Showtime and two dozen fighters put the sweet science in the spotlight today, announcing 12 world-title fights scheduled to air on the premium network during the first half of 2018 in an event they labeled a “boxing upfront.”
Because Showtime has no advertisers, the event wasn’t like other upfronts, which feature TV programmers pitching their wares to ad buyers. This splashy presentation at Cipriani 42nd Street featured the 24 combatants in the year’s Premier Boxing Champions slate, with many of the tropes familiar to fight fans: stare-downs, hype, gigantic belts hoisted on shoulders. But it also underscored boxing’s power to fight subscriber churn and connect with a younger, more diverse audience, raising the profile of a sport often overlooked, especially in Midtown Manhattan.
Subscriber surveys consistently find 50% of them saying it is either somewhat or very important for fights to air on Showtime, Stephen Espinoza, who was promoted today to the network’s president of sports and event programming, said in an interview with Deadline.
“Boxing is unique in that it is the one sport we can own, in a sense,” he said. “We’re not going to be able to do an exclusive deal with Tom Brady or LeBron James. We can and have done a deal with the No. 1 draw in boxing, Floyd Mayweather.
A pipeline of boxing is seen as a hedge against subscriber churn, a nagging issue even for many streaming services and long a bane for premium cable networks.
Plus, “It’s particularly strong African-American and Hispanic, and those are very young demos,” Espinoza added. “That’s why the sport as a whole ages younger than you might expect, and that’s something valuable as well.
Boxing has a history on Showtime dating to the closed-circuit era of the 1980s. Even as the sport’s overall picture has grown fuzzy, pay-per-view fights such as Mayweather’s recent bouts against Conor McGregor and Manny Pacquiao generated tens of millions for Showtime and parent CBS (the latter bout was shared with rival HBO under its deal with Pacquiao). While those meteoric happenings are always of interest, the plan with Premier Boxing Champions is to build something more regular and reliable.
“It’s year-round programming. There is no season,” Espinoza said. “Boxing is going to be at a high level every month, and that’s something our subscribers look for.
The premium network faces more competition than ever from a still-dominant HBO (also a force in the boxing game) and Starz, its Lionsgate-owned rival. Starz isn’t in the sports arena, but it has gained ground in the premium sector by aggressively pursuing a different route to diversifying its subscriber base, making building blocks out of shows like Power.
“There’s a certain mystique about boxing,” Espinoza said. “You associate it with Vegas. It’s something that belongs on a premium network. It feels like a little bit more adult, with the glitz and the glamour.”
It also promises entertainment value, as the Cipriani crowd experienced the boxers taking the microphone one by one to deliver their outlook for the year ahead. That turned out largely as could be expected.
“I’m 39-0 with 38 KOs,” boasted Deontay Wilder, who will face Luis Ortiz at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center. “Every time I promised I was going to knock a boy out — or a man or whatever they want to call themselves — I have done that,” he boasted. “And come March 3, I promise you I’m going to knock him out too.”