team sport than many think, as fighters get ready as part of a team before being alone in the squared circle. Maybe we just get used to this and accept it as a new normal soon enough.
– Many Tweeps didn’t like the absence of a personal ring-walk anthem and while they didn’t hate the accompanying tuneage done by composer Hans Zimmer, they missed hearing “Thunderstruck” or the like, believing that some zing was lost in the exchange. I tend to agree, as there is nothing like the beat of the heart when AC/DC kicks in and the fighter, with his gang, who is part of his fighting family, strides to the combat area. The Zimmer score didn’t pump my pulse like Angus and the boys…
– The Buffer-free zone also touched chords. We are used to seeing Michael Buffer, Jimmy Lennon Jr. or David Diamante in center ring, providing a focal point in the course of the night. Watchers of PBC heard a voice announcing fighter names and such but the camera focused on the boxer, not the tuxedoed golden-throat. That is likely the sort of thing that people will quickly get overÔǪor maybe won’t. Was this a case of “change for change’s sake?” I mean, if it ain’t broke…
– The regular manner of informing folks the round was missed by many. Scantily-clad gals holding up cards has been around for many a moon and the sight of the element of sex appeal, which can provide a contrast to the heavy-duty drama of the violent waltz in between the ropes, was also missed by some. Chalk it up to another heretofore unforeseen, ancillary change to the industry as a result of the Haymon attempt at a re-brand. The Obama crew will have to add the hit to the card-girl industry to the next employment numbers.
– Michaels gave a strong hint that sanctioning body silliness and a fixation on title belts will not be in the cards for the PBC. And we got a more public hint when an official, in-ring, tried to get Team Thurman to lower a WBA belt held aloft proudly. Twitter chatter suggests that maybe PBC belts will be introduced and if that happens, then I guess the current body of regulatory bodies might then be minimized. I posed that possibility to Mauricio Sulaiman, who heads the WBC. Does he see a certain script of writing on the wall? “Not really,” he told me. “We have specific rules to sanction a fight and will abide by those. We will not speculate or jump to conclusions. The fact to see boxing on free TV is huge and great for boxing! We have rules and will do our best to be supportive.” Some writers made it clear that they dig this tweak. I don’t know, I think there are a couple sides to the issue. Did anyone ask Thurman what he thought about his belt being dissed like that? Those guys are proud of those baubles, even the “minor” ones and the occasional antics of the alphabet gangs shouldn’t taint the actual spoils of war.
– I reached out to Edward Majian of Sartonk, who does gorgeous belt-making work, in his family’s tradition, to ask what does he think about a possible move away from honoring of various bodies’ belts? He cited three elements which make belts meaningful: 1. Heritage, 2. Opportunity, 3. Symbolism. “As an integral part of boxing heritage, championship belts have become emblematic of the sport and have garnished its visual landscape for generations,” he told me. “The belts are also representative of the opportunities available to professional boxers as they progress from regional to world champions. The belts also illustrate the symbolism involved in world championship. Boxing is arguably the most difficult and dangerous of sports. Boxing’s iconic belts, as symbols of triumph, are the steppingstones, landmarks and pinnacles of a career. They immortalize and embody the boxers’ hard-won moments of triumph – not only against opponents but, in many cases, against socioeconomic adversity. We know that each champion who receives one of our belts has worked harder than most, overcome more than most and persisted longer than most.” Noted and hopefully his take will be listened to moving forward.
My takeaway: This is the digital age, in which opinions, “news” and just plain poppycock can be transmitted from one end of the world to the other in the blink of an eye. Speed of transmission of opinion, especially because it takes next to no thinking to skew your stance, means we often see decisions made ASAP before true analysis has been rendered. That could be the case with this PBC endeavor. I do think we have to see how it plays out before we can render a verdict. But of course, if Al Haymon were more inclined to share his vision beyond a select few, that would make our judgement easier to render, make our opinions more informed. I mean, unless we know how big his war chest is – and heck, I had one boxing guy tell me he thinks it could be up to a billion dollars – we have no clue how long he can sustain his play.
One thing we do know, he has affected the market as a whole. He has signed a lot of talent…and his generous purses paid to pugilists could skew the market, with other non-Al guys seeking Haymon-sized payouts. That can make it that much harder for the other players to compete with. We will keep an eye on that going forward. My bottom line as I ponder the broadcast from Saturday, and the experiment, because that’s what it is when someone is doing something in a manner that hasn’t been done before, is that it’s a good thing for good boxing to be on free TV. And that’s the key phrase there: “good boxing.” Give me the best fighting the best or, at least, compelling and evenly matched scraps and I will be happy. Will everyone be happy? No. Haymon seems to be angling toward not a monopoly; one isn’t allowed to corner a market in total in our system but this is darned close. History shows us that most often, a robust market of competition provides checks and balances which seem to benefit the masses and not enrich a select few. HBO, Showtime, Bob Arum, Oscar De La Hoya, Roc Nation, a lot of other major league players share the space with Haymon and they are all known battlers, with track records to match. I wouldn’t assume they will fall by the wayside, just as I don’t assume Haymon’s moves will result in him running the table on the veteran gamersÔǪnor do I assume he won’t. If there’s one thing covering boxing a few decades has taught me, it’s this: We can unexpected the unexpected and the game will change in ways none of us have imagined. In others words: there is much we don’t know and we must let time play out before we can render a verdict on the PBC experiment. I can say with conviction, it will be mightily interesting as we receive the evidence necessary to render a viable verdict.
Michael Woods, the editor of TheSweetScience.com, lives in Brooklyn, NY. Follow him on Twitter if you wish.

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