Basic, pay cable TV give boxing its punch


February 16, 1991|By RAY FRAGER

About 40 years ago, noted baseball tactician and grammarian Charlie Dressen surveyed the National League standings and concluded, "The Giants is dead." Were Dressen still with us and deciding to apply his skills of observation to the state of boxing on television, he might say, "Boxing are dead."

And he'd probably be just as wrong as he was about his Brooklyn Dodgers' pennant prospects.

Boxing, long a television staple, is still there. But, just like other forms of programming, it is moving away from the networks.

According to Kevin Monaghan, coordinator of NBC boxing, there were 32 boxing telecasts on the three major networks last year. This year, there may be as few as 14. Monaghan's network has none scheduled, ABC has three and CBS has 11.

"The business has changed radically," Monaghan said. "Our feeling is that last year the marketplace didn't support boxing.

"Boxing was a money-loser for all three networks. Even in a very bullish marketplace, the advertising market for boxing was very small."

Bob Greenway, vice president for sports programming at Home Box Office, said of the state of televised boxing, "On commercial networks, it's obviously not too good.

"While the ratings have remained good, it appears they're having trouble getting advertising."

Monaghan said the ratings, too, aren't what they were.

"It's slipped because it seems like everyone with a camera does boxing," Monaghan said.

So, even if the networks -- to use boxing vernacular -- throw in the towel, television should offer plenty of bouts. On basic cable channels, ESPN and USA Network have regular boxing shows. Premium sports channels such as Home Team Sports feature fights. Pay-cable outlets HBO and Showtime weigh in -- this vernacular is catching -- with some big-name bouts. And then there's pay-per-view.

Time Warner (HBO's corporate parent) debuts its TVKO venture -- an alliance with promoters Bob Arum and Dan Duva -- in April with the Evander Holyfield-George Foreman heavyweight title bout. TVKO plans to offer monthly cards with "two world-championship caliber fights" on the second Friday of every month.

The monthly telecasts are priced at $19.95, but the events TVKO calls "Mega-Fights" -- certainly anything with Foreman is a "mega" something -- will cost more, such as the $34.95 price for Holyfield-Foreman.

Showtime also has allied with promoter Don King for a pay-per-view venture.

"Right now, there seems to be a stampede. It seems like everyone is jumping into pay-per-view," said Seth Abraham, who is out there kicking up dust as president and chief executive office of Time Warner Sports.

The key to success in the pay-per-view market, Abraham said, is "doing it in a major-league fashion, on an ongoing basis.

"Consumers are not necessarily unhappy with the price. They're unhappy with the fights they've seen."

TVKO can line up some recognizable fighters -- middleweight Michael Nunn, junior flyweight Michael Carbajal, light heavyweight Virgil Hill, welterweight Meldrick Taylor and lightweight Pernell Whitaker. King and Showtime have the biggest drawing card of all, Mike Tyson -- whose fight next month with Razor Ruddock on pay-per-view is the venture's debut -- and, whatever your feelings about King's style, he's not a promoter content to let his stable remain static.

But will attractive matchups be enough to make people pay consistently for what has been perceived as free?

"We're trying to create a habit," Abraham said. "Television is about habits. It's about building habits and loyalty."

Pay-per-view technology is making those habits easier to acquire. About 16.5 million of the nation's 92 million television households can receive pay-per-view, with 2 million to 3 million coming on line each year.

The lure of all those viewers and all their money may slow the move of bigger names to USA and ESPN, said Rob Correa,sports programming executive at USA.

"For now, if they [promoters] don't like basic cable's money, they try pay-per-view," Correa said.

A curious aspect of the network boxing decline -- "The networks will be completely out of boxing in the next few years," Abraham said -- is that it may hurt the popularity of bouts on pay cable and pay-per-view.

"People can familiarize themselves with the fighters [on network television]," Greenway said.

"I think the problem with pay-per-view is they'll work for big fights, but the star-maker is still network television," Monaghan said.

Monaghan cited Jorge Paez, whose flamboyant style has been featured several times on the networks, as someone who may be more well-known than Nunn, a more talented fighter who has made few network appearances.

So, although cable television is available to three-quarters of the country, ESPN and USA still can't match the reach of the big three. For the overall health of the sport, then, the networks are the place to be much of the time.

The problem there is that promoters approach with palms up, instead of with wallets out.

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