By Terence Dooley

Boxing has had plenty of rivalries over the years: big name fighter versus big name fighter, promoter against promoter and, more recently, hard-core against so-called casual fans.  For years, though, the TV battle has been a largely one-way affair due to Sky TV’s financial clout.

Since dipping into the sport in the 1990s, Sky has been able to attract, and in some cases keep, the best promoters, stables and fighters to their platform whilst the terrestrial channels either made do with what Sky didn’t want or attracted promoters over to them as a response to Sky’s policies.  For example, Frank Warren moved back to ITV in 2005 and took his stable, which included Joe Calzaghe, with him citing Sky’s preference for Premiership Football and their decision to move their Fight Night show to Fridays as the cause.

However, these defections were invariably short-term; the promoters and fighters would end up back on Sky Sports and the terrestrial channels would lie dormant for periods before dipping their toes back into the water.  There were exceptions, Audley Harrison had a run of fights on the BBC and Mick Hennessy has a continuing relationship with Channel 5, but, in the main, Sky and more recently BoxNation have had free reign over the sport.

This could change over the course of the next few weeks when the subscription channel goes head-to-head with ITV, who have secured Carl Frampton’s defence against Chris Avalos at Belfast’s Odyssey Arena next Saturday night.  Channel 5 entered the big title fight fray by picking up Gennady Golovkin’s WBA, interim WBC and IBO middleweight title defence against St. Helens-based Martin Murray.  Should the free-to-air channels get decent figures, boxing will make a compelling case for further big non-subscription fight nights and could end up riding the crest of a wave.

Sure, viewing figures now are a shadow of what they once were.  On the other hand, boxing is a unique entity as, unlike many TV shows, it’s something that we tend to watch live for fear of spoilers—we like to enjoy the event as it unfolds.  This USP helps boxing draw together members of a family at the same time in a way that other shows cannot.

Mobile devices, laptops, film subscriptions and the Internet have fragmented the way we watch TV.  Instead of waiting for the next episode of the latest big show, we series link a batch of them or use Amazon Prime and Netflix to watch an entire U.S. series.  Gone are the days of entire families settling down to watch the TV, we are now far more likely to watch the same shows at different times in different rooms.

Unfortunately, there might be some crossover between the channels over the next week, so, as boxing fans, we should all try to stick with the full terrestrial broadcasts whilst taping the Sky and BoxNation shows.  It is a cliché, but boxing needs exposure, and it needs a strong case for frequent free-to-air fight nights.

As much as we want to see Paul Smith try to secure the WBO world Super middleweight title when he meets Arthur Abraham live on Sky TV on Saturday or find out what happens between Tyson Fury and Christian Hammer when they clash on BoxNation the following week, we should set the Sky+ for those two shows, avoid Twitter spoilers and give the sport a fighting chance.

People often talk about the need to capture the public’s imagination, but, like politics and the England Football Team, boxing is a topic that everyone has an opinion on.  Mention it in any pub, workplace or social event and you will get a response, even if it is: “Why is Amir Khan ducking George Groves” or any number of outlandish opinions.  Ignore the error, not the individual, usher them aboard the good ship Boxing and keep your fingers crossed for a good fight in which one, preferably both, boxers hit the deck and excite the general viewing public.

Boxing by the numbers:

There has been a big change in how and what we view on TV.  The big hitting shows of the noughties are the likes of Strictly Come Dancing, The X-Factor and reality shows in general.  The 1990s saw a move towards this, but people still settled down to watch the soaps plus the odd Christmas TV special.  In the 1980s, though, the British public would watch a staple selection of soaps, film premiers and sporting events—boxing benefitted from this.

On the 8th of June 1985, Barry McGuigan attracted 18 million viewers for his WBA world featherweight challenge against Eusebio Pedroza, only 5.5 million short of the figure posted by the that year’s festive EastEnders specials.  McGuigan upped his game the following year, earning 18.53 million for a defence against Denilo Cabrera.  EastEnders came up trumps yet again by luring in 30.5 million.

Frank Bruno also proved astonishingly popular during the 1980s.  The Londoner brought in 14.3 million viewers when he challenged Mike Tyson in 1989.  The fight was shown on the Sunday afternoon, with an additional evening broadcast bringing in around 4,000,000.

The general public’s love for all things Bond prevented Tyson-Bruno I from cracking the 1989 Top Ten, The Man With The Golden Gun grabbed tenth spot with 15.48 million viewers.  The year’s top spot was taken by the Christmas Day showing of Crocodile Dundee, which racked up 21.77m—a lot less than the figures EastEnders attracted earlier in the decade.   

Throughout the 1990s, figures tended to plateau then spike, especially when Only Fools And Horses had a Christmas special, but boxing remained resolutely popular with the viewing public thanks to the likes of Chris Eubank, Nigel Benn, Naseem Hamed and Frank Bruno.  ITV continued to back the sport, their Big Fight Live theme tune became the song of many a youth, with some of the bigger fights etched into our memories and occupying a nostalgic niche in our hearts.

It wasn’t just the big fights that attracted attention, either, as the public’s fascination with Eubank in particular guaranteed healthy figures.  His fight with Sugar Boy Malinga netted over 13 million viewers.

Naturally enough, when Nigel Benn was throw into the equation the figure swelled, around 16 million turned in for their draw at Old Trafford, Manchester in 1995.  It was ITV’s third biggest sporting figure at that point, only beaten by Frank Bruno’s 1987 meeting with Joe Bugner (16.3 million with a peak rating of 16.9) and England’s 1990 World Cup encounter with the Republic of Ireland.

Bob Burrows of ITV Sport believed the Eubank-Benn II was a sign that Lennox Lewis had made a mistake by heading to Sky TV.  He said: “We are absolutely delighted.  Linford Christie and Carl Lewis had 12 million, and now this.  It's a vindication of our investment in sport and a blow for terrestrial television, food for thought for the Lennox Lewis camp as Lewis-Bruno had 1.7 million viewers.”  Sky, though, countered by stating that outside viewing figures had increased the overall number to at least five million  (courtesy of Srikumar Sen of The Times February 21, 1995).

Remarkably, Bruno kept racking up big figures; he brought in 13.99 million when beating Carl “The Truth” Williams by 10th-round TKO in 1993.

Despite boxing’s continual ability to draw water, the 1990s saw Sky begin their stranglehold over the sport.  They made a bold statement of intent by bringing Chris Eubank over to the channel with a bumper new deal, but the viewing figures were disappointing due to their subscription platform—“Simply The Best” pulled in approximately 326,000 for his fight with Sam Storey, his first of the deal (The Independent May 12, 1993).

With Eubank gone, a new king was crowned—Prince Naseem Hamed showed that boxing could unearth new stars and entice the British viewing public.  Despite a graveyard slot of 11.30pm, Hamed attracted 6.4 million for his meeting with Armando Castro on ITV in January 1995.  There was the added bonus of a Frank Bruno comeback on the channel plus a huge fight on the horizon as America’s dangerous Gerald McClellan was due to meet Nigel Benn in for the WBC Super middleweight crown.

It wasn’t all gravy, though, as big audiences meant that boxing’s ugly side had far more exposure.  When Bruno iced the hapless Rodolfo Marin in a single round in February 1995, the audience was estimated at 10 million plus—that’s a lot of disgruntled viewers.

Despite this, things were looking good, especially when ITV announced that the Benn-McClellan bill would be revisited later that night in order to show Lloyd Honeyghan’s third-round TKO loss to Adrian Dodson.  We all know what happened next, McClellan suffered permanent injuries in the bout with Benn and, despite healthier than average figures going forward, the network gradually left boxing behind.

Despite the fact that Benn’s tragic win over McClellan was the most-watched sporting event of 1995 (with 13.6 million it beat the Grand National’s 11.9 million, Bruno-Marin’s 10.1 and was joined in the Top Ten by Hamed against Liendo’s very healthy 9.4m) it was the beginning of the end for boxing on ITV (figures C/O The Evening Standard December 22, 1995).  Warren and Hamed joined Sky later that year.

Over at Sky, the viewing figures were at the mercy of their subscriber base.  The channel was committed to the sport yet, in viewing terms, the golden age was coming to an end—an estimated 100,000 viewed Joe Calzaghe’s fight against Richie Woodhall in December 2000.  Over on ITV, Shea Neary posted approximately four million for his (third) WBU defence.

To put it into perspective, Eubank, once a ratings behemoth, could only attract 400,000 for his fight against Carl Thompson on Sky, which was a very healthy figure as a standalone, but not when compared to what he had pulled in on ITV.

Boxing on terrestrial TV took another, some would argue decisive blow, when Audley Harrison inked an exclusive deal with the BBC following his 2000 Olympic gold medal win.  Viewing figures were healthy at first only to diminish gradually to the point where the corporation decided that enough was enough.  They continued to dabble, but one sensed that the thrill was gone and the sport had shot itself in the foot, again.

Over on ITV, there was still the odd highpoint.  Frank Warren came back to the network in 2005, bringing Amir Khan with him.  They secured an astonishing 6.3million viewers for an amateur fight, his rematch with Mario Kindelan.

People even tuned in for the fights that failed to enthuse the boxing faithful, 3.9 million for Calzaghe’s Super middleweight defence against Peter Manfredo was a decent figure.  Over four million watched Danny Williams against Matt Skelton in 2006, which outperformed the BBC’s Match Of The Day (reported by Ron Lewis of The Times on March 6, 2006).  Ironically, Audley brought in 6.1 million for his fight against Danny Williams in December 2005—a stinker topped by three all-action final rounds.

Hennessy’s link with Channel 5 also proved boxing’s lasting general appeal: Dereck Chisora’s first fight with Fury did 2.22 million, Fury also posted 1.54 when beating Steve Cunningham in 2013 and he brought in a healthy 1.37 for his win over Kevin Johnson.  Those are decent numbers, so it will be interesting to see the Golovkin-Murray figures.

Outside the ring, boxers fascinate viewers, especially their beloved Bruno.  A documentary about his life, Frank Bruno: The Gloves Are Off, brought in 3.4 million in 2005—a decade after his retirement—and it punched its weight against the BBC’s 10 o’clock news.

Over on Sky, the sport was kept alive by the channel’s commitment, even though the viewing figures have waxed and waned boxing has been a constant on the subscription platform.  There have been some big nights, too.  Felix Sturm against Martin Murray did around 141,000, Amir Khan and Lamont Peterson posted a very healthy late-night 237,000 number, Andre Ward and Carl Froch’s Super Six final netted 248,000, Froch also brought in a BARB peak of 576,500 for his fight with Lucian Bute in 2012 and Kell Brook chipped in with a 477,000 peak against Matthew Hatton in March 2013.

Another thing to consider is that Eddie Hearn drew 80,000 people to Wembley last year for Carl Froch’s rematch with George Groves.  Their first fight was on PPV, the furore surrounding it meant the rematch was also on pay-per-view, but it still managed to put a huge amount of bums on seats.  It proves that boxing captures the general imagination when it gets things right, or wrong for that matter.

Although Sky’s viewing figures are healthy, they’ve not got the wider pull of terrestrial TV—that’s why ITV and Channel 5’s involvement is good for the sport.  Boxing often posts strong PPV figures, as seen recently when Tony Bellew’s fight with Nathan Cleverly covered its nut before the first bell had sounded, so that option will still be utilised alongside Sky’s regular output, but adding a few more channels to the mix should be good for the long-term future.

All told, the figures speak for themselves and to the desire amongst the British population for live, free-to-air boxing.  This desire will be satisfied over the coming week; hopefully it leads to a proper terrestrial TV strategy and allows the sport to exist on both the paid and non-subscription mediums.  There is a thirst for boxing out there; we just need to find the best way to slake that thirst.

Please send news and views to @Terryboxing.