COMMENTARY | Earlier today, Golden Boy Promotions confirmed that they will be bringing boxing back to network TV with a December 15th card headlined by IBF bantamweight titlist, Leo Santa Cruz (against an opponent to be named) and featuring six recently-signed U.S. Olympians on the undercard. The CBS show, planned to air in the afternoon, will serve as a lead-in to Showtime's Amir Khan-Carlos Molina show later that same evening.
The following week, Main Events also has a network show planned, featuring Tomasz Adamek vs. Steve Cunningham II as the main event on an NBC card.
While neither show is a blockbuster, both should be fairly low budget, moderate money-makers for the networks that will, hopefully, lead to increasingly bigger shows as confidence in the product is built.
This should be tremendously positive news for hardcore fans. Boxing's long-awaited return to free, network TV is essential to the long-term health of the sport as well as to its available talent pool down the line.
Back in the mid 70's-early 80's, network TV made the conscious effort to remove themselves from the boxing business. Partly due to boxing's affinity for scandal, partly due to changing times and standards, the decision was made by network executives to distance themselves from the sport, only going back on that decision on very rare occasions.
While network TV was pulling back, boxing's power brokers began to sign deals with upstart premium cable networks, HBO and Showtime, which were eager for programming and willing to hand out tremendous upfront money for the rights to boxing's biggest fights.
With an open checkbook and a list of boxing promoters more than willing to take quick cash, the premium channels would bring in the sport's biggest names, ranging from Muhammad Ali and George Foreman in the 70's to Mike Tyson and Evander Holyfield in the late 80's-- all fighters who had already made their name and won fan support on free, network TV.
And, while live boxing proved to be incredibly successful for the premium cable channels, the unintentional result of this new business model was that boxing would now find itself removed from the mainstream household. Whereas boxing's biggest and best were previously available to 100 million households on network TV, it would now only be viewable to those who were HBO or Showtime subscribers.
Fast forward to 2012 and boxing has become a full-fledged niche sport as the available fan base has dwindled to a fraction of what it used to be. The class of 2012 is the first generation of fighter raised completely away from the bright lights of network TV. And, although stars have certainly been made in spite of the lack of exposure, the sport, itself, has suffered from the diminishing visibility.
Along with the shrinking fan base came a diminishing talent pool of potential fighters. As boxing fans, demographically, became older and more middle class, the inner city, from which most boxing talent has come, had become completely cut off from the sport. With every bit of boxing action on cable TV, the bigger names on premium cable, and the major events carrying a price tag of 50 dollars (and higher) on pay-per-view, boxing was no longer an option for those without plenty of disposable income.
Apparently, boxing has finally recognized the adverse long-term effect of isolating itself from the mainstream. These first tentative steps back to network TV represent a significant change in business philosophy and a forward-looking approach to boxing's place in the landscape of mainstream sports. Along with this latest move toward the light have come efforts to better utilize internet technology as well as a conscious commitment to making better undercards for major events.
The sport still has a long way to go-- and boxing has always shown an uncanny ability to shoot itself in the foot with short-sighted marketing and nauseatingly fan-defying scandal-- but the first step to any effort to rebuild was always centered around a return to free, network TV. Now, with their foot back in the network door, the ball is in boxing's court.
It may never return to its former level of mainstream popularity and brand awareness, but the sport, when done right, is compelling sports drama of the highest order. The question is whether the dark side of boxing can stay away from the mainstream light long enough to allow its continued growth.
Paul Magno was a licensed official in the state of Michoacan, Mexico and a close follower of the sport for more than thirty years. His work can also be found on Fox Sports and The Boxing Tribune. In the past, Paul has done work for Inside Fights, The Queensberry Rules and Eastside Boxing.
Doug Fischer, Leo Santa Cruz to headline CBS-televised show on Dec. 15, Ring TV
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