ESPN's heavyweight title foray a strong move, but it needs to sustain effort

Kevin Iole
Yahoo Sports
ESPN's heavyweight title foray a strong move, but it needs to sustain effort
ESPN's heavyweight title foray a strong move, but it needs to sustain effort

Forget for a moment boxing's indefensible cold war, as well as the battle between Richard Schaefer and Oscar De La Hoya for control of Golden Boy Promotions. Ignore for the time being the reality that boxing's two biggest stars ridiculously still refuse to fight each other despite years of pleading from the fan base.

Put aside the notion that Wladimir Klitschko, the true heavyweight champion, is a total non-entity in the United States.

Despite all the negatives, boxing is in a very good place, coming off one of its best years in decades, and the outlook is increasingly bright.

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On Saturday, ESPN will, for the second time in three weeks, broadcast a heavyweight title fight live on the big network.

Chris Arreola and Bermane Stiverne will meet for the vacant WBC heavyweight belt on Saturday at the Galen Center in Los Angeles in a bout televised in prime time on ESPN.

Two weeks earlier, ESPN broadcast the Klitschko-Alex Leapai bout live from Germany.

If this is a sign that ESPN is planning to get involved in boxing in a major way, it would be just about the best thing that could happen to the sport other than Floyd Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao announcing tomorrow they're planning to fight.

The dominant boxing broadcasters right now are HBO and Showtime, in whichever order you wish to present them. Combined, they're in a little more than 50 million homes and a good audience for a fight for either of them is slightly over 1 million viewers.

They each do terrific broadcasts and have invested significantly in the sport, but as premium cable pay networks, they're never going to have the impact that a free, over-the-air broadcast network could have for the sport.

ESPN is a basic cable channel that reaches 98 million homes. That's far fewer television homes than ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC reach, but it's about as big as it gets otherwise.

ESPN2's "Friday Night Fights" series has a very small budget, highlights lesser-known fighters and gets very little promotion, so it doesn't impact the sport in a positive way.

But if ESPN were to get involved and bid on HBO- and Showtime-level main events even on a semi-regular basis, the impact could not be understated.

But ESPN has so many contractual commitments to sports that rank far ahead of boxing in the pecking order that it isn't likely this will become anything more than a dalliance.

"ESPN has a long history of carrying world-class fights through our Friday Night Fights series, but we're definitely stepping up our game a bit here with this fight," said Brian Kweder, the senior director of programming and acquisitions for ESPN. "We also feel like we're capturing the heavyweight division like no one has in a long time by showing the Wladimir Klitschko-Alex Leapai fight on Saturday, April 26. That fight will be used to help drive folks to the May 10th fight as well between Chris Arreola and Bermane Stiverne.

"The two fights together working in tandem really do a great job of painting the entire heavyweight picture as it stands today in boxing, and here at ESPN we're real excited about the heavyweight division because there's a lot of up-and-coming young fighters and some established fighters who are really making a name for themselves."

ESPN's involvement with boxing is only going to be significant if it is long-term, consistent and replete with stars. ESPN has to be able to put on fights that would be main events on HBO and/or Showtime.

ESPN's NBA coverage is a great example of what its potential boxing coverage should be. Fans watching the NBA on ESPN get a healthy dose of the Miami Heat, Oklahoma City Thunder, Los Angeles Lakers, San Antonio Spurs and New York Knicks, which means LeBron James, Dwayne Wade, Kevin Durant, Kobe Bryant, Tim Duncan and Carmelo Anthony.

For boxing to work on ESPN, it's going to have to have many of the big names, too. You can rule out Mayweather or Pacquiao, because they now fight exclusively on pay-per-view.

The other fighters who are exclusive to HBO or Showtime – Gennady Golovkin, Andre Ward or Canelo Alvarez – would also likely be off-limits for the "Worldwide Leader."

That significantly would reduce the talent pool available for ESPN, and neither Golden Boy, which promotes on Showtime, nor Top Rank, which promotes mostly on HBO, would want to walk away from their current networks and give their best content to ESPN without assurances from ESPN that it is in the game for the long haul.

The result of decades without any meaningful fights on network television has been highly detrimental to boxing. The perception of the sport has changed in the public's eyes to a niche sport at best.

If ESPN or the over-the-air networks pay it no mind, how significant can it be, the viewing public asks?

And why, with multi-million and even billion-dollar commitments to the NFL and NBA, and college football and basketball, would ESPN want to risk hurting its investments there by spending on boxing fights that aren't a guarantee to perform ratings-wise?

There's little doubt that if network television or even ESPN got back to televising major bouts on a regular basis, the interest in the sport would grow and the ratings would increase.

But that would be a long, slow process and the fights would be knocking off programming that has proven to be a success in the ratings.

It would send a loud message to the world about the interest in boxing if the Arreola-Stiverne fight were to draw a significant rating, but even if it does, it's not likely going to make a material difference.

As boxing fans, we welcome ESPN's interest, but we recognize that we're almost always going to be its red-headed stepchild.

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