LAS VEGAS – Vasiliy Lomachenko-Teofimo Lopez is far and away the biggest boxing match that’ll be broadcast on free or cable television since the sport returned to the airwaves June 9.
Their lightweight title unification match probably is the most significant fight to air on either of those platforms since Keith Thurman edged Danny Garcia by split decision in their welterweight title unification bout 3½ years ago. An average of 3,740,000 viewers watched Thurman-Garcia in March 2017, when a peak audience of 5,100,000 tuned in to CBS to watch their fight from Barclays Center in Brooklyn.
ESPN, which will televise Lomachenko-Lopez on Saturday night, is available in approximately 37 million fewer American homes than CBS. With roughly 83 million subscribers in the United States, ESPN remains an enormous platform for live sports, so huge that many boxing industry insiders will consider viewership of Lomachenko-Lopez a telling figure for the sport’s foreseeable future as a televised product.
“I think the minimum will be three million viewers,” Lopez optimistically predicted to BoxingScene.com. “Hopefully we’re able to hit those numbers. And anything beyond that, I’ll be very pleased with. I’m very thankful. I just can’t wait, man. This is the fight of the year and everybody is excited.”
Boxing fans are indeed excited about Lomachenko-Lopez, a grudge match their promoter, Top Rank, has been building for roughly two years. To reach the type of viewership Lopez projected, though, they’ll need to lure large numbers of casual boxing fans to watch on ESPN, ESPN Deportes or ESPN+, each of which will offer the entire eight-fight card from MGM Grand Conference Center (7:30 p.m. ET; 4:30 p.m. PT).
Therein lies the gargantuan challenge ESPN and Top Rank will encounter Saturday night.
Viewership for sports on television is down during the COVID-19 pandemic, even for LeBron James and the Lakers in the recently completed NBA Finals. Boxing viewership on ESPN, FOX and Showtime dipped dramatically over the past four months, which has experts tempering their expectations for how many viewers will watch even a fantastic fight like Lomachenko-Lopez.
“I don’t see it doing over two million viewers,” said promoter Lou DiBella, a former executive for HBO. “It should and I hope it does, but I don’t think it will. And it’s gonna be hard to make the judgment about what the number really means. If it does a million people, it’s still exponentially better than anything else we’ve had since the pandemic, or in the last year. So, how do you quantify success? I’m not sure. You don’t do even over a million people without crossing over to some level of casuals.
“My gut tells me it’s too good, too strong, too meaningful of a fight to not do real business [in terms of viewership]. I’d be shocked if a million people aren’t watching. But does it get to that two million range? I don’t know. If it does 1.2 million, I’m gonna say it’s a good night at the office for boxing. I’m not gonna say, ‘Oh, f--k, it didn’t do two million!’ Because clearly, we’re not in the place we were two years ago. We’re not in a great place right now. Now, I’ll be concerned if it doesn’t do a million.”
The highest average viewership for one of Top Rank’s telecasts on ESPN in 2020 is 870,000 for an early portion of the Tyson Fury-Deontay Wilder undercard February 22. The greatest number of viewers ESPN attracted for a boxing broadcast since the pandemic began was 609,000, the peak audience for Shakur Stevenson’s sixth-round knockout of Felix Caraballo on June 9.
ESPN opted to pay a larger license fee than usual for Lomachenko-Lopez, rather than offering it on ESPN+ or pay-per-view. Promoter Bob Arum realizes that the network with which he has an exclusive content agreement expects viewership value for its investment.
“Thanks to ESPN, it heralds a change that will only help boxing,” Arum said. “And that is when you take many of your best events and you show it to the public for free, it builds the biggest possible audience. I mean, every other sport does it. The college football championship, the Final Four, the Super Bowl, the World Series, none of that is behind a paywall. Every one of those events are shown to big television audiences. Now, if boxing is gonna have a resurgence, that has to happen. There will be some events that will be just so expensive that you have to do it on pay-per-view – like a big heavyweight fight. But a lot of the others are really fights that should be shown on regular television, to showcase what a great sport boxing is.”
Arum declined to predict how many viewers will watch Lomachenko-Lopez. The 88-year-old promoter did admit how important this telecast is for broadcasting boxing on television.
“If it doesn’t get the number of viewers that I hope it gets,” Arum said, “then television networks are not gonna be emboldened to step up to the plate, to show these types of events on regular television.”
Lomachenko’s fights have produced strong viewership figures since the Top Rank-ESPN partnership was forged three years ago.
An average of 2,013,000 viewers watched the three-division champion’s 12-round, unanimous-decision victory over Jose Pedraza in December 2018. His 10th-round knockout of Jorge Linares in May 2018 was watched by an average audience of 1,439,000.
Each of Lomachenko’s past two fights, victories over Anthony Crolla and Luke Campbell, were streamed by ESPN+, the network’s $6-per-month subscription service.
One boxing viewership expert, who requested anonymity, stressed that it wouldn’t be appropriate to compare Lomachenko-Lopez viewership to Lomachenko fights that ESPN televised during normal circumstances.
“Anything on the air right now is handicapped by what’s going on in the outside world,” he said. “When I say outside world, I’m referring to news, whether it’s COVID-19 or the election. We’ve seen that just about every sport has struggled [for viewers], so normal comparisons are just no longer valid. This year is just such an anomaly. But I think a million [viewers] is doable. And if they did that, I think that would be pretty decent. Ideally, in a normal setting, you’d want it to be higher. But I think in this setting, right now, they are just going to be entirely handicapped. I think that’s just the reality for every product that’s out there in the national TV landscape.
“Having said that, I think the biggest accomplishment is having this fight happen to begin with. It’s a tremendous fight happening under these circumstances. This is the biggest, high-profile fight since boxing got back up and running. To me, to have this caliber of fight on a pretty widely distributed platform is an accomplishment in itself.”
Keith Idec is a senior writer/columnist for BoxingScene.com. He can be reached on Twitter @Idecboxing.