Boxing's 2011 TV Ratings: Numbers and Analysis for HBO, Showtime, ESPN and Pay-Per-View

Bernard Hopkins and Jean Pascal drew over 1.8 million viewers on May 21. (Photo by Richard Wolowicz/Getty Images)

One of the things I am highly interested in as a boxing fan and blogger, that I know some of you aren't interested in that much, is how the sport does with TV ratings. Sadly, it's not that easy to find the numbers, and there are numerous reasons why.

For one thing, boxing's TV ratings are quite low compared to the TV ratings that usually get reported on consistently -- network TV, mainstream sports, highly popular cable shows like "Jersey Shore" or "The Closer," etc. Even the more popular premium cable shows, like HBO's "True Blood," do ratings that blow boxing out of the water. "Jersey Shore" is watched by seven million people. That would be an absolute pipe dream for boxing on American television. So would ESPN's ratings for the first preseason NFL game aired this year, which did 4.4 million viewers. Boxing is a fringe sport. No matter what great successes there are in promoting a couple of pay-per-view fights each year, or the talk of upticks in HBO's viewership (more on that later) for boxing in 2011, the reason that people who don't watch boxing say that "nobody watches boxing" is simple: When you compare it to truly popular sports or truly popular TV, nobody is watching boxing.

That said, I watch boxing, and I assume you do, too, since you're here. And despite the difficulty in actually getting numbers you can be certain are 100% accurate, I decided to do my best to wrangle up some numbers this year, because I assume at least a couple of you are also interested in this topic. Let's take a look at how boxing has performed with these samples on HBO, Showtime, ESPN and pay-per-view in 2011.

Friday_night_fights_logo_medium ESPN Friday Night Fights

This is the show I'm actually most interested in ratings-wise. HBO will always have their viewers. I would wager that the vast majority of the HBO boxing audience with any fight is comprised of people who are HBO subscribers in large part simply because they offer high-level boxing on a regular basis.

But the Friday Night Fights series on ESPN2 is far more of a crapshoot. Given that it's a basic cable station, you are bound to have more casual fans, at least in terms of percentage, tuning in perhaps because nothing else is on, or they get drawn in for whatever reason while they're flipping channels. This is interesting because with the budget constraints at ESPN, you aren't getting marquee matchups. These shows are not built around star power, they aren't promoted very well at all, and the best you can hope for as a diehard boxing fan is that you get good fights.

I think we can all agree that this season of Friday Night Fights has been terrific. There have been some excellent fights, a lot of upsets, and mostly very good matchmaking along the way.

I haven't been able to track down every show's rating for this year, but a good chunk of them, and these are all from Nielsen, as published by TV by the Numbers or Son of the Bronx:

Date Main Event Viewers
1/7 Ruslan Provodnikov vs Mauricio Herrera 545,000
1/14 Peter Manfredo Jr vs Daniel Edouard 788,000
1/28 Chris Arreola vs Joey Abell 734,000
2/4 Sergio Mora vs Brian Vera 611,000
2/11 Antonin Decarie vs Shamone Alvarez 475,000
2/18 Fernando Guerrero vs Derrick Findley 603,000
3/4 Ismayl Sillakh vs Yordanis Despaigne 596,000
3/18 Brad Solomon vs Demetrius Hopkins 522,000
3/25 Erislandy Lara vs Carlos Molina 421,000
4/22 Breidis Prescott vs Bayan Jargal 706,000
5/13 Kendall Holt vs Julio Diaz 347,000
7/8 Jesus Gonzales vs Francisco Sierra 549,000
7/15 Pawel Wolak vs Delvin Rodriguez 525,000
7/22 Anthony Dirrell vs Kevin Engel 545,000
7/29 Lamont Peterson vs Victor Cayo 539,000


There are a couple of fights that really stand out here:

  • Manfredo vs Edouard did the year's highest rating, or at least the year's highest rating that I could find. That might seem surprising, but Manfredo has a legitimate fanbase in his neck of the woods, and with that fight being held in Key West, not many of them went to see it live. I'm guessing they watched on TV.
  • Holt vs Diaz did a terrible rating. So terrible that I went around the various sites to make sure it wasn't a typo. That's unfortunate, and seems more like a freak occurrence than anything else.
  • Also unfortunate is that 20,000 more people watched the Dirrell vs Engel mismatch than the previous week's Fight of the Year candidate between Pawel Wolak and Delvin Rodriguez, but ESPN also replayed that fight the next week before Dirrell vs Engel. That didn't, in black-and-white terms, impact the Dirrell-Engel number, but I'm guessing that some who tuned in for the hyped replay of a FotY contender did stick around, and some of those people may not have been intending to watch that week. Or maybe they were, I don't know.
  • I will also admit I was very surprised by the strong showing for Breidis Prescott vs Bayan Jargal on April 22, which may go to show that while I think anyone who is using proper logic realizes that Prescott is in no way the fighter he once appeared to be for 54 seconds of his life, most people probably only know that he beat Amir Khan one time. They probably didn't see Kevin Mitchell beat him easily, they probably didn't see Miguel Vazquez beat him, they probably haven't seen how pedestrian he usually looks, and if they have on the latter, maybe they just don't care.

Hbo-world-boxing-header_medium HBO World Championship Boxing & Boxing After Dark

John Chavez of The Boxing Truth is one of the few out there who consistently looks at boxing ratings, and he has had some difficulties understanding exactly what HBO numbers are this year. I really recommend reading this whole article, but here's a snippet:

[T]he 1.4 million live viewership figure that ESPN and Boxingscene reported on behalf of HBO quickly following Alvarez-Hatton did not coincide with the 920,000 live viewership ratings I received from Nielsen Media the week following the fight. ... However, just to make sure that all figures being reported have a certain level of clarity when compared to figures in the past... today I re-requested the ratings figure for Saul Alvarez vs. Matthew Hatton from the new Nielsen contact. The "new" figure from Nielsen is 1.381 million "live" viewers. The figure is explained as "live + same day". ... This fact checking explains how and why the perceived ratings have seen a semi-dramatic upswing in recent times. It appears as though a change has occurred in the manner in which the ratings figures are compiled and reported.

This is very important information to consider. The numbers that HBO releases are now the same as the numbers that Nielsen is releasing. Chavez assumes, and I would have to guess he's 100% right, that it is simply a reflection of the way that the data is compiled, as stated in the article. But the Alvarez vs Hatton thing from March was a mild controversy for the few of us who care about this stuff. They were touting 1.4 million, which was not the number that Nielsen gave for the live airing, which was a far lesser 920K. That's a big difference. But now the HBO numbers are being calculated as "live + same day" -- since that's how they're being reported now, that's what we'll go with.

These numbers are mostly from Chavez and The Boxing Truth, and from the previously-linked Son of the Bronx, and all are Nielsen numbers.

Date Main Event Viewers
1/29 Timothy Bradley vs Devon Alexander 1,345,000
2/19 Fernando Montiel vs Nonito Donaire 1,020,000
3/5 Saul Alvarez vs Matthew Hatton 1,381,000
4/16 Andre Berto vs Victor Ortiz 1,542,000
5/21 Jean Pascal vs Bernard Hopkins II 1,837,000
6/4 Sebastian Zbik vs Julio Cesar Chavez Jr 1,497,000
6/18 Saul Alvarez vs Ryan Rhodes 1,550,000
7/2 Wladimir Klitschko vs David Haye (Same-Day Replay) 1,242,000


HBO notes:

  • There are no concrete numbers on what the Klitschko vs Haye live airing did. At one point, Dan Rafael of ESPN.com mentioned in one of his weekly chats that HBO was very happy with the number, and floated a possible number of three million or more for live + same-day replay. I'm guessing that's probably a stretch, because I don't think approximately 1.8 million people watched that fight on the Saturday of Independence Day weekend at 4:45 p.m. eastern. I just don't see it. Did they crack two million combined? Probably, but not three. I do assume that this was the most-watched fight of the year on U.S. television when you combine the live airing and the prime time airing.
  • Son of the Bronx has ratings for the 7/9 and 7/23 shows, too, but they weren't presented in the flat fashion of the others, so I'm putting those below.
  • On July 9, HBO had a double-header with Paul Williams vs Erislandy Lara in the main event. At 10:16 there were 644,000 viewers; at 10:25 there were 789,000 viewers; and at 10:52 there were 940,000 viewers. That rounds out to an average of 791,000 viewers for the night. There's a reason besides the robbery of Lara that you never heard much more about that show from HBO.
  • July 23 was the Amir Khan vs Zab Judah show. Numbers there were 1.056 million at 10:01; 1.417 million at 10:25; and 1.269 million at 10:44. That's an average of 1.247 million viewers, which is pretty good, and is by far Judah's most-watched fight in recent memory, and almost surely the last time he'll ever top a million. His two fights on U.S. TV in 2010 had either mediocre ratings (his ESPN fight with Jose Armando Santa Cruz) or could be fairly described as a flop (his HBO fight with Lucas Matthysse).

Showtime Championship Boxing

Showtime's numbers are rarely reported. They don't make a big deal out of press releases or number-feeding, because frankly they don't have enough viewers to brag about anything. And most of the sites out there who do monitor premium cable ratings don't monitor Showtime very closely. It's not that they draw bad ratings, you understand, just that their subscriber base is nowhere near what HBO has, and they're just not held in quite the same regard. That's not a shot at Showtime. The way they operate is different, their expectations are different, and they don't invest the sort of money HBO does in fights. It's a different ballgame. I was only able to find two numbers from this year:

Date Main Event Viewers
2/26 Miguel Acosta vs Brandon Rios 709,000
5/14 Andre Ward vs Arthur Abraham 610,000


So I think you can sort of see why Showtime doesn't release numbers, and why it's hard to even find anything on their ratings. Keep in mind that Ward vs Abraham also had the Pacquiao vs Mosley replay, which did numbers that were less than the Ward vs Abraham live fight, and utterly pale in comparison to what HBO generally does for major event PPV replays. The replay of Pacquiao vs Margarito on November 20, 2010, drew 1.3 million viewers on HBO, and that night's live fight (Sergio Martinez vs Paul Williams II) also did 1.3 million viewers.

Pay-Per-View

People will always doubt any reported PPV number in boxing. Unless you're getting the numbers direct from the sources -- HBO or Showtime, certainly not the promoters involved -- it's hard to trust. There have been only three PPVs promoted by the Big Two this year, and these are the numbers that floated around.

  • Boxing's only major event thus far in 2011 has been Pacquiao vs Mosley on May 7, which did around 1.3 million buys for Showtime PPV. This was considered a strong success given that Mosley was a known underdog, a risk was taken by putting the fight in the hands of Showtime/CBS instead of HBO, and the 1.3 million is Pacquiao's most-bought PPV to date. Editor's Note: I received an email that noted, as I believe and most do, that the number is highly suspect. I thought I should clarify that here: The 1.3 million was reported at ESPN but sourced by Bob Arum. There will always be doubt unless there's something more concrete than the promoter, and Showtime never announced a number.
  • The March 12 Showtime PPV main evented by Miguel Cotto and Ricardo Mayorga had a rumored buy number of 200,000. Some were skeptical, but it doesn't sound absurd to me at all. Cotto is a very popular fighter, one of the few who can consistently draw both at the gate and on TV in the United States.
  • The April 9 show from HBO didn't really belong on pay-per-view, and HBO and Golden Boy kept their lips zipped about any PPV numbers. Steve Kim mentioned on Twitter on April 15 that he was told the fight did under 50,000 buys on pay-per-view, which is dismal for anything with HBO backing, but the reality is that the show was not promoted well, and the general feeling going in was that it was going to be a one-way main event with predictable undercard fights. Those who did buy surely didn't regret what wound up being a pretty decent show with a very good main event, but with PPV it's not about what they're saying after, it's about getting them to buy in the first place.

Pay-per-view is going to be a much bigger part of the final third of 2011 in boxing, as HBO is presenting Mayweather vs Ortiz (9/17), Hopkins vs Dawson (10/15), and Pacquiao vs Marquez III (11/12). It will also be either HBO or Showtime PPV behind Cotto vs Margarito II (12/3).

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