By Corey Erdman
For most of the history of entertainment transmissions, boxing has been on the cutting edge of broadcast technology. By and large, the direction that live broadcasts have moved through the years have been heavily influenced, If not trailblazed outright, by the Sweet Science.
Consider the fact that the very act of filming something at all, pioneered by Thomas Edison and William Kennedy Dickson, was originally conceived chiefly with the intention of filming prizefights and targeting “the sporting fraternity.”
"Producers of motion pictures, particularly in the United States, linked their technology with boxing from the beginning. Fight titles constituted only a small percentage of the several thousand subjects listed for sale in early film catalogs. However the frequent appearance of pugilists in front of the cameras of pioneer manufacturers was more than incidental. During the months between the Edison kinetoscope in 1894 and the international conversion to projected screenings in 1895-96, fights pictures emerged as the first genre of moving pictures to be distinguished by special forms of production and presentation," wrote Dan Streible in his book Fight Pictures: A History of Boxing and Early Cinema.
The trend of boxing leading the way in the broadcast world that started in the 1890s would carry on for over 100 years. After Corbett-Courtney became one of the first motion pictures, Corbett-Fitzsimmons would mark the world’s first feature film. It can be argued that many of the major developments in television and radio have happened because of boxing, or at least have been accelerated because of it. Even live radio broadcasts became "a thing" because RCA took a chance on airing Jack Dempsey-Georges Carpentier in 1921, and it turned out to be the biggest sporting event in history. Fast forward through the years, and boxing became the introduction to regular live sports broadcasts for most people, helped shape the sponsored programming model, and later the satellite, pay-per-view, and premium cable industry.
But while boxing has always remained ahead of the curve in terms of its television presentation—there’s no shortage of things fighting does that other sports have lifted—in recent years it had waned sorely behind in terms of how it was distributed and transmitted.
Any die-hard boxing fan has heard the speech from their Uber driver about how “boxing is hard to follow” and they “don’t know when boxing’s on anymore.” And both all of those questions could have always easily been answered by one doing his or her Googles and typing “boxing schedule,”, there was an important point to be found in those queries. In today’s entertainment market, mass accessibility is the only way to compete, and in the age of cord-cutting and a-la-carte offerings, even just being on network cable—much less premium cable—isn’t enough anymore.
For years past when this should have been the case, the boxing business was effectively two large lineups at golden ticket windows called HBO and Showtime. Many promoters’ entire marketing strategy was to build a fighter up off-television and hope a premium cable broadcaster would hand them a six figure (or more) check for the rights to debut them to the public. It was a high-risk model all around. For networks, they were forced to take chances on many fighters without a whole lot of information. For promoters, putting on cards was becoming less desirable in general if nobody could see them.
But 2018 has represented the most dramatic shift in the boxing broadcast industry since Foreman-Frazier launched HBO pay-per-view, or Hagler-Mugabi set sail on the maiden voyage for Showtime Championship Boxing. The sport had made attempts at utilizing web technology in the past—Golden Boy was an early adopter of streaming for its club shows on RingTV, and Top Rank was one of the first companies to make use of Major League Baseball’s brilliant streaming platform—but had never fully embraced it.
Today, it is possible to be a die-hard boxing fan—legally—without owning a television. Ironically, that’s something hardcore boxing fans had been doing for a long time. Not to snitch on anyone, but every reader of this website has battled through an avalanche of popups once or twice to watch a fight from overseas before. Now, every major fight is available on HBO, Showtime or ESPN’s websites or mobile apps, and Showtime in particular has made a habit of simply streaming high-profile international fights of interest to the greater public live for free on its YouTube page.
“We uploaded a video feature of Gilberto Ramirez two days ago, and it already has 880,000 views. That's four times the number that would watch the event if it were on HBO pay-per-view,” Bob Arum told me for a piece on VICE last year.
The most significant change to the boxing marketplace has perhaps come from other promoters realizing what Arum did. The rise in technology, and the lowering costs of it, has made it possible for anyone putting on a show anywhere in the world to stream it online for free. Suddenly, the act of building up a young fighter can now include showcasing his or her performances, for free, to an infinite possible number of people each time. CBS’ online platform has welcomed boxing with Evander Holyfield’s Real Deal Boxing series, and innumerable promoters have flocked to the FightNightLive streaming company which hosts events through Facebook.
The promoter with the most chips on the streaming table is Eddie Hearn, with his reported $1 billion deal with DAZN, the digital platform which also hosts NFL football and Premier League soccer in various global markets. Hearn’s move to DAZN has shown one hurdle the sport will have to clear with the proliferation of self-produced or self-funded streaming broadcasts however. Since promotional entities have discovered that they can put their own show on, keep the advertising profits, staff their own talent, and in sum, control their own narrative completely, working together is still going to be as difficult as ever. Already, where the fight will be broadcast has become a major sticking point in negotiations for a fight between Anthony Joshua and Deontay Wilder, prompting Wilder to trash DAZN in a recent social media post.
Promotional and contractual impasses aside, the changes overall are a net gain—more exposure for fighters, more ways for promoters to be possible, more fights for everyone to watch—but if anything is consistently true in boxing, it’s that as much as it changes, some things will always remain the same.