The Real Heavyweight Struggle: HBO vs. Showtime

14.01.05 - By Joseph Buro: The long-term success of boxing. I can sum it up in four words: Eliminate destructive network competition. As boxing fans, we are all familiar with the major networks that broadcast boxing events on a consistent basis: HBO, Showtime, and ESPN2. You also might add Fox Sports Net to that list because it has recently signed a contract with Goossen-Tutor Promotions to broadcast regular shows on the Best Damn Sports Show period; word is, however, that those shows will occur less frequently..

Columnists and fans alike have debated for the past two years regarding what strategy would be best to bring boxing back to its national prominence. The most widely recognized arguments are improving its image by establishing a national commission and improving the quality of the fights. The latter is definitely necessary and the networks have taken heed. In the first quarter of this year alone, we will see the two best lightweights get it on and two pound for pound fighters go at it in the super featherweight division. The desirability of a national boxing commission is more debatable, as it may simply add another level of corruption to a sport in dire need of a bath.

One problem that we all seem to agree on is that boxing falls behind the other major sports because it doesnít have centralized management. Thus, you are faced with a handful of major promoters looking for short-term gain in a sport that needs some long-term vision. The Joint Association of Boxers (JAB) has established the first boxersí union, trying to parallel the strong playersí unions in other sports. Among its major goals is to collectively bargain contracts with promoters, giving fighters some much-needed leverage in the process. Because its membership is yet to include many top-flight fighters, its success has been limited and its future is uncertain.

Given the inability of fighters join hands, and the fragile stability of any promotional outfit (save for Top Rank, Don King, and few others), the primary responsibility for ensuring a healthy future is on the networks. Because they have the most direct line of communication with the public, they are also the most effective in this endeavor.

Even still, the networks (particularly HBO) havenít exactly understood how to deal with the responsibility. For example, HBO and Showtime Boxing regard themselves as competitors in the same sense that the Sopranos and Dead Like Me compete for the same audience on Sunday nights. When two networks compete for the same audience, the viewer must choose between the two, and inevitably, the audience splits between the two networks. This makes sense for programming like the Sopranos and Dead Like Me because presumably viewers who like the Sopranos might not like to watch Dead Like Me. More importantly, it makes sense because watching the Sopranos doesnít make it more likely that you will watch Dead Like Me the following week. Thus, true competition is the only way to run that line of business.

Boxing is quite different, mostly because it has a very defined audience. On at least two occasions last year, HBO and Showtime aired live boxing on the same Saturday night, competing with one another. Who lost out? Everyone. For example, on October 2, Felix Trinidad fought Ricardo Mayorga on HBO PPV, while Showtime broadcast a triple-header. The PPV number for Trinidadís comeback fight were disappointing, the ratings for Showtime were disappointing, and fight fans were forced to watch one show at the expense of forgoing the other. This is what I call destructive network competition.

There is another component that has more of an impact on the future success of the sport: Building an audience. As I stated earlier, enjoying an episode of the Sopranos doesnít make you want to watch Dead Like Me the following weekend. Enjoying a fight card on Showtime DOES make you want to watch and HBO fight card the following weekend, and vice-versa. This is marketing without the expense because the networks are concurrently promoting the same sport. This happens in other sports all the time and works. Most weekends, the NFL TV schedule is set up so you can watch a game on Fox at 1:00PM Eastern time, and then switch over to CBS immediately when the game ends to watch another. Both the networks and the NFL demand that this be the case to maximize their audience. For some reason, Showtime and HBO more particularly havenít understood this fundamental marketing strategy.

Instead, they continue to compete against one another to their own detriment.

Can we just stop this insanity?

Article posted on 14.01.2005

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