Larry Merchant, the former HBO Sports boxing analyst, noted when announcing his departure from the network last week that boxing is no longer a mainstream sport. There was a time in this country when the three major sports were baseball, boxing and horse racing.
These days, boxing ranks well down the list, though for a niche sport, it retains a heavy following.
Ratings from cable in 2012 bear that out. Both HBO and Showtime, the two heavyweights in boxing on cable television, had spectacular years. HBO, which is in roughly 30 million homes, compared to roughly 22 million for Showtime, posted the most-watched cable fight of the year and nine of the top 10, according to Nielsen Media Research.
The Julio Cesar Chavez Jr.-Marco Antonio Rubio fight on Feb. 4 on HBO had 1.9 million viewers for the live, first-time showing, making it the year's most watched show. In all, there were 16 fights on cable whose premier viewing attracted an audience of 1.0 million or more. Of those, 14 were on HBO and two were on Showtime.
Chavez is clearly the television star of the year, though. He fought in two of the top three largest cable fights and his pay-per-view bout against Sergio Martinez on Sept. 15 was the year's fourth-highest PPV.
Chavez drew 1.9 million live viewers for Rubio and 1.6 million for his June fight with Andy Lee. The April rematch between Bernard Hopkins and Chad Dawson on HBO drew 1.6 million viewers.
The strong rating for Hopkins-Dawson II is intriguing because their first fight, in 2011, was a complete bomb on pay-per-view. Viewers totally rejected the PPV bout, which did less than 50,000 units, but made the rematch on cable the second-most watched fight of the year. It shows the power of name recognition in attracting an audience to a non-pay-per-view fight.
Rounding out the top five are Adrien Broner-Vicente Escobedo at 1.4 million viewers and the Showtime offering of Miguel Cotto-Austin Trout, also at 1.4 million.
The Cotto-Trout rating represented a record of sorts for Showtime. It was the network's highest-rated fight since 2004, when Nielsen began individually measuring multiplex channels. Prior to 2004, all of a network's channels, such as Showtime, Sho 2, Sho Extreme, etc., were measured as one audience. Post-2004, they have been separated.
As a result, it can't be said that Cotto-Trout's 1.4 million viewers is a Showtime record, because several Mike Tyson fight on the network prior to 2004 undoubtedly did far more viewers. All of the channels were measured as one during those years and thus can't be separated out.
The Chavez-Rubio was the most-watched fight on HBO since Sept. 26, 2009, when Vitali Klitschko successfully defended the heavyweight title against Chris Arreola in Los Angeles. That bout drew 2.1 million viewers.
HBO's World Championship Boxing Series averaged over 1.2 million viewers live, an increase of nine percent from 2011. It was the third consecutive year in which all HBO WCB shows did at least 1 million live viewers.
Boxing had a strong night on Saturday. Nonito Donaire's knockout of Jorge Arce attracted 1.3 million live viewers, putting it No. 6 on the list of the year's top cable fights. It was helped by the opener, which was the replay of Juan Manuel Marquez's sixth-round knockout of Manny Pacquiao. The replay peaked at 1.4 million viewers and averaged 1.3 million, putting it ninth on the Top 10. The Amir Khan-Carlos Molina fight on Showtime on Saturday attracted 616,000 viewers.
Interestingly, HBO Sports executives had been concerned if pay-per-view replay numbers would decrease after its partnership deal with ESPN went into effect in the fall. In that deal, ESPN agreed to air HBO promotional programming such as "24/7" in return for getting preferred highlight packages. Marquez's knockout of Pacquiao was shown numerous times on ESPN, but it did not appear to hurt the replay ratings.
Golden Boy was the primary promoter of 10 of the top 16 shows. Top Rank was the primary promoter of four. DiBella Entertainment was the primary promoter of one and Goossen Tutor Promotions and Gary Shaw Productions co-promoted the other.
CBS' broadcast of the Leo Santa Cruz-Alberto Guevara fight did a 1.3 rating, which translated to 1.5 million households. However, CBS, which is in 114 million homes, hasn't released the amount of viewers are represented by those 1.5 million households.
The boxing shows on cable that did 1.0 million or more viewers live on first airing are:
1. Julio Cesar Chavez Jr.-Marco Antonio Rubio, Feb. 4, HBO, 1.9 million
2. Bernard Hopkins-Chad Dawson, April 28, HBO, 1.6 million
3. Chavez Jr.-Andy Lee, June 16, HBO, 1.4 million
4. Adrien Broner-Vicente Escobedo, July 21, HBO, 1.4 million
5. Miguel Cotto-Austin Trout, Dec. 1, Showtime, 1.4 million
6. Nonito Donaire-Jorge Arce, Dec. 15, HBO, 1.3 million
7. Andre Ward-Chad Dawson, Sept. 8, HBO, 1.3 million
8. Floyd Mayweather-Cotto PPV replay, May 12, HBO, 1.3 million
9. Manny Pacquiao-Juan Manuel Marquez PPV replay, Dec. 15, HBO, 1.3 million
10. Danny Garcia-Amir Khan, July 14, HBO, 1.3 million
11. Erik Morales-Garcia I, March 24, HBO, 1.2 million
12. Robert Guerrero-Andre Berto, Nov. 24, HBO, 1.1 million
13. Marcos Maidana-Devon Alexander, Feb. 25, HBO, 1.1 million
14. Broner-Antonio Demarco, Nov. 17, HBO, 1.1 million
15. Sergio Martinez-Matthew Macklin, March 17, HBO, 1.1 million
16. Canelo Alvarez-Josesito Lopez, Sept. 15, Showtime, 1.0 million