When Top Rank announced that they would be returning for at least two shows per week starting in early June, some fans had optimistic hope that boxing could come back with a bang as far as TV ratings go.
After all, there’s really been no live sports competition, and the public, supposedly, are “starved” for sports of any kind.
If you’re a regular reader and/or commenter here, you’ll know I didn’t share that optimism. My guess was the opposite, that boxing’s status as a niche sport 90 percent of the time in such a turbulent environment overall would lead to either the same numbers as normal, or even a dip.
It’s been a dip.
We’ve seen a month of return action now. A total of 12 Top Rank-branded cards have aired live on ESPN, 10 from Las Vegas on Tuesdays and Thursdays, and two from Mexico City late on Saturday nights.
We’ll focus on the average numbers, because those are easiest to find — peaks, of course, are better, but a lot of them haven’t been dramatically higher than the averages, either, and compared to an average ESPN boxing broadcast in less, you know, dumpster fire times, these are all poor numbers, but that has been going for most non-news shows on TV, too.
Now to go back to my gloomy prediction turning out to be right, I want to add two things:
- I wish I had been wrong! Believe me, this isn’t any good for us, either. Lack of interest in boxing = lack of interest in the site, and that’s not what we’re aiming for here.
- When I made said prediction, we were dealing only with coronavirus as a huge news event. There have been many more stories added in, plus the continued seriousness of coronavirus as a news topic, and one that isn’t going away any time soon, and one which has absolutely devastated the sports world at large. We have added massive social unrest, notably. I think sports seem trivial to a lot of people right now. They are trivial, in the grand scheme of things, but “normally” we all have a bit more natural boredom and a bigger need to distract ourselves. There is probably still a need for distraction but not from the average day-to-day monotony of most of our lives as experienced before. Surely less people are coming home from work — less people are working — and plopping down to relax and zone out with televised hobbies and interests.
And I’m not saying any of this to rag on Top Rank or ESPN or boxing. We’ve had some good fights scattered throughout the events and everyone is doing their best, and it’s been understandable that this sort of “soft re-open” has been what we’ve gotten. Fights aren’t put together Friday and aired Tuesday, you schedule well in advance so everyone can train and whatnot, and even a month ago things were different than they are now. Top Rank dipped a toe in with hopes that this might not be a necessity too long.
That said, it’s obvious that a lack of star power isn’t helping. UFC have continued to do good numbers because even without fans in attendance they are putting their best fighters out there in the best fights they can make. Boxing doesn’t have a UFC-like league/brand, first of all, meaning the top fighters are scattered around, and nobody but Top Rank (and now Frank Warren in the UK, as of this past Friday) are even running shows yet.
And Top Rank’s biggest stars haven’t been out there. It’s not like we’ve had Tyson Fury or Terence Crawford or Vasiliy Lomachenko on the airwaves. The top name has been Shakur Stevenson, whose June 9 comeback main event has done the best average number that wasn’t a result of a late night lead-in from a UFC show that was No. 1 on cable for the night. (That is the case for Berchelt-Valenzuela, which otherwise had no business being the top rated show since the return, starting around 11:40 pm ET as it did and, you know, being an incredible mismatch main event with nothing notable on the undercard for a “casual fan.”)
So far, boxing promoters and money fighters have been reluctant to truly get things going without any live gates, which is understandable on the one hand — of course fighters don’t want to take pay cuts, and of course promoters don’t want to put on notable events without live gates to help balance the budget a bit.
Plans are there for Golden Boy, Matchroom, and PBC to get into the action by the end of this month and all will be running by August, but what they have announced (or have had strongly reported) for the time being aren’t big fights, the biggest being Matchroom’s Whyte-Povetkin card on Aug. 22.
This is increasingly clearly the reality everyone is facing, though, and continuing to wait and wait and wait on getting really any notable fighters moving again in the hopes of having a live audience becomes truly counterproductive at some point, for everyone involved. If the sport is going to keep moving along with live events happening, it needs bigger names than the Moloney twins and Jose Zepeda in main events, with respect to those fighters.
The situation sucks, period, but it sucks worse if name fighters continue to hold out or be held out, waiting on the idea of something that just isn’t going to be happening any time soon.
The savior might wind up being pay-per-view, as much as we may not want to hear that. PBC have designs on doing a few pay-per-view events by the end of 2020, and Top Rank want to at least do Lomachenko-Lopez and maybe a Bud Crawford fight, and I think for legitimately good fights, boxing fans will be willing to pony up the extra cash right now. There will still be some moaning about it — and with the economy officially Not Good it’s understandable — but there’s gotta be more of a give and take on this than there has been before.
I’m also not claiming to have any great or surefire answers right now. This is a rough time and there’s no blueprint for how to handle any of this, and boxing’s organizational shortcomings simply don’t help anything.
Keep the hopes up for better times to come, because they will. But boxing simply being “back” is not going to be good enough for too much longer, either.