By Andreas Hale
Is there anybody out there that still has the nerve to say that boxing is dead?
The sentiment has spilled out from the mouths of detractors for several years. Some blamed the fact that the best don’t always fight the best. While that is true, it hasn’t always been boxing’s biggest issue.
The biggest problem that boxing has had to deal with over the past couple of decades has been visibility. While other sports have managed to carve out a space on cable television, boxing, for the most part, has been relegated to premium channels on cable and pay per view. The concept has made it quite the challenge for the sport to develop new stars as they are rarely seen anywhere but inside of the squared circle. And when that squared circle is behind a money wall, it restricts the opportunity for people to lay eyes on what could potentially be the next big thing.
This was epitomized by Andre Ward and Sergey Kovalev’s rematch on June 17th, which bricked on PPV with roughly 125,000 buys and a low drawing live gate. It’s unfortunate because it was a rematch between two of the top pound for pound fighters in the world and there was a great deal of bad blood between them. However, the lack of visibility for both fighters led to a lukewarm response.
Granted, there were many other mitigating factors that led to the fight being unable to draw a heavy following. But it can be argued that chief among those factors was the fact that most people had never seen neither Andre Ward nor Sergey Kovalev fight. It also didn’t help that it was a pay per view, but that’s something that networks and promoters have to figure out.
In order to rectify this, boxing has to be made available for the casual fan to stumble across on a Friday or Saturday evening.
Al Haymon’s Premiere Boxing Champions got the ball rolling in the right direction by broadcasting big names on free television. However, there were some hiccups along the way with terrible mismatches and backlash from both the media and the fans. At the very least, it was a step in the right direction as fans could tune in on a Saturday night and see Keith Thurman vs. Danny Garcia, Leo Santa Cruz vs. Abner Mares and others. Now, Top Rank has decided to take it a step further with their ESPN deal.
Following the monster ratings that Manny Pacquiao’s controversial loss to Jeff Horn did for ESPN by averaging 3.1 million viewers between both television and streaming audiences, both Terence Crawford and Vasyl Lomachenko also have fights scheduled on the sports network in August, albeit in separate bouts. This is ultimately a huge deal for boxing and Top Rank as Crawford and Lomachenko are not only two of the most exciting fighters to watch, but they are also on the verge of breaking through into the mainstream. All they need is what?
And what better place to be seen than on the biggest sports network in the world. Rather than broadcast up and comers via their Friday Night Fights series, ESPN now has the opportunity to give some of the best fighters in the world a platform. With Pacquiao and Horn doing extraordinarily well (and a rematch likely on the way), boxing has proven its relevancy and viability on a major network.
Junior lightweight world titleholder Vasyl Lomachenko will square off against Miguel Marriaga on August 5th at the Microsoft Theater in Los Angeles while Terence Crawford will step into the ring two weeks later on August 19th and look to unify the junior welterweight titles against Julius Indongo at the Pinnacle Bank Arena in Lincoln, Nebraska, which isn’t but a short drive from his hometown of Omaha.
Although the Lomachenko fight will be viewed as a one-sided mismatch, Hi Tech’s ability will be on full display and will surely win over anybody who has yet to see him fight. As for Crawford, he’s also the favorite but Indongo is a fellow titleholder who will do everything in his power to not have to hand his titles over to the Nebraskan. A pair of fun fights featuring two big names in August? Sounds good, right?
Everybody wins, well, except for HBO Boxing, which lost both fighters after letting their deals with the network expire and failing to match ESPN’s offer. It’s been a rough month for the premium cable network considering how Ward-Kovalev 2 was a commercial failure and now two of its brightest stars will take their talents to ESPN.
It’s a big moment for boxing as one of the biggest stars the sport has ever seen (Pacquiao) and two of the fastest rising stars in boxing (Lomachenko and Crawford) will compete on ESPN. It’s more significant considering that boxing will get a bit of a boost overall as we inch toward Floyd Mayweather vs. Conor McGregor on August 29th. Both Crawford and Lomachenko will preceded the huge crossover event and perhaps get some additional indirect exposure along the way.
Although it’s not known if any other Top Rank fighters will appear on ESPN this year, it’s safe to say that this is a home run for the sport. In a year that has been full of great moments, seeing boxing’s top names on ESPN only adds more to the sport’s excellent 2017.