The good news for boxing fans is that there are more, and better, fights on television than there have been for years. Despite its proliferation on cable, boxing largely remains the domain of the premium cable networks, HBO and Showtime, because they still spend the most money and thus should at least theoretically land the best fights.
NBC is going to televise a card on the over-the-air broadcast network on Dec. 22, when it shows a compelling rematch between Tomasz Adamek and Steve Cunningham. Their 2008 bout was a brutal slugfest which Adamek won via split decision.
The ratings for that show will tell much about whether boxing truly is on an uptick, because it will show whether more than just the hard core fans tuned in. It's a good fight offered for free on network television and that should, one would assume, attract a few casual fans or non-fans who happen to find it while channel surfing.
But ratings at both HBO and Showtime are strong, and the quality of the matches is better than they have been in several years. Showtime Sports general manager Stephen Espinoza told BoxingScene.com his network's ratings are up 15 percent in 2012 over the 2011 levels.
Showtime reached 1.036 million viewers for the Sept. 15 bout between Canelo Alvarez and Josesito Lopez, despite going against an HBO Pay-Per-View show headlined by Sergio Martinez against Julio Cesar Chavez Jr.
On Saturday, Showtime did 528,000 viewers for its quadruple header from the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, N.Y., that featured a Danny Garcia knockout of Erik Morales. The ratings were undoubtedly helped by the pre-fight controversy surrounding Morales' positive drug test, but Espinoza told BoxingScene it showed Garcia is becoming an attraction.
Erik Morales is a huge name but this was obviously a rematch of a very interesting fight. If we look at our number one and number two, Canelo and Victor Ortiz are much more household names than Danny Garcia - and the fact that he was in the main event and it drew those kind of numbers it was a real testament to the type of attention that this event got and the attractive [nature] of this matchup.
The Garcia-Morales main event peaked at 729,000 viewers, which is a solid number. But it doesn't look so good in comparison to a couple of recent HBO cards, which not only far outdrew the Showtime quadruple header, but which also were far less expensive.
Showtime reportedly paid a whopping $4 million license fee to Golden Boy for the Brooklyn show on Saturday. But despite the price, the card delivered nowhere near the number of viewers that HBO's tripleheader on Sept. 29 did or that its doubleheader did on Oct. 13.
HBO reportedly paid a license fee of $500,000 for the Sept. 29 tripleheader in Ledyard, Conn., featuring a main event of Edwin Rodriguez against Jason Escalera. That show averaged 784,000 viewers and peaked at 904,000 for around 12 percent of the price of the Showtime card.
The HBO license fee for the Oct. 13 doubleheader at the Home Depot Center in Los Angeles was reportedly $1.7 million. That card, which included the Fight of the Year leader Brandon Rios against Mike Alvarado in the opener and Nonito Donaire against Toshiaki Nishioka in the main event, attracted 835,000 viewers. So, for a combined $2.2 million, HBO got two shows, including one of the best fights of the 21st century, and paid a reported $1.8 million less than Showtime.
Significantly, the HBO card on Oct. 13 was head-to-head against Game 1 of the American League Championship Series between the Yankees and the Tigers . That game, which lasted five hours and 15 minutes and went 12 innings, delivered a massive 6.8 million viewers to TBS. It was TBS' highest-rated playoff game of the year. It stands to reason the Rios-Alvarado/Donaire-Nishioka card would have been even higher rated were it not for the stiff competition it faced. There was no similar competition either for HBO on the Rodriguez-Escalera show or for Showtime on the Garcia-Morales card.
HBO, thus, has a clear advantage over Showtime in boxing this year, despite Showtime's impressive ratings increase.
The viewers, though, are the winners, and ultimately it's going to help both boxing and its promoters. What is happening, almost imperceptibly, is that new stars are being created. Fighters like Alvarez, Lopez, Garcia and Lucas Matthysse on Showtime and Rios, Alvarado, Chavez, Adrien Broner, Gennady Golovkin and Andre Ward on HBO are developing solid fan followings.
Boxing for far too long had relied on Floyd Mayweather Jr. and Manny Pacquiao, but they've fought exclusively on pay-per-view since 2006. Mayweather's last appearance on HBO was when he defeated Sharmba Mitchell on Nov. 19, 2005 in Portland, Ore. Since then, Mayweather has fought eight times, all on pay-per-view. Pacquiao last fought on HBO on Sept. 10, 2005, when he fought Hector Velasquez in Los Angeles.
Their failure to fight at least occasionally on HBO or Showtime, like Oscar De La Hoya would occasionally do, undoubtedly hurt ratings on the premium cable channels.
HBO was also long to blame for paying bloated license fees for fights on the network that made it difficult to make other bouts. When the license fees are out of whack with the ratings the fighters deliver, it makes it far harder to acquire compelling content.
New HBO Sports president Ken Hershman deserves much credit for holding the line on price. He allowed both Miguel Cotto and Amir Khan to go over to Showtime to fight rather than pay what he felt were inflated fees. Cotto is going to fight Austin Trout on Dec. 1 and Khan will meet Carlos Molina on Dec. 15, both on Showtime. Whether Showtime gets value for its output remains to be seen, but Hershman has delivered solid numbers so far in 2012 for HBO. That proves that money alone isn't the key to making good fights fans want to see.
Competition is fierce, both between HBO and Showtime and between Golden Boy Promotions and Top Rank, boxing's dominant promoters. That's good for the consumer, who should get better choice as a result.
By the way, ratings numbers are from Nielsen Media Research. And it should be noted that HBO is in 29 million homes, while Showtime is in 21 million.