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In the early 20th century, the dominant American sports were baseball, horse racing and boxing. A century later, baseball ratings and crowds suffer from four-hour games and ever-scarce action moments, and horse racing reels from a brutal drumbeat of track deaths, dozens of other betting options and a populace that awakens at best at Triple Crown time. And boxing … wait … boxing is a hot media property? How did that happen?
At least when I was growing up, boxing always meant an amazingly colorful cast of fighters from Muhammad Ali to George Foreman to Sugar Ray Leonard to Marvin Hagler to Mike Tyson. Announcers from Howard Cosell to Michael Buffer (“Let’s get ready to rumble”) signaled a big-time event was at hand. And how many other sports had their own artist (LeRoy Neiman)?
Unfortunately, boxing has had a tendency to be its own worst enemy. There is no central boxing authority, either in the U.S. or globally. I spoke with the longtime head of the World Boxing Council (WBC), Mauricio Sulaiman, who is a devoted spokesman for his sport but points out that the WBC and other sanctioning bodies, in a direct contrast to the NFL, Premier League or UFC (owned by William Morris Endeavor), have no direct stake in the financial end of boxing. In fact, the federal Ali Act bars sanctioning bodies from “owning” boxers. The somewhat limited “sanctioning bodies” include not only the WBC, but the World Boxing Organization and the World Boxing Association. In the U.S. alone, 50 state boxing commissions oversee the sport. “Boxing governance” is an oxymoron.
By comparison, the National Football League instituted its home-grown socialism a half-century ago, ensuring that massive TV rights fees would be distributed among the teams equally and facilitating a future in which the Green Bay Packers could compete on a level playing field with the New York Giants or Dallas Cowboys. Boxing is instead propelled by an independent group of promoters, whose interest is understandably ensuring the financial success of their own fighters – not a broader league or sport. Can you imagine if the NBA’s Los Angeles Lakers and Golden State Warriors could arrange their own schedule? Do you think the Sacramento Kings would ever get a game in? And while safety concerns may not have reached the height of horse racing’s problems, the death of two fighters in recent weeks highlights the never-ending dangers that seem only more horrifying in the absence of a central voice and power in the sport.
Yet boxing endures, and even finds itself in something of a renaissance – what’s going on?
Stephen Espinoza, who heads up boxing programming at Showtime, takes a back seat to no one in his passion for the sport. Espinoza credits boxing’s continued – and revived – relevance on the “long history of the sport, with a very strong, loyal, enthusiastic and passionate fan base and with big events that still can be cultural events” including most recently fights involving Manny Pacquaio and Floyd Mayweather. He noted that boxing fans are “probably more passionate about classic fights” than most other sports fans, and crave “shoulder programming” that lends context and helps build excitement for boxing events. In a sport without a predictable “season” (another of the sport’s self-defeating traits), it is particularly “essential” to deliver boxing-related programming to fill airwaves – and app time – year-round.