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Why did U.S. networks avoid the World Boxing Super Series?

We don’t know exactly why, but there are plenty of potential reasons.

World Boxing Super Series semifinals: Murat Gassiev vs Yunier Dorticos Photo by Valery Sharifulin\TASS via Getty Images

Boxing fans have been more than pleased with the last two World Boxing Super Series cruiserweight semifinals, with the wins by Oleksandr Usyk and Murat Gassiev both being pegged as better than average scraps, with a fan-friendly blend of back-and-forth action, and volume, and a minimum of hugging and holding. And there were no judging controversies!

All in all, any executive would have been happy to placed them on their airwaves, or whatever we are today calling jumbo platforms with wide-spread scale and breadth. HBO, Showtime, yep, the WBSS tangos would have been judged as thumbs-up wins by Peter Nelson and Stephen Espinoza, on surface.

As self-contained units of entertainment, these fights were winners…

But rarely is there such a thing as a “self-contained unit of entertainment.” The jobs of Nelson and Espinoza are a bit more complex than we on the sideline might like to believe. All of us, I dare say, at some time or another, daydream, and ponder what it might be like to have the power, and the budget, to make up a schedule of fights we’d like to see.

But it often isn’t so simple as just being offered a fight, and quickly agreeing on a price, and then waiting for the inevitable masterpiece to play out to vehement hurrahs. Fights come with tags attached, not just price tags, but accompanying add-ons. Execs are trying to figure out the lay of the land in the near future, the future, and later. Just buying a single bout can on surface seem appealing, but ideally, executives like to have a plan, maybe even a semi-cohesive one, which lends stability to the enterprise, and their position at the helm.

On the other side of the table, sharks are there, and aren’t weak negotiators. “Sure, you can have Jones this fight...but I’d be appreciative if you also used my guy Smith next time.” (And left unsaid is, “And if you want Jones you GOTTA use shitbum Smith.”)

I poked around some, talked to people in the know, to try and get a better sense of why we didn’t see the WBSS on HBO or Showtime. From HBO, I heard back that at “HBO we do not comment on discussions” of this sort. Truth; you just don’t really see Team HBO getting involved in specifics regarding what fights are being negotiated, or might be negotiated. That is their corporate DNA.

At Showtime, Stephen Espinoza is a more free-wheeling personality than his HBO counterpart, and you will hear him at times touching on subjects his rival Nelson wouldn’t. However, on this occasion, Team SHO didn’t choose to go on record about this subject.

But in talking to some people who have some familiarity with how operations at each place works, I did come up with some thoughts that can I think help us comprehend why the last two WBSS semis found themselves streaming on Facebook to fans in the U.S.

—Generally, the WBSS wasn’t hatched with American TV in mind. Hello, the only U.S. boxer involved in the 168 or 200 and under classes was Rob Brant. Yes, the world is flatter, and more foreign fighters are embraced, but on both cablers, Americans are the focal point, because, hello, people are still inclined to root for people they identify with, culturally.

—As for having that final on U.S. TV, on the pay cable titans’ air, have you checked out the time difference between Saudi Arabia, where the Ukrainian Usyk and the Russian Gassiev will tussle? The Saudis are eight hours ahead of me in New York, so a May 11 fight booked in SA or 9 PM on Saturday night, it would be 1 PM here. Nah, you don’t see that time slot free on HBO or SHO. But, you say, the cablers will show bouts from the U.K., and London is five hours ahead of us, and they figure that out! Indeed; an 11 PM start on a Brit show means they show it here at 6 PM, which is what it is. The time differences aren’t extreme, and they’ve figured out over the years that it works for their programmers, and their subscribers. The Saudi time difference is a bit of a wild card, maybe.

—You might have heard that the whole WBSS was pitched as a package, if you were being pitched the package, and the sites hadn’t been chosen, were you going to gamble and hope that time zones and such would work out? What if you had bought the package, before the site of the final was determined/settled, and then the final, you were told, would be playing out at 1 PM Saturday afternoon. After you’d invested heavily, the “payoff” was diminished, and, in fact, hadn’t been solidified. Too much uncertainty for such a heavy investment, arguably. No bueno.

—Talented scribbler Gabe Oppenheim looked at this subject, and noted that prior relationships to a degree or another might well have influenced where these fights did or didn’t land in the States. Did Showtime not want to buy any of these fights because Al Haymon said they shouldn’t, because he’s not on-board, all-in with Schaefer, who was handling trying to place these bouts on a jumbo U.S. platform, for a commensurate check to Team WBSS? Well, Haymon isn’t commenting on that theory, or any theory, so we can’t say, from the Haymon side of the street. And then, over at HBO, would there be any fallout from Golden Boy divorce proceedings, which saw Schaefer and former friend Oscar De La Hoya part ways on terms which insure no Christmas cards will be exchanged, maybe forever? Stranger things have happened than the personal affecting the political affecting the business. Business is so often about relationships, after all. But you’d not get anyone on record to say, I don’t think, though, that the fact that HBO does lots of business with Oscar De La Hoya means that they will not ever have anything to do with a product touted by Schaefer. Maybe just not before 2020 or something.

—You all know that Showtime has made clear that they are going to focus on some weight classes more than others, right? To their credit, they’ve shown admirable focus in making meaningful fights for lighter weight guys, trying to cook up rivalries and rumbles for Leo Santa Cruz, Abner Mares, Carl Frampton, and such. And you saw them trying to make sense of and generate drama in putting together top guns at 154, and seeing rivalries coalesce. They’ve been working on those areas of interest for awhile. 168 and cruiserweight, those haven’t so much been their target areas. So, in committing to dates and monetary allocations for 168 and cruiser fights, with promoters and managers they maybe haven’t developed a comfort zone with, we can understand those elements as reasons to shy away from going all in on the WBSS.

—We had “Raging Babe” Michelle Rosado on the Everlast “Talkbox” podcast and we touched on the WBSS platform situation. Rosado pointed out that maybe it isn’t such a bad thing, how this played out. For crying out loud, in this day and age, everyone and their dimwit brother can log on to a computer and find a stream on Facebook. And it’s not like this stream was iffy and choppy, it was clean and clear. Maybe this development just hastened a push, a move in one direction; i.e. to Team Stream.

—Might a, say, ESPN pick up the May 11 Saudi Arabia-based finale? Because HBO and SHO don’t seem to be on target to grab this low hanging (but perhaps too costly) piece of fruit? I messaged an ESPN spokesperson, who told me “I’m not aware of this,” so I’m thinking they aren’t in the mix to stream it at this point, but maybe that changes. I also left a message with Richard Schaefer, who tried to sell the WBSS package to the conglomerates, on Wednesday afternoon and try and get an update and hadn’t heard back at press time.

So there you go, basically it boils down to we don’t know all that we might like to know. The boxing business and yes, life, is often like that. We often resort to educated (hopefully) guesses, and go from there. I do think that after how this first WBSS has played out, the next edition will be featured on a large U.S. platform. Who knows, maybe one we haven’t seen in the game, yet. Amazon has more money than they could spend, and live sports is a solid draw, with boxing being an easy entry into the genre.

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