The biggest news about Muhammad Ali's May 16 fight in Las Vegas against Ron Lyle, who lost his most recent match to the renowned Jimmy Young, is not the bout itself. The only thing that will make this fight significantly different from his match with Chuck Wepner a month ago is that it will be Ali's first on live, home television since he defeated Karl Mildenberger in 1966. In fact, this ABC Sports presentation will be only the fourth heavyweight title fight on live home TV in the last 10 years.
The return of heavyweight championship boxing to living-room screens has produced a publicity boom of the type that network executives usually only dream about. All that attention and the fact that the event involves Ali on Friday-night prime time has caused big ideas and numbers to circulate through the TV and boxing businesses. Before ABC announced the Ali-Lyle telecast two weeks ago, CBS and NBC also had been bidding for Ali in prime time. Even it he were not appearing opposite reruns, as he will be on ABC, the champ has the potential to deliver impressive ratings.
ABC will spend almost $1 million for the Ali-Lyle fight and an undercard featuring one or two other bouts of "championship dimensions." The network hopes to be on the air with 2½ hours of boxing that night and to sell $100,000-per-minute commercials when Ali is in action, as well as spots for small amounts during the undercard. Should the main event go 15 rounds, ABC will show a solid profit. History is on the network's side since Ali has usually taken quite a bit of time to emerge victorious.
There is justice in ABC's having the show, because it has been giving boxing fans live and taped fights on its Wide World of Sports for years. Since Ali fought Mildenberger, ABC has produced more than 80 boxing programs while the other networks have put on virtually none.
"There isn't any doubt that we are taking a rather large gamble with this show, but I think that Ali is probably the best-known person in the world right now," says ABC Sports Vice-President Jim Spence. "We intend to promote the fight as hard as we can with spots on our sports programming and during prime-time shows. This could be the last chance for viewers to see Ali live on home television, and we believe that because of our experience we will make a first-class production out of it. We may have as many as 60 people on the scene. We'll probably do a weigh-in segment and perhaps a dressing-room show after the fight."
ABC is aiming for an audience of 50 million for Ali-Lyle, and that projection could be conservative. The network used promo spots in advance of its January taped showing of the Ali-George Foreman fight with great success. Although it was aired more than two months after the event in Zaire because of promoter restrictions, an estimated 30 million watched to give Wide World its biggest rating in 14 years of broadcasting.
The Ali-Lyle fight also should help ABC's overall prime-time rating because it occurs in a "sweeps" period, a time when ratings are taken in 220 markets to determine viewer interest in the networks' programming packages. And there may be a special advantage for both Ali and Promoter Don King in turning to home TV now. At the moment, theater television—a big loser on the Ali-Wepner fight—looks like a semi-dry well. Home TV might help sell theater seats for a possible Ali-Foreman rematch from Cairo in the fall.
It just happens that Foreman will be on ABC next Saturday from Toronto against five—count 'em, five—"opponents." His schedule of five three-round exhibitions that afternoon brings up the question of whether ABC has a laugh track adequate for the event. Visually the options are intoxicating: a closeup of a corner where there is a bench, not a stool; split-screen shots showing one ambulance speeding on its way to the hospital while four others race toward the arena: Foreman standing in the middle of the ring like a quiz-show host with his opponents scattered through the arena in monogrammed bathrobes, and shouting, "Mac Foster, come on down! Terry Daniels, come on down...!"
Viewers may have to make a tough decision if they want to see Foreman and the five stooges, for CBS will be televising its ballyhooed Jimmy Connors-John Newcombe $250,000 tennis match from Las Vegas that afternoon. Although the tennis starts one hour earlier, it is almost certain that the two programs will conflict for a while, one of the rare times when two events devised especially for television will be in direct competition for important ratings.
Foreman's five opponents include Alonzo Johnson, who has not fought professionally in a decade, Foster, Daniels, Pedro Agosto and Boone Kirkman. The last four have combined to lose 12 of their last 12 fights. Such an event may outrage boxing purists, but it is so bizarre that it may be a "must-see" piece of electronic trivia. "If one of them beats me, I'll retire from boxing," says Foreman. King, who also is promoting the Toronto exhibition, says, "If the second guy knocks him out, we'll revive Foreman. He can't retire from boxing until he beats the other three."
Should Lyle upset Ali, or one of the stooges cause Foreman even more embarrassment, then TV and boxing conceivably could rekindle a love affair beneficial to both the networks and the sport.