by David P. Greisman
The news that light heavyweight champion Adonis Stevenson pulled in an average of 672,000 viewers for his May 24 win over Andrzej Fonfara has Kathy Duva of Main Events — the promoter of 175-pound titleholder Sergey Kovalev — taking fire at Stevenson and Showtime, which aired the bout.
“From what we can see, the numbers are the numbers. This is a slam dunk for Kovalev and HBO,” Duva told BoxingScene.com in an interview on May 28. “I don’t know how anybody can read it any differently.
“Stevenson-Fonfara was actually the first time that Stevenson was put in a position to carry a show himself,” she added, commenting that Chad Dawson was the known commodity in Stevenson’s HBO debut. “When left to carry a show on his own and without the support of the HBO platform, Stevenson pretty much fell on his face.”
Stevenson’s championship win over Dawson — a one-round knockout on HBO last June — averaged 1.024 million viewers, according to Nielsen Media Research. He then fought on the undercard of a split-site doubleheader in September, pulling in an average of 1.177 million viewers. The main event that September evening was reliable ratings draw Julio Cesar Chavez Jr., whose first bout with Bryan Vera averaged 1.416 million viewers.
Stevenson’s next appearance, a win over Tony Bellew in November, had 1.305 million viewers. It was the main event of a broadcast that had the replay of Manny Pacquiao vs. Brandon Rios as the lead-in (about 1.1 million viewers) and Sergey Kovalev vs. Ismayl Sillakh in the co-feature (1.254 million viewers).
The Fonfara fight was Stevenson’s Showtime debut.
Showtime executive Stephen Espinoza noted on Twitter that Stevenson-Fonfara peaked at 800,000, that Stevenson’s “prior fight on HBO wasn’t on a holiday weekend” nor opposite a Miami Heat NBA playoff game. “Not apples to apples,” he wrote.
“We are happy with the viewership for Stevenson’s debut on the network,” said Showtime spokesman Chris DeBlasio in an interview with BoxingScene.com. “And as importantly, we’re thrilled with the competitive nature of the fight.
“At the end of the day, that’s what Showtime Sports is all about—televising the best and most popular fighters in compelling, competitive bouts,” he said. “That’s our obligation to our subscriber base, to televise the biggest events in the sport. And we’ve done that with consistency the past two, three years, more so than we ever have.”
Looking back at the Nov. 30 card on HBO that Stevenson and Kovalev shared, Duva, said “it clearly doesn’t hurt to have a lead-in” like Kovalev and Stevenson had with the re-airing of Pacquiao-Rios, which had initially been on pay-per-view. She did note that the Nov. 30 card was on Thanksgiving weekend, just as Stevenson-Fonfara was on Memorial Day weekend, both being times when many in the United States travel.
(Over the past three years, Nielsen ratings show that 10 percent fewer people nationwide watch television on Saturday nights during Memorial Day weekend than do on Saturdays during Thanksgiving weekend, according to an industry source.)
“Sergey actually had a higher rating in young men than Stevenson’s fight did [on Nov. 30]. He also had a much higher rating in young men than the Pacquiao fight did,” Duva said. “There’s a big audience that he’s bringing, and I think that held up when he did over a million viewers up against the NCAA [basketball] tournament [in March].”
Kovalev headlined his first show earlier this year, defeating Cedric Agnew in front of an average audience of 1.006 million people.
“If we want to put in context, he did that all by himself. This was the first time he ever fought in a main event on HBO,” Duva said. “It was against a completely unknown opponent who had not even gotten the kind of exposure that Fonfara’s gotten. Cedric Agnew is completely unknown. Kovalev drew that audience.”
A planned fight between Kovalev and Stevenson fell through — with Stevenson taking more money to fight Fonfara on Showtime instead of HBO, building toward a bout with titleholder Bernard Hopkins instead of Kovalev, and Main Events subsequently filing a lawsuit. Duva has been vocal about what she feels is the superiority of HBO over Showtime when it comes to building boxers into stars.
“You look at the drop-off in viewers as well. There was a drop-off in Kovalev’s rating from the November fight to the March fight of 200,000 viewers, from Kovalev’s co-feature to his first main event. The drop-off from Stevenson’s main event in November to his main event on Showtime in May is 600,000 viewers,” Duva said.
“I’ve been saying consistently, you cannot make a star on Showtime. It is just not a big enough platform. You can bring a star there, and what happens is the audience declines. And it happens every single time. Every fighter that’s gone from HBO to Showtime, they got higher ratings than anybody had ever gotten on Showtime before, but what they also got were lower ratings than they’d ever gotten on HBO. And each time they fight, instead of ratings growing, they’re going down.”
Duva mentioned Canelo Alvarez, Adrien Broner and Bernard Hopkins in particular.
Canelo Alvarez fought Matthew Hatton on HBO in March 2011 in front of an average of 1.381 million viewers, fought Ryan Rhodes on HBO in June 2011 in front of 1.55 million viewers, and fought Kermit Cintron on HBO in November 2011 in front of 1.469 million. His Showtime debut came in September 2012 against late replacement Josesito Lopez, pulling in an average audience of 1.036 million viewers on the same evening as the Sergio Martinez-Julio Cesar Chavez Jr. pay-per-view. Alvarez’s April 2013 win over Austin Trout pulled in 1.061 million viewers. His two most recent appearances were in pay-per-view main events.
Adrien Broner’s headline bout on HBO against Vicente Escobedo in July 2012 averaged 1.369 million viewers. Broner vs. Antonio DeMarco in November 2012 did 1.056 million. His fight with Gavin Rees in February 2013 did 1.398 million. His Showtime debut, against Paulie Malignaggi last June, averaged 1.28 million And Broner’s loss to Marcos Maidana last December pulled in 1.268 million viewers.
Bernard Hopkins’ rematch win over Jean Pascal in May 2011 averaged 1.837 million viewers. His rematch loss to Chad Dawson in April 2012 pulled in 1.572 million. His title win over Tavoris Cloud in March 2013 pulled in 1.232 million. His Showtime debut, against Karo Murat in October, averaged 999,000 viewers. And Hopkins’ win over Beibut Shumenov earlier this year averaged 760,000 viewers.
“It’s no secret that HBO is in more households in the United States than Showtime is,” DeBlasio said. “Consequently, the viewing audience for boxing telecasts on our network are naturally going to be slightly smaller. If you want to compare on an equal playing field, Showtime has demonstrated an ability over the last 18 to 24 months to market and promote big-time events and attract massive audiences, and you can look no further than what we’ve been able to accomplish on pay-per-view in that time. That’s not indicative of a ‘smaller platform.’ ”
According to a Variety article, Showtime passed 23 million subscribers in the United States earlier this year. HBO has about 29 million, according to CNET.
DeBlasio said that boxing ratings have been rising on Showtime for its “Showtime Championship Boxing” broadcasts — that the average audience in 2013 was 24 percent higher than in 2012 and a 64 percent higher than it was in 2011.
“We are on par with our 2013 average thus far this year,” he said.
Pick up a copy of David’s new book, “Fighting Words: The Heart and Heartbreak of Boxing,” at http://bit.ly/fightingwordsamazon or internationally at http://bit.ly/fightingwordsworldwide. Send questions/comments via email at [email protected]