LAS VEGAS – Keith Thurman compared the seemingly inappropriate price of his pay-per-view fight with Mario Barrios recently to what the former welterweight champion apparently considers the out-of-control cost of “bubble gum” in 2022.
The dramatic difference, of course, is that bubble gum didn’t go from free to $75 for four pieces in less than two years. That, unfortunately for Thurman, is the bothersome economic reality even the most supportive boxing fans have been forced to confront Saturday night, when they’ll have to pay $74.95 to watch the four-fight Thurman-Barrios show, legally at least.
Thurman-Barrios is the type of fight FOX would’ve aired for free on network TV in 2019, the last calendar year in which Thurman fought, and 2020. Back then, it appeared FOX, one of the four major broadcast networks in the United States, was invested in boxing beyond banking its cut from pay-per-view fights and filling programming holes with cheap content whenever necessary.
Today, Premier Boxing Champions’ partnership with FOX amounts to ShoBox-level fights as main events on free TV (see Christmas night) and reasonably interesting bouts that belong on network television disguised as marquee pay-per-view events (Thurman-Barrios and Luis Ortiz-Charles Martin). That’s not a knock on “ShoBox,” nor the fault of Thurman or Ortiz, and certainly not Barrios or Martin, because the network money obviously isn’t available to PBC to keep them away from the polarizing pay-per-view platform.
It’s still a troublesome trend for a niche sport that gained at least some traction among casual fans when PBC broadcast some solid fights to between 2 million and 3 million viewers during the earlier stages of this once-promising enterprise.
Thurman’s tougher-than-expected fight against Josesito Lopez was watched by an average audience of 2,480,000 and drew a peak viewership of 2,765,000 in January 2019. Thurman-Barrios, a much more competitive contest according to every credible sportsbook, likely would’ve drawn a larger audience than that on FOX.
Instead, the consensus among industry insiders polled by BoxingScene.com indicated that this event is likely to produce somewhere between 75,000 and 100,000 buys.
Thurman, they noted, has name recognition from fighting Manny Pacquiao in his last bout and usually produces dramatic moments and/or sustained entertainment. The Clearwater, Florida, native was involved in two of the most-watched fights on network television in recent years as well.
His split-decision win over Danny Garcia drew an average audience of 3,740,000 and a peak audience of 5,100,000 in March 2017. Thurman’s previous performance – a thoroughly enthralling, back-and-forth victory versus Shawn Porter – attracted an average viewership of 3,150,000 and peaked at 3,940,000 viewers in June 2016.
There’s not a fighter in this entire sport that can boast comparable numbers to Thurman in more than one fight on free TV in recent years. And nobody reasonable would expect a prideful prizefighter to say anything other than that his fight is worth $75 while attempting to justify and promote it.
But again, this intensifying issue isn’t really about Thurman. It’s about FOX’s involvement in boxing moving forward.
The network’s entrance into this niche sport late in the summer of 2018 was widely viewed as beneficial to the fighters and fans alike. The fighters were exposed to broader audiences on a regular basis and loyal fans were rewarded with such memorable upsets as Tony Harrison’s win against Jermell Charlo and Julian Williams’ victory over Jarrett Hurd on free TV.
FOX and PBC invested heavily in shoulder programming as well, which gave the uninitiated insight into the lives and careers of fighters with whom they weren’t familiar.
With so much competition for attention and coveted commercial revenue, boxing will never be as popular among American sports fans as it was even as recently as the late 1990s. Still, the FOX-PBC venture provided evidence early on that exposing this flawed yet intriguing sport to the masses could be a worthwhile endeavor for everyone involved.
Now we’re left to wonder why it even exists in its current form.
FOX exercised its fourth-year option late last year on its deal with PBC. The network has made less of a commitment to PBC, financially and in terms of providing dates on free TV and basic cable, during this fourth year.
That doesn’t necessarily mean FOX won’t be interested in another multi-year agreement with PBC. The product is cheap in comparison to what FOX and its U.S. competitors pay for rights to broadcast NFL, NBA, Major League Baseball and NHL games, as well as various soccer matches from prominent leagues based in Europe.
The problem for an ever-dwindling fan base in the U.S. asked to pay monthly subscription fees for DAZN, ESPN+ and Showtime is that now not only are the FOX fights they want to see most, say Errol Spence Jr.-Yordenis Ugas, on pay-per-view. The maddening model FOX and PBC have created for 2022 has placed less meaningful fights, in the case of Thurman-Barrios two B-side pay-per-view veterans coming off losses, on that expensive platform as well.
Ortiz-Martin was a fun fight full of dramatic moments. Ortiz overcame two knockdowns, one apiece in the first and fourth rounds, to knock out Martin in the sixth round January 1 in Hollywood, Florida.
That would’ve been a fantastic FOX main event. Unfortunately, next to no one saw Ortiz-Martin live – again, legally at least – because it was offered as a $40 pay-per-view event.
Five weeks later, it’ll cost boxing fans nearly twice as much to watch Thurman (29-1, 22 KOs, 1 NC) battle Barrios (26-1, 17 KOs) and three undercard fights from Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino’s Michelob ULTRA Arena ($74.95).
The second of those three undercard clashes – a 10-round, 155-pound bout in which promising junior middleweight Jesus Ramos (17-0, 14 KOs) will encounter upset-minded spoiler Vladimir Hernandez (13-4, 6 KOs) – should make for compelling television. The 10-round opener – a junior featherweight fight between unbeaten Carlos Castro (27-0, 12 KOs) and former two-division champion Luis Nery (31-1, 24 KOs) – is interesting, too.
Former four-division champ Leo Santa Cruz (37-2-1, 19 KOs) is heavily favored over comparatively untested Keenan Carbajal (23-2-1, 15 KOs) in the 10-round co-feature, a 130-pound bout.
What will come after Saturday night from FOX and PBC is anyone’s guess because the network only announces one show at a time, often on short notice. Spence-Ugas figures to be announced sometime this month for April 9 or April 16, but beyond that we’ll likely get ShoBox-level fights on free TV once programming slots open up on FOX following college basketball season.
Spence-Ugas most likely will cost $74.95 as well, but at least it’s intriguing because the unbeaten Spence will face the fellow welterweight champion who upset Pacquiao in what will be Spence’s first fight since he had surgery to repair a damaged retina in August. If FOX and PBC proceed similarly for the remainder of 2022, this new maddening model might become the norm and thus even more costly to the health of the boxing business if this partnership continues in 2023.
Keith Idec is a senior writer/columnist for BoxingScene.com. He can be reached on Twitter @Idecboxing.