New NBC boxing series comes with big 'if', but potential is huge

Kevin Iole
Yahoo Sports

A day after the long-awaited bout between Floyd Mayweather Jr. and Manny Pacquiao moved a step closer to reality, boxing received yet another shot in the arm on Wednesday.

NBC Sports held a glitzy news conference in the Saturday Night Live studio in New York to announce a high-end boxing series on NBC that will include five cards a year in prime time.

Since word of boxing manager Al Haymon's plan leaked last year to put fights on network television, there has been great speculation about the level of the fights and whether it would be good for boxing.

Danny Garcia walks to his corner after knocking down Rod Salka in August. (Getty)
Danny Garcia walks to his corner after knocking down Rod Salka in August. (Getty)

But the news about what will be known as the "Premier Boxing Champions" series rates an A-minus and not an A-plus only because it's going to require a consistent schedule of top-end cards like the ones announced Tuesday. Time will tell.

Al Michaels will serve as the host for the 11 fights that will be broadcast on NBC. Six of those will be on Saturday afternoons and five will be held in prime time, beginning at 9 p.m. Eastern. Boxing Hall of Famer Sugar Ray Leonard will serve as the analyst.

In addition, there will be nine shows on the NBC Sports Network.

The series will have a score created specifically for it by Academy Award-winning composer Hans Zimmer. All fighters will be tracked medically by the Cleveland Clinic and will participate in a ground-breaking brain health study being led in Las Vegas by Dr. Charles Bernic,k and they'll be randomly drug tested.

The first show will be March 7 at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas, featuring what should be two excellent fights. Keith Thurman will meet Robert Guerrero in one of the televised bouts that night on NBC, while Adrien Broner will face John Molina in the other.

One fight was announced for the second card, which will be April 11 on NBC, and that, too, is a spectacular match on paper. Danny Garcia will meet Lamont Peterson in a clash of two of the elite 140-pounders in the world.

This will work, and NBC will get ratings, if Haymon continues to deliver these kinds of matches and not the type that feature a star versus a no-hoper. Broner will be a solid favorite against Molina, and even though on paper that's the least competitive of the three matches announced, Molina comes to fight and should force Broner to work.

But Guerrero-Thurman and Garcia-Peterson are A-plus-type matches that could easily headline a card on either HBO or Showtime, which for the last 25 years have had a stranglehold on these kinds of bouts.

Jon Miller, the president of programming for NBC Sports and the cable NBC Sports Network, told Yahoo Sports that this is the standard the series will set in terms of fight action.

"Not only am I not concerned [that the quality of the matches may drop], but I'm anticipating that the next fight we do after this will be just as big, if not bigger," Miller said. "I have every reason to believe from what our conversations have been and the way we've dealt with our partners that they're going to continue this level of prime-time exposure with these kinds of fights.

Adrien Broner returns to his corner after his fight with Carlos Molina in May. (USAT)
Adrien Broner returns to his corner after his fight with Carlos Molina in May. (USAT)

"The one thing I know I can deliver, I can deliver marketing, promotion and great production. It's up to our partners, and I think they understand that, to deliver great fights."

Haymon had to come out of the gate strong, and he did. There were many promises of innovative production techniques that weren't specifically addressed, but NBC has always done high-level production of sports, so that's no surprise.

The fact that a legendary announcer like Michaels would get involved suggests it's not going to be a series of mismatches and B-level fights.

Part of gaining an audience is not only making quality matches, but making fans know the fighters better. Expect to see NBC do great behind-the-scenes features to familiarize the audience with the athletes.

One of the reasons that Leonard remains such an icon a quarter-century after his career ended is because so much of his career played out on network television.

Many of his amateur fights were televised on network TV and by the time he won Olympic gold in 1976, he was a household name and as familiar a face as there was in sports.

That's the next step for this series, to take the fighters and tell their stories to the public. This is going to mean the fighters themselves are going to have to be more open and, in some cases, more accessible.

That is essential to promoting, marketing and developing familiarity, and it sounds as if Haymon gets it.

"It's exciting news that NBC is broadcasting the Premier Boxing Champions series, bringing elite professional boxing to millions of sports fans on free network television in prime time," said Lamont Jones, the vice president of operations for Haymon Boxing Management. "Today's terrific young fighters deserve a wider audience and broader exposure.

"The PBC series will feature technology and protocols that set heightened standards of excellence with respect to fighter safety, the integrity of competition and the quality of the viewing experience. … We're confident that the excellence of the fighters, the compelling stories of their individual journeys and the quality of the PBC series fights will captivate the imagination of the public."

Lamont Peterson will be featured on NBC's Premier Boxing Champions series. (AP)
Lamont Peterson will be featured on NBC's Premier Boxing Champions series. (AP)

It will … if.

It will if the level of fights on NBC continues to have matches that meet or exceed the quality of those that have been found regularly on HBO and Showtime.

It will if the name fighters appear three to four times a year on NBC, as Jones promised they would.

It will if NBC treats the boxing series like it treats the NHL and the Premier League and regularly markets and promotes it on all of its platforms.

On Sept. 15, 1978, Muhammad Ali fought Leon Spinks in a rematch for the heavyweight title at the Superdome in New Orleans. The fight was broadcast live in prime time on ABC and drew an estimated audience of 90 million. There were 63,350 fans in attendance at the Superdome.

That quality of fight is now put on pay-per-view without a second thought. Miller's answer to a Yahoo Sports question about whether that level of fight could be possible on NBC is tantalizing.

"I think that's what we're hoping; that's what we're aspiring to," Miller said. "Will we get all the way there? Well, let's see, but certainly that's the aspiration that both us and the PBC have, to put on the best fights with the best fighters.

" … Every one of these guys [who will appear on the PBC series] aspires to be a Thomas Hearns, a Sugar Ray Leonard and a Roberto Duran, and that's what we're going to hopefully help these guys to achieve."

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