NEW YORK – Over the last two months Al Haymon, the powerful advisor who represents more than 150 fighters, has charted an unprecedented course, purchasing air time on NBC, CBS, Spike TV and, most recently, Bounce TV platforms that, along with Showtime, will be used to launch his fledgling series, Premier Boxing Champions (PBC). In inking multiyear deals with the networks, Haymon has done what no promoter has been able to accomplish in decades: Bring high profile fights to terrestrial television.
The series, which kicks off on Saturday with a show headlined by a welterweight fight between Keith Thurman and Robert Guerrero (NBC, 8:30 p.m.) from Las Vegas, brings unprecedented exposure to a flagging sport. Boxing has long struggled to establish a foothold with a mainstream audience. Major fights were limited to HBO and Showtime with the largest events shifting to pay-per-view. In recent years both Fox Sports 1 and NBC have made commitments to smaller boxing series but nothing that compares to the investment Haymon, who is backed by private financing, is making in the sport. Under Haymon’s model, boxing cards will be available on network or basic cable 2-3 times per month.
"It’s very big, amazingly imaginative and clearly visionary,” says Seth Abraham, the former president of HBO Sports. “I don’t remember any deals that have been anything like this.”
Among Haymon’s motives for establishing the PBC, industry insiders say, is this: Creating a monopoly in the sport. For more than a century, boxing has been divided by rival promoters sharing the top talent. Haymon’s goal, many believe, is to bring all the talent under one umbrella. To do it, Haymon is consuming all the developmental real estate, specifically lower budget dates on Spike TV, Bounce TV and NBC Sports Network. In addition, Haymon is close to a deal with ESPN for a similar time-buy that could be worth around $8 million, according to industry sources.
“Television is the lifeblood of this business,” Abraham said. “It’s the high octane oil of boxing. If you can promise fighters they will be on television, you can sign an awful lot of them.”
Promoters—the smaller ones, in particular—are now placed in a difficult position. The larger companies, Top Rank and Golden Boy, have the stable and the resources to compete in a new marketplace. Roc Nation is a backed by rap mogul Jay-Z and has two tent pole fighters in Andre Ward and Miguel Cotto. All three are providers to HBO, which remains an industry leader. And some smaller promoters—Lou DiBella, Leon Margules, Goossen Promotions—have aligned with Haymon, collecting fees for nominally promoting the shows.
Smaller, independent promoters—Main Events, Star Boxing, Banner Promotions, among others—are suddenly left searching for outlets to broadcast fights.
“It’s created a difficult landscape,” says Joe DeGuardia, president of Star Boxing. “We get our license fees from networks. There are not going to be many license fees out there. It will be very difficult. A lot of promoters will fall by the wayside.”
“I had two conversations with executives from networks that supported boxing in the past, and they both said the exact same words,” says Kathy Duva, CEO of Main Events. “It was ‘Now that boxing is strictly a time buy sport we are going to be looking for money going forward.’ That is the worst thing that can happen.”
A true monopoly in boxing is impossible. One great fighter is worth 50 good ones, and intrepid promoters will scour the globe for the next star. For Main Events, it’s a Sergey Kovalev; for Banner, it’s Ruslan Provodnikov. Still, to sustain a deep stable, smaller promoters will need support. And there is just one entity with the resources to do it: HBO.
For years, HBO has marketed itself as a home for big stars in big fights. Its flagship series, World Championship Boxing, routinely pulls in high ratings. So, too, does its secondary series, Boxing After Dark, which also regularly features notable names. Combined, both series total 10-15 fights per year. Yet in 2011, the network, then run by Ross Greenburg, developed a plan for a smaller, developmental series. This series, which would be broadcast on HBO2, would air once a month and would be financed by moderate, $150,000 license fees. When Greenburg left the company that summer, the series was shelved. Today, promoters hope that HBO—which does not do business with Haymon—will be willing to dust it off.
“It’s vital for the industry,” says DeGuardia. “And it has been successful before. It’s actually surprising that HBO has been able to develop stars on such a limited platform. By creating another platform you could keep fighters busy and develop a feeder program. I certainly believe that would work.”
Added Artie Pelullo, president of Banner Promotions, “Look, they need [another series] as much as the promoters. [Haymon] is as much of a threat to them as he is other promoters. If he is able to lock in all these networks, these fighters, there will be less of an open marketplace for HBO. They understand there are difficult times ahead. In order for them to have quality programming, they need to support the smaller promoters. We will be bringing them the product.”
HBO’s resistance to a new series is twofold. First, despite having the framework for a smaller series in 2011, the network historically has been in the big fight business, a philosophy that has helped establish HBO as a boxing power. There is also a fear that guaranteeing promoters dates will lead to a poor product. Those fears, Duva says, are unwarranted.
“Networks want to make the most competitive fight on paper,” says Duva. “But the way to develop talent is to make cross roads fights where guys can learn. You need to have them and you need to know you are going to have them. You have to choose promoters you are comfortable working with, give them some dates and see what they can do.”
Besides developing a farm system, Abraham suggests HBO seek a foothold in the Olympic ranks. In 1992, Abraham approached NBC with an idea: Let HBO televise Olympic boxing in prime time. HBO would pay NBC a fee. They would pay for all the production. If a fight was particularly compelling, NBC would get a quick turnaround on a delay. As a sweetener, Abraham says, if HBO succeeded in signing any of the ’92 Olympians the networks would cut NBC in on pay per view revenue taken out of HBO’s take. Ultimately, NBC passed. Abraham made the same pitch in ’96. NBC passed again.
“What is the biggest vitamin that boxing could take? The Olympics,” says Abraham. “Of course you need to get lucky. You need a Cassius Clay, a Sugar Ray Leonard, an Oscar De La Hoya to come out of it. But for HBO, it’s worth going to NBC to try to figure out a deal.”
The changed landscape will be good for boxing, at least in the short term. Mass audiences will be exposed to boxing in ways they never have before. It’s a bold move by Haymon—“I wish I was able to do it,” says DeGuardia—that sends a strong, adapt-or-die message to the boxing industry. “It’s going to make people work harder,” says Pelullo. “Hey, maybe that’s not a bad thing.”