As Boxing Returns to Prime Time, Will Ad Dollars Follow?

NBC bets on live programming with Premier Boxing Champions

Looking for the latest proof of the power of live programming? Turn to NBC on Saturday night.

Before you sit through another SNL cold open, you'll be able to catch the return of professional boxing to network prime time. Yes, the sport that once created megastars like Sugar Ray Leonard and Mike Tyson with Saturday afternoon exposure (on ABC's Wide World of Sports and competing programming on CBS and NBC), is back on free TV. The first card of the Premier Boxing Champions series on NBC will be a doubleheader from the MGM Grand Arena in Las Vegas featuring Keith Thurman vs. Robert Guerrero and Adrien Broner vs. John Molina Jr.

The series was founded by Al Haymon, who is paying NBC a reported $20 million for the privilege of showing 20 fights this year on the network or its NBCSN cable sibling. The time-buy deal is not new to sports television (ESPN paid $7.3 billion to televise the Bowl Championship Series for the next 12 years; and CBS and Turner locked up the NCAA Tournament for 14 years for $10 billion), but it is a first for boxing.

It has turned out to be a fairly easy sell. Several advertisers were wooed by the lure of the live event and jumped at the chance to get in the ring with Premier Boxing Champions, said Harlan Stone, managing director of SJX Partners, an agency that represents the series. Young males, of course, are the targeted demographic, and adult beverages, cars, energy drinks and quick-serve restaurants are the most likely marketers. Although Stone would not confirm it, Corona is rumored to be a primary sponsor.

Fights of any significance have long been the purview of cable outlets—HBO and Showtime—and pay-per-view. But with few name fighters among the current batch, those entities have become less interested. The Floyd Mayweather-Manny Pacquiao fight on May 2 is estimated to gross more than $400 million.

Network TV executives will be happy to line their pockets with all the other less-than-earth-shattering fights. Haymon, who manages Mayweather, was clearly looking to the future when he created the series. Knowing the sport lacks A-list names, fights on free TV will provide publicity for the 170 fighters he manages. Since NBC and Premier Boxing Champions announced their partnership in January, Haymon engaged another time-buy deal with CBS and booked Spike-TV. CBS officials would not confirm the amount Premier Boxing Champions paid, but stated it was not north of $20 million of the NBC deal. Similar to NBC, CBS will split broadcasts with its cable outlet, CBS Sports Network. Its premium channel Showtime will also show some fights.

Mark Taffett, svp of sports operations and pay-per-view for HBO, said the deals are just what the sport needs. "The more platforms and outlets that televise boxing, the better it is for everyone involved," he said.

The renewed interest from the ad industry and other networks does not surprise Jon Miller, president of NBC Sports and NBCSN. "I think live events have a place on networks, and live sports even more so because sports are communicable," Miller said. "People watch events like a boxing match together; they want to see the outcome. Advertisers are looking for programming that delivers a concrete audience. The DVR-proof nature of sports can't be discounted."

Miller said the prime-time fights, no matter where they are, would start close to 9 p.m., eliminating the late starting time of most fights of this magnitude. The timing is an avenue to a potentially wider audience, and hopefully, more ad dollars. Nobody is looking for a knockout out of the box. They're all more interested in something that is likely to go the full 15 rounds.