Top Rank Inc. has been gobbling up prospects over the past year even as HBO’s limited slate of dates has grown thinner and thinner. Bob Arum had a vision, and now it’s coming to fruition.
The Las Vegas-based promotional outfit has been engaged in talks for months on a new deal that will see Top Rank’s best and brightest stars — boxers such as Manny Pacquiao, Terence Crawford and Vasyl Lomachenko — featured on ESPN and perhaps ABC (Disney owns both networks), multiple sources told RingTV.com.
RingTV.com was unable to confirm whether some shows will be telecast on ABC but multiple sources suggested it’s a possibility.
A major announcement should come next week, with ESPN unveiling the series.
The first fight on the new platform will be Pacquiao’s welterweight title defense against Jeff Horn on July 2 in Australia (July 1 in the U.S.). Sources told RingTV.com that HBO offered an undisclosed license fee for the rights to televise the fight but was turned down by Top Rank, its longtime partner. The second show is slated for Aug. 5 and could feature the rematch between Lomachenko and Orlando Salido.
ESPN is expected to have approval over matchups, much the way HBO and Showtime retains quality control. It’s expected the untitled Top Rank series will bring approximately seven shows to ESPN/ABC this year, with a minimum of 18 more coming in 2018. The third show is expected to be in late August, a battle for the undisputed junior welterweight championship between Crawford and Julius Indongo. The duration of the agreement is unclear.
An HBO spokesperson declined comment when contacted by RingTV.com, and it is unknown whether Top Rank is permanently severing ties with the subscription cable network, with which it has done business for more than 35 years.
It’s expected Top Rank will also roll out an over-the-top network in the vein of WWE Network where fans will have digital access to the company’s massive fights library, built over 50-plus years, with a slew of Muhammad Ali bouts. The tentative plan is for Top Rank to also televise live fights on that network, where prospects from their 2016 Olympic class — fighters such as Michael Conlan, Shakur Stevenson and Teofimo Lopez — will gain exposure.
It’s also expected ESPN will kick in its massive library of classic fights for viewership on the unnamed over-the-top network.
Arum has bristled at HBO’s lack of dates for years now. Little by little, the network’s decreasing interest in boxing has limited Top Rank’s best fighters to just two bouts in a given year instead of three, which the Hall of Fame promoter prefers. It has forced Top Rank to find innovative ways to maintain its commitment to televise the fights of its younger boxers.
A doubleheader topped by a featherweight title fight between Oscar Valdez vs. Miguel Marriaga, with a super middleweight title bout featuring Gilberto Ramirez and Jesse Hart, wasn’t purchased by HBO in April. Instead, Top Rank produced its own pay-per-view show with Valdez-Marriaga and Ramirez against a lesser foe, Max Bursak.
The 85-year-old promoter was especially frosty toward HBO during the final press conference ahead of the Crawford-Felix Diaz fight on the network late last month. Diaz promoter Lou DiBella thanked HBO, and Arum fired off a diatribe asking why anyone would thank a network for televising fights, equating it to the notion that NBA superstar LeBron James would thank TNT after a game.
“Boxing, on a global basis, is one of the biggest sports in the world,” Arum said during an interview with RingTV.com last month in New York. “Unfortunately, we haven’t seen that in the United States because everything is either on pay-per-view or on two premium networks (HBO and Showtime), which have a limited audience.
“For example, they did a survey at HBO. Of the 30 million subscribers, less than 5 percent really wanted to watch boxing. That’s a million and a half households. A lot of those households will have other appointments when a fight is aired. So you’re dealing with a f—ing small audience.
“If the number of fans on Showtime, which is even smaller, have the same percentage [who are avid boxing fans], which is 5 percent, then you probably have [fewer viewers]. It’s less than a million homes. So what the f–k are we talking about?
When RingTV.com asked Arum if he had a plan in the works to bring fights to another platform, he replied, “No comment.” Following Crawford’s impressive win over Diaz, Arum was again asked at ringside about his company’s future relationship with HBO on the heels of his comments.
“That’s none of your f—ing business!” Arum shouted. “What the f–k are you talking about? HBO has done great for boxing. They’ve been very good to boxing. I have nothing bad to say about HBO, but they’re just a f—ing network. That’s all they are. They don’t own the business of boxing.
“And you may also want to call up the guy over at Showtime (Stephen Espinoza, who runs the sports side) and tell him the same thing. He doesn’t own boxing. He’s just a network that puts on stuff for their subscribers.”
Arum and Co. haven’t just signed top prospects from the 2016 Olympic class such as Conlan, Stevenson and a host of others. The company also has been in talks with fighters like heavyweight contender Bryant Jennings — whom they recently signed — in an attempt to bolster their stable with plenty more TV dates coming their way.
The aforementioned matchup pitting Ramirez against Hart is also in the works to be televised on the new platform sometime in the fall.
Top Rank recently canceled its upcoming shows on Spanish-language network UniMas, a television series that has showcased the company’s developing prospects. With the new series waiting in the wings and the anticipation of ample dates coming to gain greater exposure for its vast stable of talent, UniMas, which was a money-sucker, was no longer necessary.
After all, Top Rank will be doing far more major shows, and the prospects that would appear on UniMas will have new opportunities for exposure. Top Rank broadcasts its undercards for HBO shows on the promotional company’s official website, and it’s possible that will be an option in conjunction with the new series.
“How do you say that boxing isn’t a big sport, has lost interest, when you’re televising your fights on your biggest platform to a relatively small number of people,” Arum continued during the interview. “Because if you went to regular television, they have 100 million homes, and if even 5 percent are interested, you at least start with a potential audience of 5 million.
“(PBC creator Al) Haymon tried doing one way; it didn’t work. Nobody is big enough to have ruined anything.”
Arum has found a way to keep his fighters active and likely on a bigger platform. The days of Top Rank relying on HBO for TV dates appear to be over — at least for now.
Mike Coppinger is the Senior Writer for RingTV.com. Follow him on Twitter: @MikeCoppinger
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