by Cliff Rold
For its many missteps in recent years, HBO Boxing has introduced one vehicle that would be hard to recognize as anything other than successful: 24/7. The multi-part infomercial disguised as documentary television assisted in elevating Floyd Mayweather to the next level (and the Welterweight leader is given credit for much of its inception).
Results have varied as to how much 24/7 has moved buy rates in all its uses, but there is no doubt the show can rope in the uninitiated channel surfer. The narration of actor Liev Schreiber alone is enough to stop anyone. His voice just says, “Hey, gravitas here.” When that happens, when the clicking of the remote stops, the opportunity to pique curiosity opens up. The curious can become the customer without too large a leap.
Viewed in that vein, 24/7 is an avenue for fan creation.
So then the question becomes how best to travel the avenue. There are times when it has fallen flat. Joe Calzaghe-Roy Jones wasn’t hotly anticipated at signing and was an average sell on pay-per-view. One could argue it was one last example of how much more interesting HBO always found Jones than a lot of the sporting public did. Calzaghe retired after the fight. Jones should have been retired well before the Calzaghe outing.
It was a 24/7 series that might have been better served elsewhere. Calzaghe-Jones was a show that diehard domestic boxing fans could get into. It was never a crossover special.
Fan creation is about more than a night of attention. Once the eyeballs are fixed on the screen, the goal should be to keep the new potential fan around, to leave them asking for more.
On their fall schedule, HBO has three big shows that stand out from the crowd in terms of hype.
• Andre Ward-Chad Dawson: Rather than put both titles on the line at 168 lbs., the 175 lb. king Dawson will come down from Light Heavyweight to challenge Super Middleweight king Andre Ward on September 8. Both men are excellent technicians and approach the game with cerebral styles that are very hard to beat. Their personalities reflect that with Ward rarely anything less than a gentlemen and Dawson soft spoken with a simmering veneer of nasty beneath it. This fight could turn into a sort of classic chess match, but it could also turn into Dawson-Bernard Hopkins III.
• Sergio Martinez-Julio Cesar Chavez Jr.: Landing September 15th, this pay-per-view features one of the game’s best fighters in defense of the Middleweight title against the son of one of the great non-Heavyweight pay-per-view draws of all time. That scion is also proving to be one of HBO’s most viable rating’s grabbers. Win and Chavez could cross over into genuine superstardom.
• Nonito Donaire-Toshiaki Nishioka/Brandon Rios-Mike Alvarado: This is being lauded as perhaps the best show of the year on either U.S. premium giant. That it will go head to head with a Showtime offering headlined by Abner Mares-Anselmo Moreno makes October 13, easily, the best overall night of boxing on paper this year. Rios-Alvarado might be the Fight of the Year, Rios has one of the best T.V. personalities in the sport, and the winner is hot tracked for a title shot at 140 lbs. Donaire-Nishioka is a clear 1-2 match at 122 lbs. and the winner leaves the first real Jr. Featherweight king since Israel Vazquez left the division.
In a vacuum, given these three options, where are the best chances of creating new, lasting fans?
The odd man out in terms of 24/7 coverage is the October 13 card, at least at present.
Ward-Dawson 24/7 airs on HBO on August 25. Martinez-Chavez 24/7 begins September 1. The former works as a single preview show with multiple replays. The latter will have two parts and then, the Friday before the fight, the weigh-in and “Overtime” special which acts as a third episode.
Ward-Dawson has received the red carpet treatment from jump. It’s the rare use of 24/7 for a fight fans won’t have to pay beyond their standard HBO fees to get, an investment from the cable giant. HBO has done preview shows before for non-pay fights, but the 24/7 label gives it extra oomph.
Is Ward-Dawson the right fight for that?
If HBO is trying to invest fans in new faces, why go with a fight that has at least a 50/50 chance of being a technical turkey, and without a living out loud personality to sell it in either corner? Ward was a big part of the Super Six tournament 24/7 style series Showtime did, but that was a different format, an embellishment of an ongoing product.
It didn’t generally focus on a single event until previews for the final.
Ward-Dawson is, in terms of regard for both fighters, a ‘good’ fight. But that doesn’t mean it will be a good FIGHT in the ring. And when using a tool that can create new fans, is it sound to go over the top for a fight that could turn new eyes away once the bell. It feels a little like being told what to want, an inorganic marketing appeal.
This scribe has made no bones that this isn’t his first choice of fights already. Super Middleweight and Light Heavyweight are stacked with talent. There are plenty of matches we haven’t seen yet. Going straight to one of the few that has a strong chance of ending up in copious clinching and long rounds seems hasty.
The obvious guess for why Ward-Dawson is getting this level of attention is because of the pound-for-pound implications. Back to the 1980s, HBO has prided itself on having the ‘best fighter in the world’ sans weight on their air. Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao are aging. The winner of Ward-Dawson will be well in line to perhaps claim the mythical mantle one day.
Then again, the same could be said for Donaire. Donaire has had some documentary looks with some of HBO’s new boxing shorts, but that’s not the same as building what might be his toughest challenge to date.
If we get Ragnarok in the ring from Ward-Dawson, the concern will look foolish, but boxing is a gambler’s sport and good gambling is about playing smart odds. It’s about waiting for the right spot to make a play. If the 24/7 brand was going to be whipped out for a ‘free’ show, why not wait for the right one?
Why not wait for something like the Donaire-Nishioka/Rios-Alvarado double?
The odds on Martinez-Chavez being a winner are high and it makes perfect sense to use 24/7 to sell it. Whether it ends with a heightened public interest for the talented Middleweight Champion Martinez or the culmination of Chavez’s rise from sideshow to big show, it’s likely to have action.
And action is the clearest path to new fans. Mayweather 24/7’s can afford to have fights that don’t live up to the hype because Mayweather is what is being sold. That product is proven. In other instances, good fights are needed to back the machine.
When fans leave the arena, when they turn off the T.V. for the night, success is measurable in reaction. When the final bell sounds, crashing message boards and Twitter afire with the joy of consummated violence means boxing did it right. When new fans are along for the ride, the passion can rub off on them and they’ll be asking the same thing those already in love with the game ask all the time: what’s next?
That promise is lacking in Ward-Dawson. It is not on 10/13. If HBO is going to invest in tomorrow, adding an extended preview of some sort to the show that doesn’t have one is a must. There are fans out there that don’t realize how good Nishioka is.
They need to know.
There are observers who haven’t been exposed much to Alvarado, who missed his bloody comeback win over Breidis Prescott last year because it was limited to a pay-per-view undercard. Juxtaposed with the fight highlights, and mouth, of Rios, the channel surfer could be easily lured in.
These fights have a high probability of keeping them lured in and trapped by October 14.
The 24/7 brand projects an air of importance to an event. Nothing is more important than a show featuring the threat of violence contested at high levels.
10/13 needs some Liev Schreiber.
Cliff Rold is the Managing Editor of BoxingScene and a member of the Yahoo Pound for Pound voting panel and the Boxing Writers Association of America. He can be reached at [email protected]