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Les Moonves, the president and CEO of CBS Corp., was hosting Top Rank officials Bob Arum and Todd duBoef at a dinner in New York in late January when he spoke words that may ultimately change the course of boxing in the United States.
The meal came only a few days after Top Rank had closed a deal with CBS and Showtime to distribute and help it promote its May 7 pay-per-view bout between Manny Pacquiao and Shane Mosley, which will be held at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas.
Top Rank's decision to move to CBS/Showtime and away from HBO Pay-Per-View, which had dominated the industry for the last dozen years or so, sent shockwaves reverberating throughout the boxing industry.
Moonves looked at Arum and duBoef and, referring to the May 7 pay-per-view card, said, "We'll make this work." And then, in words that boxing fans in the U.S. have been dying to hear for more than two decades, he added, "I want you guys to figure out how to help me get boxing back [on network television] on Saturday night."
DuBoef had cut the deal with Moonves a few days earlier, but its genesis was at least 10 years prior, when duBoef began to question why boxing was so willingly pushing its product onto premium cable television channels such as HBO and Showtime.
From the advent of television through the mid-1980s, boxing was one of network TV's staples. But then HBO and Showtime came along and, desperate for programming to supplement their movie offerings, began to broadcast boxing.
They began to wave large license fees at promoters for the rights to broadcast their fights. And promoters eagerly accepted the inflated fees. But to duBoef, it didn't feel right.
"I looked at it as short-term gain ending in a long-term failure for the sport," he said.
That's because by leaving network television and basic cable and driving the sport onto premium cable, it severely reduced the size of the potential viewership and it eliminated sponsors, since premium cable has no commercials. The customers of the premium cable channels are largely higher-income whites and they miss large portions of the Hispanic audience and the inner cities, where boxing is huge.
Ultimately, in duBoef's view, it comes down to a simple numbers game. HBO has approximately 29 million subscribers and Showtime has approximately 19 million. CBS is accessible to more than 97 percent of all televisions in the U.S. and reaches about 115 million homes.
Voluntarily choosing to leave network television, which reached about 2.5 times as many homes as HBO and Showtime combined, never made sense to duBoef. Worse, in duBoef's view, was that by putting the cards onto premium cable, there were no longer salespeople out in the marketplace trying to drum up corporate support for the sport.
Before long, the persons who used to sell advertising for boxing shows had lost touch with it. They didn't know its demographic. They didn't understand its appeal. As a result, the few times that promoters would approach network television executives about reviving boxing on over-the-air channels, the answer was always the same: Our salespeople say they can't sell it.
Slowly, duBoef was moving closer to a cliff. Top Rank had long been one of the sport's elite promoters, developing megastars like Oscar De La Hoya, Floyd Mayweather Jr. and Pacquiao over the last 20 years, but duBoef felt less like a partner of HBO's than he did an employee who was at the mercy of its executives.
There was a constant beg for dates and promoters competed viciously with each other for the precious few available ones. Their success paralleled their ability to secure dates on HBO.
But duBoef disliked being at the whim of an HBO or Showtime executive, who may not have liked a fight he was offering. Middleweight Julio Cesar Chavez Jr., he found, was exceedingly popular among his customers, but he could never elicit much interest in him from HBO.
"My customers loved the guy and the premium cable channels did not," duBoef said. "I was in a bad spot, because I had to meet the demand from my customers to see him, but I couldn't get any interest from them to put him on."
The landscape began to shift in January 2010, when, after negotiations to make a match between Pacquiao and Mayweather fell through, Top Rank instead made a match for Pacquiao with Joshua Clottey.
It was being held on the same date, March 13, that the Mayweather-Pacquiao bout was to have been held, and HBO Pay-Per-View was going to distribute. But HBO Sports executives declined to do a "24/7" series around the fight, though they were going to do one had the show been Mayweather-Pacquiao.
Beginning with the De La Hoya-Mayweather fight in 2007, HBO's "24/7" series had proven to be a hit with boxing fans and helped drive pay-per-view sales. When duBoef couldn't convince HBO Pay-Per-View to do a "24/7" on Pacquiao-Clottey, he determined he would finally act on his instincts and shop for a television partner with wider distribution.
Pacquiao was the carrot he waved at CBS in an effort to interest them. Pacquiao is one of the biggest global names in sport and is boxing's biggest attraction. He was the subject of a "60 Minutes" piece on CBS last year that was watched by more than 16.5 million people. He appeared on the cover of the Asian edition of Time Magazine. He was on the cover of American Airlines' in-flight magazine and was featured prominently in a lengthy piece in GQ. He has become a regular guest on ABC's late night talk show, "Jimmy Kimmel Live," and appeared for the fourth time on Thursday. That is the same day that his single, "Sometimes When We Touch," a remake of Dan Hill's 1977 No. 1 hit, will be released.
Top Rank successfully pitched Moonves on the idea of distributing the Pacquiao-Mosley pay-per-view while combining the resources of CBS and Showtime together to help promote the fight.
CBS and Showtime are doing a four-episode preview series similar to HBO's "24/7" that it calls "Fight Camp 360." The first episode debuts Saturday night on CBS. The final episode will be broadcast on CBS live in prime-time on May 6, the day before the event, and will be repeated on Saturday.
CBS aired commercials for the fight during the NCAA men's basketball tournament in March. Its owned-and-operated television stations are airing nightly reports on the Pacquiao-Mosley each night on its 6 p.m. and 11 p.m. newscasts. There are 14 of them in major markets around the country such as New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Boston, Chicago and Philadelphia, many of which offer little boxing coverage otherwise.
In addition, CBS and Showtime agreed to allow Top Rank to distribute the event online, which HBO had resisted. Pacquiao-Mosley will be available on their websites, as well as on Yahoo! Sports.
Nobody with Top Rank is willing to predict whether the collaboration will impact the pay-per-view sales. Pacquiao has averaged 1.125 million sales in his last four PPV fights – 1.25 million against De La Hoya, 1.2 million against Miguel Cotto, 700,000 against Clottey and 1.15 million against Margarito – and Mosley has been solid as a pay-per-view seller as the B side.
Early indications are that the number will be strong. Tickets for the live show were sold out completely a month before the fight. Already, there are in excess of 7,000 closed circuit seats sold in Las Vegas, an absurdly high number this early since generally, more than 95 percent of closed circuit tickets are sold in the last 24 hours before an event.
Joe Gagliardi, the president of J&J Sports Productions, which sells boxing to bars and restaurants around the country, said sales have been far stronger than he anticipated, which he attributes to an early start on the marketing campaign. Gagliardi said when bar owners and restaurant managers are asking him early about a fight, it's because their customers are asking them about it.
"We've noticed that our sales have jumped up considerably, and earlier, than we've ever really had, even for a major fight," Gagliardi said. "Generally, my sales are on the last two, three four days, even for a pay-per-view. But, judging by my early indications, I'm above where I thought I'd be at this time."
He said he's had a particularly great response from managers of chains such as Buffalo Wild Wings and Hooters.
"They're getting their locations taken care of early, and that has not happened before," Gagliardi said. "The public has become aware of the fight earlier than normal, so what is happening is that their regular customers are asking if they're going to show the fight. There is clearly a greater awareness of this fight than there has been for most fights, even some very big, very significant fights."
Most cable systems won't begin selling the fight until a few days before. But Mark Boccardi, the senior vice president of programming and business development for in Demand, said the presence of CBS in the marketing picture has clearly had an impact.
In Demand is a content aggregator and distributes pay-per-views to the cable systems around the country. Boccardi is frequently in contact with cable operators and advises them which events figure to be the most significant.
He said the preview show that was on CBS, the commercials that have run and other marketing efforts have clearly had an impact.
"I'm in active, ongoing discussions with all the major cable operators and I'm giving them guidance on what events we project to kind of be bigger ones versus smaller ones, so they can more intelligently decide how to allocate their marketing resources and marketing dollars," Boccardi said. "They often rely on in Demand for that guidance.
"With respect to Pacquiao-Mosley, there is certainly a heightened awareness about this event. A lot of that is driven by the CBS and Showtime involvement. To the operators, it feels big. It's different. When you combine that with Pacquiao, who right now is the biggest draw in pay-per-view, and Mosley, who over the years has had such great credibility as a pay-per-view draw, and you put it all together, it just has the feel of something that could be a mega-event."
Top Rank's long-range plan is to leverage Pacquiao's success into getting boxing back onto network television.
The major task there, duBoef said, is simply convincing the network executives that they will be able to sell their sponsors on it. Top Rank has hired Lucia McKelvey as its executive vice president of business development and marketing to interface with the corporate world and hope to interest it in boxing.
She's already had some success. She has landed an endorsement deal for Pacquiao with State Street Produce. Later this year, it will rename its high-end produce line "Pacquiao Produce" and Pacquiao's image will appear on millions of bags of snap peas, cauliflower, broccoli and the like in grocery stores around the country.
She's also landed Pacquiao an endorsement from a Fortune 100 technology manufacturer that will be signed this week. She declined to identify it until the contract is signed.
Pacquiao also has a relationship with Nike, and AT&T and Tecate are sponsoring the May 7 fight. It is early, but it is the type of progress boxing needs to show in order to make itself attractive to network television and, more importantly, its advertisers.
In the 1970s, boxing was a regular on ABC, CBS and NBC. The first Muhammad Ali-Leon Spinks heavyweight title match was broadcast live in prime time on CBS. The rematch was shown live in prime time on ABC.
"What happened to boxing is that it went off terrestrial TV and it was put onto the likes of HBO and Showtime and so it went away from mainstream TV," McKelvey said. "That means it went away from advertisers' interests. They're most interested in reoccurring schedules, sports like NFL and NBA, Tier One sports that are on in every day homes.
"So unfortunately for boxing, it went off mainstream TV and it got put on these [premium cable] channels, where it became a niche. The advertisers don't want to buy into that as much."
The bottom line for Top Rank is to use Pacquiao as sort of a Trojan horse to get fans who haven't watched boxing regularly and lure advertisers who drifted away in the 1980s back to the sport.
If the May 7 fight is as successful as Arum believes it will be, it will open the doors for a return to network television.
"Pacquiao has an incredible story and we've gotten the word out about him and it's happening for this promotion like it never has before," Arum said. "That bodes well for the success of this event, but this also has a significance beyond this one fight. If we can make this event successful and show the television people and the advertisers that boxing works and there is a huge, huge market for it, there's a great chance that the result of all this is that we'll wind up back where we started, on network television."