Joe Camporeale/USA Today Sports
PRELIMINARY numbers for the all-Mexico showdown between Canelo Alvarez and Julio Cesar Chavez Jr indicates approximately one million HBO PPV buys. Over 20,000 more filled the stands in Las Vegas’ T-Mobile Arena, proudly waving the Mexican flag. They might as well have wrapped themselves in it and taken a nap. Chavez Jr’s refusal to engage led to a one-sided snoozer with Canelo winning every round.
The card was somewhat salvaged by the Canelo-Gennady Golovkin announcement. Even so, no one should have to pay $75 for a sparring session and the declaration of a fight that will likely cost them another $75, if not more. Canelo-GGG is worth every penny, but that doesn’t excuse the undeserving PPVs before and likely after it.
HBO boxing once reserved PPVs for established stars against worthy contenders. And when these stars fought lesser opposition, it was off-PPV.
In recent years, however, HBO has relaxed its standards for being a star. While Showtime and Premier Boxing Champions (PBC) look to expand their audience, the network that premiered their boxing series with Frazier-Foreman, kicked off Boxing After Dark with Barrera-McKinney, and cultivated more stars than Dr. Dre, is doing its best to minimize theirs.
HBO’s output has dropped significantly. After peaking at 42 shows in 2006, that number fell to 22 in 2010 and then 20 (five PPV’s) in 2016. This year’s schedule is even worse: A dismal nine cards through September, four of which are PPV’s. At this rate, every fighter on the network will become a PPV commodity—if only they had the buys to justify it.
Some industry insiders believe that money sunk into failed shows (the short-lived Vinyl, for instance) has adversely affected the network’s budget.
Others suggest that AT&T’s $85.4 billion acquisition of HBO parent company Time Warner forced the latter to pare their boxing budget to window dress their valuation.
A third rumoured possibility is that the sagging viewership led to these cuts. Ratings for HBO’s boxing telecasts fell by 10% in 2016. The downtrend has continued this year. HBO Sports Executive VP Peter Nelson has given the masses the Canelo-GGG super-fight, brought Andre Ward and Sergey Kovalev together twice, and developed Roman Gonzalez among others, but even he can’t be expected to spread butter with a toothpick.
While HBO disaffiliates from boxing, the sport is gaining momentum elsewhere. In the UK, 90,000 watched Anthony Joshua KO Wladimir Klitschko live. Further, two Americans, Gervonta Davis and Errol Spence Jr will head to England this month for world title bouts.
The US is also experiencing a grassroots renaissance. New York’s Barclays Center, a home away from home for Keith Thurman and Danny Garcia, housed a boxing-record 16,333 attendees for the duo’s faceoff last March.
Deontay Wilder’s February homecoming brought 12,346 folks out to Birmingham, a record for Alabama boxing.
Nearly 10,000 braved cold temperatures in Toledo, Ohio to watch local Robert Easter Jr last February.
And Terence Crawford drew 11,270 in his hometown of Omaha, Nebraska last December.
These numbers are beginning to translate to television, where the Showtime network has been like manna to the starved fight fan.
Showtime, which has 28 million subscribers to HBO’s 32 million, kicked off the new year by beating HBO head-to-head for the first time in their history. Two weeks later, 859,000 watched Adrien Broner eke by Adrian Granados, making it their most-watched event since January 2015. The bout was also streamed live on Twitter, a sign that boxing, after years of watching UFC outpace them in the cyberworld, is beginning to make headway.
By June 9 Showtime would have televised 17 live boxing telecasts in 2017, including 15 world championship fights. None on PPV. Most of these cards feature fighters from the PBC series. While media chatter has revolved around the demise of Al Haymon’s brainchild (and not HBO boxing on life support) PBC has aired 56 shows in the past twelve months—including 22 this year through June 3. These cards have averaged 2.3 million viewers through eight episodes on the Big Three (CBS, NBC & Fox).
Haymon is doing his part to keep HBO’s ship afloat as well. Terence Crawford’s last two opponents, John Molina and Felix Diaz, are his. Canelo and Golovkin have also fought Haymon fighters in two of their last three bouts.
No doubt, some fans and media will accuse this writer of network bias for pointing this out. If desiring consistent, affordable quality fare over the opposite is a crime, then so be it.
PPVs such as Canelo-GGG have become the exception rather than the rule. Such a decline in HBO boxing might have been a death knell for the sport a decade ago. Indeed, boxing has taken many blows throughout its history and survived. Now, for the first time in a long time, it’s beginning to go on the offensive.