By Jake Donovan
Andre Ward’s return to HBO didn’t exactly set the industry ablaze, but it was enough to get the ball rolling for a highly anticipated light heavyweight showdown with Sergey Kovalev later this fall.
The unbeaten former super middleweight king enjoyed a successful debut as a full-fledged light heavyweight, scoring a lopsided 12-round decision win over Sullivan Barrera at the Oracle Arena in his hometown of Oakland, Calif. Their March 26 HBO-televised headliner played to an average of 1.064 million viewers, with a peak audience of 1.152 million viewers.
In the televised co-feature, unbeaten 2012 U.S. Olympian Joseph “JoJo” Diaz made an impressive in-ring HBO debut with a lopsided 10-round victory over Puerto Rico’s Jayson Velez. The bout averaged 765,000 viewers, peaking at 875,000 viewers.
Ward’s appearance on HBO was his first since a 12-round win over Edwin Rodriguez in Nov. ’13, a bout that averaged 1.2 million viewers. His debut as a network headliner came 14 months prior, with his 10th round knockout of Chad Dawson – also at the Oracle Arena – averaged 1.3 million viewers.
Less concerning that Ward’s own numbers trending slightly downward is the fact that his recent triumph is good for the second-highest viewed cable TV fight of 2016.
The highest to date came with HBO’s 2016 premiere installment of its World Championship Boxing series, where Sergey Kovalev pummeled Jean Pascal into submission in what amounted to an unnecessary rematch. The bout averaged 1.179 million viewers, officially kicking off a series of fights that will lead to a Kovalev-Ward showdown later this year.
Ward secured his place, as his win over Barrera came in an official title eliminator bout. Barrera (17-1, 12KOs) entered as the mandatory challenger to Kovalev’s International Boxing Federation (IBF) light heavyweight title – one of three major belts currently in possession of the unbeaten knockout artist from Russia – but opted for a showdown with Ward and the payday that came with such risk.
Kovalev and Ward are both expected to take one more interim fight each before moving forward to their own head-on collision, tentatively targeted for November 19 at a location to be determined. A previous agreement suggested that the fight was to take place at a neutral location – meaning not in Oakland, where Ward has spent most of his pro career.
Discussion from over the weekend suggested perhaps a change of heart, as Kovalev mentioned a desire to beat Ward in front of his hometown fans. Such commentary also preceded each of his two knockout wins over Pascal, with Ward himself acknowledging that Kovalev’s penchant for winning on the road is among the fighting attributes he admires of his future ring rival.
Wherever the fight takes place, the one constant is that it will land on HBO Pay-Per-View. In order to produce a successful venture, those involved can only hope for a more positive ratings trend and greater buildup than what has taken place.
The sidebar with Saturday’s ratings is that the telecast went head-to-head with live coverage of the Elite Eight round of the NCAA March Madness college basketball tournament on free-to-air CBS. Two games determining which teams will go to the Final Four propelled the network to a monster rating of more than 11.6 million viewers.
Disturbing to the boxing industry is that its perils manage to fall prey to earth-shattering results for other sports. For whatever reason, efforts to reinvent the wheel or simply maintain interest in the sport continue to be a struggle.
All ratings data provided by Nielsen Media Research.
Jake Donovan is the managing editor of BoxingScene.com. Twitter: @JakeNDaBox