The Cyber Boxing Zone Newswire
I'm perplexed by the resiliency (or is it gullibility?) of the boxing public. It seems that most every boxing commentator or writer with an available soapbox is utterly disgusted and disillusioned with the disreputable state of the sport. Yet the paying public seems to take it all in stride. Is it possible that they don't feel as offended as the mouthpieces with a platform from which to cry foul?
Maybe. Or maybe its that boxing fans, perhaps more than any other sport, recognize the necessity of taking a few hits with grim determination along the way to victory. But in this age of paper champions, non-event Main Events, and Pay-Per-View fleecings, the boxing fan is taking a brutal beating.
Case in point: The François Botha vs. Shannon Briggs Pay-Per-View "event." If there is a clearer justification for pirating cable television, I've never seen it. What is the state of boxing coming to if this fight commands $30? I wouldn't pay five bucks to see this thing, and I like Shannon Briggs. He strikes me as one of a rare breed: a fighter who comes off on camera or in print as a polite, articulate, honest athlete who can hold his ego in check. That being said, I doubt he'll ever be champion or make the money that an arrogant, ignorant, egomaniac with a bigger punch can command. Of course, Botha is certainly nothing special either, so maybe comparably equal levels of mediocrity will make for a close fight. But I'm damn sure not going to bet $30 on it.
The question is, are all these Naderesque rants about the boxing public getting screwed while promoters prostitute the soul of boxing for PPV revenues overstating the issue? After all, consider the escalation of money influence in other sports. Certainly there is concern about salary caps in football or stadium financing in baseball, but nobody is preaching the imminent demise of the national pastime.
The difference is that rising costs in the sport of boxing land squarely on the shoulders of the fans. Sure, its outrageous that I had to fork over $3.75 for a 20oz. Bottle of water at Shea stadium a few weeks ago, but at least I knew that the ticket price (which, by the way, was less than any PPV boxing event I've seen advertised this year - and they were decent seats) would get me a full nine innings of baseball, barring meteorological interference. The fact that the Mets are paying Mike Piazza more than the GPN of the home countries of half the players in the majors hasn't seriously effected the cost of my seat. And I got a free tee-shirt too! TV is footing the bill for Mike's modest wages. Commercial revenues allow me to see the big players for no extra charge. Thanks to Nike, Gatorade, McDonalds, or whoever the hell else forked over so I don't have to.
But big time boxing didn't get invited to the network money dance. Instead, we have the Pay-Per-View scourge. On the surface its not such a bad idea; sort of factory-direct sponsorship, if you will. The conventional route sees your money going to a consumer product company, who then buys commercial time with a network, who then signs a broadcast contract with a team. Ideally, PPV streamlines this process. This 'cut out the middleman' approach has your dollar skipping over the consumer product company and the network, going straight to the promoter.
Okay, except: when McDonalds or Nike runs a commercial during a free network broadcast of a ballgame, it might hypnotize me into buying their product but at least I get a burger and a pair of sneakers out of the deal regardless of how the game turns out. With Pay-Per-View, if the fight goes 90 seconds or 12 rounds I'm still out $30-$50, and I go hungry and barefoot either way. And if that weren't enough, the cost of PPV events is so out of control it actually costs more to see a fight on TV than it does to see a ballgame in person!
Fortunately all is not lost. So-called "premium" cable channels take up some of the slack. Being a movie nut in addition to a boxing fan, I'd fork over for HBO and Showtime anyway, so getting their boxing coverage is almost the same as free, for me at least. And I imagine there are folks out there who are enticed to pick these pay networks over others due to their boxing coverage. But by and large, the marketability of boxing continues to go unexploited. ESPN2 tries to make a go of it, but their fights are, for the most part, less than compelling for a primetime Friday Night lineup. After all, it takes a lot to draw the attention of the oh-so-discerning American TV audience from gems like Nash Bridges.
Obviously the big ticket fights would require a big budget network investment. But with as many folks as shell out for PPV events, and as many more who gripe about how they'd watch a fight if it weren't for the fact that first round KO PPVs are a rip-off, you'd think this would be a no-brainer. Why then are there no takers? My guess: as shameful as some of boxing's more recent big fights have been, few companies want to be associated with them. Can you imagine if McDonalds had run a spot between rounds of somebody chomping into a burger during Tyson Holyfield II? That's the kind of image that haunts ad execs for life. So I grudgingly accept the reality that title-fights are unlikely to preempt "Must-See-TV" any time in the foreseeable future.
But wait a minute, there have to be a couple networks out there with low enough morals to look past the image and see the dollar-signs. How many times have we boxing fans had to suffer the indignity of having the sweet science compared to professional wrestling? I say, rather than follow our initial impulse to vehemently oppose this comparison (and provide the offender with a first hand demonstration that while pro wrestling is undeniably fake, boxing is quite satisfyingly real), why not exploit that comparison.
Consider this: pro wrestling, despite its laughable content and sewer-level image, is just about the most profitable weekly TV programming these days. If the WWF can make money hand over fist, why not boxing? Think about it. Pro Wrestling runs a hand full of weekly shows between the two major sanctioning bodies, supplemented by a Pay-Per-View event every couple months. Most importantly, the network stuff isn't just the second-stringers; the title-holders show up most every week. It seems to me that boxing could take a cue from this format and put some title defenses on TV if only to generate interest in the big PPV fights.
Now before I start getting death threats from boxing purists, let me clarify my position here. I'm not suggesting that boxing should start scripting the outcomes of bouts, nor am I suggesting that boxing should adopt the asinine back stories or stupid good-guy bad-guy stuff. But making boxing more commercially viable can only benefit the average fan. Take the issue of contracts. The practice of fighters signing contracts with promoters has brought us to the unhappy situation that we now find ourselves in where promoters refuse to sign their fighters to good fights because they fear a loss of future profits. The procession of bums that most promising prospects see in their first 20 fights is pathetic.
The only reason this travesty is accepted is that there is no marketing force to combat it. What would the NFL's ratings look like if Randy Moss only took the field when the Vikings played sub .500 teams? How many half-time shows would Reebok sponsor if that kind of thing went on? Why then is it accepted in boxing, and more importantly, what is the alternative? Well, we're starting to see it already. Several big ticket fighters have signed multifight contracts with networks like HBO. The advantage here is that HBO's interest is in televising fights that people want to see rather than fights that pad a fighter's stats. HBO isn't going to stay with a fighter that loses them viewers, which puts pressure on a fighter to make an exciting fight rather than just chalk up another KO.
So lets take it to the next step as wrestling has done: have the sanctioning body sign a contract with a network. Not the behind-the-scenes shady arrangements that we see now between the IBF and Don King and Showtime, but a straightforward and consistent deal for network TV rights that includes provisions for exposure according to honest ranking and public demand. With the pressure to perform that a commercial environment would create, no one could afford a crooked ranking system. The sponsors wouldn't stand for it.
What about the issue of rival sanctioning bodies, you ask? Fair enough. That is certainly yet another stain on the reputation of Pro Wrestling, with two networks running two competing sanctioning bodies. But I think we would all have to agree that even if two organizations were distilled from the alphabet soup of titles currently out there in boxing, it would be a vast improvement. Given the realities of the sport of boxing, being that there are only so many stars and that they can and should only fight a limited number of bouts a year, the parallel to wrestling is only a loose one. But I think there are enough good fights to be made that boxing could support a couple hours of TV time per week. And I guess I can tolerate a PPV every couple months for a truly significant bout without throwing a Nader-esque tirade, but I better get a free tee-shirt, damn it!