The debate about whether stars are born or made will never be resolved, but it’s certainly true that no one can succeed in show business without a strong platform. In boxing and MMA, just like any other form of professional entertainment, talent needs to be positioned correctly to generate large revenue. That certainly seems to be the case with the Ultimate Fighting Championship’s Conor McGregor, and his growing stardom is a good omen for boxing.
In 2011 the UFC signed a seven-year broadcast rights deal with the cable channel Fox Sports, and the benefits of having an affiliation with the major Fox network were evident last Sunday. In just his fifth UFC fight the 26-year-old Irishman attracted a peak viewership of 3.16 million US viewers on Fox Sports 1 for his beatdown of Dennis Siver. The number is even more impressive given that the fight began around midnight and McGregor was the -1200 (12 to 1) favorite. In contrast, the most watched boxing fight over the past 12 months drew a peak of 1.53 million for the rematch between Julio Cesar Chavez Jr. and Bryan Vera on HBO.
The higher viewership for the UFC event does not necessarily indicate that MMA is more popular than boxing. While McGregor has an exciting fighting style and colorful personality, a key component to last week’s ratings was the ability to heavily advertise the bout on the Fox channel to 60 million viewers during the Seahawks-Packers NFL playoff game. Fox played promos and had the NFL commentators mention the fight throughout the game, helping to grab the attention of sports fans who would otherwise have had little exposure to MMA.
Beforehand, some observers questioned whether it was wise to schedule the event late at night after a day of football games, but UFC Chairman Lorenzo Fertitta had little doubt about the decision. “People ask, ‘Why would you put Conor McGregor on FOX Sports 1 on a Sunday?’ Well, this is our beachfront property right here,” he told MMAjunkie in the leadup to the McGregor event. “This is our big opportunity to promote using the Fox broadcast to push people and create awareness on Fox Sports 1.”
Boxing has had some coverage on major networks in recent years, but the bouts on ESPN2 and NBC Sports lack elite fighters and operate on relatively small budgets. Instead, boxing has existed primarily on HBO and Showtime, which are available in about 33 million and 23 million US homes respectively. Unlike MMA, boxing has struggled to build a significant fanbase in the 18-34 age demographic, as evidenced by the prominent sponsorship of fights on ESPN2 by brands such as Just For Men hair coloring.
However, a whole new audience could be tapped thanks to this month’s announcement that Haymon Boxing Management will partner with NBC for a multi-year boxing series. The deal is comprised of 20 shows this year, including five cards on NBC on Saturday nights, six on NBC on Saturday afternoons and nine in primetime on NBC Sports. That means that the five cards on NBC will be available to approximately 115 million US households.
The likes of Floyd Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao will not be featured, but if the first show is anything to go by, a slew of the sport’s better fighters will appear in competitive fights. Yet despite Al Haymon having ties to about 160 plus fighters, overnight success is unlikely. Few would argue that the likes of Keith Thurman, Adrien Broner and Danny Garcia will have the impact on boxing that McGregor has had on MMA, but given time and exposure a new star could emerge to reinvigorate the sport.
In addition, Haymon Boxing also signed a deal with Spike TV for a monthly primetime boxing series that will be available in about 98 million homes. Spike has traditionally been associated with the 18-34 age demographic and recently generated a viewership of 2 million for an inconsequential MMA bout between the faded Tito Ortiz and Stephan Bonnar. Haymon looks set to make the most of the Spike platform by featuring good fighters in attractive matchups as indicated by the bout between Andre Berto and Josesito Lopez.
Unlike the UFC’s deal with Fox Sports, the reappearance of boxing on NBC has not been brought about by the network’s sudden appreciation of the sport. Instead, Haymon is buying the airtime himself with the hope that the increased exposure will enhance the brand for his boxing stable. As illustrated by the result of marketing the UFC McGregor event on Fox, a tie-in with major broadcasters can produce big ratings. Some reports suggest that Haymon’s company is prepared to spend $100 million on TV airtime, which is a big gamble by anyone’s standards. But it is a long-term strategy that can only boost boxing. Moreover, the Harvard-educated Haymon, who was also a successful music promoter, is not known for making bad investments.
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