`Ballroom Boxing' packs quite a wallop

Wagner's shows have come long way since '96

June 21, 2000|By Alan Goldstein | Alan Goldstein,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Within the past few weeks, Scott Wagner has received e-mail from fight fans as far apart as Bellingham, Wash., and Key West, Fla., praising the lively competition on his "Ballroom Boxing" shows and seeking T-shirts and memorabilia from the intimate setting of Michael's Eighth Avenue in Glen Burnie.

Wagner, who will hold his 30th show tomorrow to close this year's calendar, estimates the audience watching his taped telecasts has grown to a potential 14 million households stretching across the East Coast, with satellite dishes making the show available to another 12 million homes across the country. It has enabled him to turn a profit for the first time in five years.

"Ballroom Boxing" had a humble beginning in 1996 when Wagner formed a relationship with Home Team Sports, paying HTS to produce his small club ring cards. It has mushroomed to include the New England Sports Network, which airs Boston Red Sox games; the Sunshine Network, based in Orlando, Fla.; and CN8, a Comcast operation in New Jersey.

The three networks added a combined 9.5 million households to HTS' estimated 4.7 million. Wagner hopes this figure will entice national sponsors. He currently enjoys regional support from Budweiser, Geico, Toyota and classic rock station WOCT.

"Ballroom Boxing is not our property like the Orioles, Washington Wizards and Capitals," said HTS production sales manager Mark Schumaker. "It's Scott's show and his production. He hires the producer and director [Rudy Childs, an independent producer from Riverdale, Md.], and pays the two ring announcers -- Jon Saraceno and Larry Michael.

"It's been a good fit for our viewers. He has raised the level of club shows with the caliber of his fights."

Wagner's alliance with television has come a long way since 1992 when he persuaded HTS to carry the National Cheerleading Championships from the Fifth Regiment Armory in Baltimore. After three years of sponsoring the event, Wagner was encouraged enough to start promoting boxing shows at the catering hall owned by his father, Mike, who served as a state senator for 13 years.

"I convinced my dad to give boxing a shot in the winter of 1994," Scott recalled. "He spent a lot of money on my education and backing some crazy business schemes, but decided boxing was worth a try. We were busy on weekends with parties and weddings, and this was a way for our place to generate revenue during the week.

"Back then, the only thing I knew about boxing was that the guys who showed up ate a lot of food, drank a lot of beer and had a good time. I was putting all my time and energy, along with my matchmaker, Josh Hall, arranging these shows. My biggest asset was perseverance."

Before building a solid fan base of 1,200 to 1,500, a few of his early shows attracted as few as 700 paying customers, causing Mike Wagner to have second thoughts.

"He thought I was taking too much time from our other business," Scott said. "But he stuck with me. His credo has always been, `If it was easy, everyone would be doing it.' "

Wagner admits he was even more of a novice as a TV producer. "Frankly, our first shows in 1996 weren't very professional except for the fighters," he said. "That's when I hired Childs, and he's made a world of difference directing and producing the show."

With additional money now pouring in from sponsors, Wagner may be tempted to book ranking fighters with greater name recognition. For now, however, he is committed to showcasing promising area boxers like unbeaten Landover lightweight Jermaine Fields, who battles Awel Abdulla, of Ghana, in the main event.

"I don't want a name boxer fighting some stiff just to stay in shape and keep his rating," Wagner said. "I prefer using two hungry guys who will fight their tails off trying to make a name for themselves. That's what makes club fights special and keeps the fans coming."

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