Fight Network Fights for Inclusion
Boxing isn’t going anywhere. The sweet science traces its roots back to the most ancient times, as early as 4000 BC in both Mesopotamia (present-day Iraq and Syria) and Egypt. It was a central part of life in ancient Greece and was adopted by the Romans as a martial sport to benefit military pursuits. Various forms of boxing appeared through Africa and Asia as well. It is a global sport.
Boxing was popular in America long before it was even legal. Heavyweight John L. Sullivan, the heavyweight champion of the world, was our country’s first great boxing folk hero way back before the turn of the century. The groundwork Sullivan laid was later turned into hundreds of thousands of spectators crowding around large, outdoor stadiums to see Jack Dempsey fight in the 1920s. In the 1930s, Joe Louis captured the hearts and minds of both black and white America and even helped the world believe Nazi Germany was a beatable force after he knocked out Max Schmeling in 1938.
The sport is firmly engrained into American culture and has been for some time. There is no more popular or important sports figure of the last century than Muhammad Ali in the 1970s, and latter heroes Mike Tyson and Evander Holyfield became representative symbols of their time almost twenty years later.
Presently, Floyd Mayweather consistently makes more money than any other athlete in the world.
All this to say one thing: Why do I have a thousand channels on my television, dedicated to everything ranging from golf and tennis to food, travel and cartoons, but not even one place I can go for consistent boxing coverage?
Len Asper, CEO of Anthem Media Group, wants to change that. Anthem is the parent company of Fight Network, a Toronto-based global sports channel that finally made its move over to U.S. airwaves last month after reaching a carriage agreement with Cablevision in New York.
“Breaking into Cablevision is extremely big because they’re known to be one of the toughest nuts to crack,” Leonard told TSS. “They’re very entrepreneurial. They will take chances on new things. They’ll try things out, so they’re seen as a leader in the space. People often do follow Cablevision’s lead.”
According to Asper, if you’re going to break into a market, it might as well be one of the most coveted markets in the country, New York, where Cablevision holds half the market share alongside Time Warner.
“That’s huge. It’s a big statement for us, and it’s also very important for advertising.”
Fight Network launched in 2005 under founder Mike Garrow. Asper secured significant ownership of the company in 2010.
“I recognized that it was a channel that fit into my business plan to build global sports channels.”
When Asper took over the helm as CEO, he rolled up his sleeves to get Canadian advertisers on board with the concept of a channel dedicated to covering combat sports.
“We had no advertisers when we took it over and now we have 60 major brands advertising on the Fight Network, ranging from Pizza Hut to Capital to Taco Bell to a financial services company. Nobody is afraid of it anymore, because we’ve explained what it is and we’ve explained the value as well as what the combat sports really are.”
Fight Network covers a wide variety of combat sports, including boxing, mixed martial arts, kickboxing, traditional martial arts and professional wrestling. Moreover, the network’s programs include fight-themed dramas, reality series, documentaries and feature films.
Asper spoke with a genuine and deep respect for everything the Fight Network covers and said the trick to getting advertisers in Canada interested came down to one thing: education.
“I don’t think the advertising world has been educated well on it, and I’m going to spend a lot of my time [going forward] doing that. What we did in Canada…as a team, we branded it to try and get away from the impression that fighting is just a couple of guys in the ring bashing each other’s brains in. It’s the farthest thing from that.”
Asper is as passionate about combat sports as any fight fan.
“It’s the culmination of six months of training and a lot of mental fortitude and overcoming a lot of things, in life, in the ring and in general, to get to that 15-30 minutes of fighting. They call it the sweet science because there’s a lot more to it than that. There’s a lot more to fighting that most people understand.”
Asper speaks the language. Moreover, he’s a man with a plan as well as a history of success.
“We really want to make sure we are an authentic channel for the sport. We’re not a sports channel trying to talk about fighting, with guys who sort of know about fighting, or trying to only promote the fights that we carry…This is an independent news channel basically for fighting, and we’ll put on the best fight no matter where they are…We’ll put on the best fights however we can get them. They could be classics. They could be undercards. We’re not tied to any one organization, and we want to bring the sport to the casual fan.”
While Fight Network covers a wide variety of fighting disciplines, Asper believes boxing is vitally important to the overall success of the channel.
“Especially boxing. We want to make as much a dent into the boxing world as we can and capture the culture of the sport.”
It’s not just talk either. Fight Network covered the July 12 Canelo Alvarez vs. Erislandy Lara promotion to rave reviews. It broadcasted the live weigh-in, produced an undercard countdown show, broadcasted bantamweight Tomoki Kameda’s win over Pungluang Sor Singyu and did post-fight interviews, recaps and analysis of the fight afterward.
That’s big and something fight fans have desperately missed since the dawn of the pay-per-view era. Asper said to expect even more coverage for boxing’s biggest and best fights.
“We do 80 hours of programming the week before a UFC PPV or a big Pacquiao or Mayweather fight. We’ll be hyping it for the whole week. What’s never been there for advertisers is that there’s never been a defined audience, both demographically and with consistency of programming. They want to know what they’re getting, and that’s what we’ll be able to do with Fight Network.”
Asper is confident Fight Network will be headed your way soon, no matter where you reside.
“We’re talking to every carrier right now and we have been for over a year. I think we’re going to break through everywhere over time.”
But Asper said fight fans would help play a role in how soon it happens. He said the surest way to get your carrier’s ear is simply by calling them on the phone and telling them you want the channel.
“They respond to that. They have to see customer demand. Any fans of boxing or fighting who help show that demand will be helpful to both us and everyone in the industry.”
Apser said the future was bright. While ever-expanding channel lineups have led to a tighter economic climate than ever, Asper said the timing was right for Fight Network to make their move to the U.S. He said he’d run into all sorts of people over the years--fighters, managers, promoters, fans--who just couldn’t believe the network wasn’t here yet.
“I got asked why a lot, and I’d tell them I’d been trying for a few years and that there’s a bit of a disconnect between the fans and the carriers, some who don’t believe there is really a need for the network.”
Who knows? Maybe the ancient Greeks and Romans had to demand more boxing in their lives, too? History doesn’t tell us all the details of boxing’s past, only that it’s one of the oldest and most popular sports ever invented.
“The squeaky wheel definitely gets the grease,” said Asper as our conversation neared its close, and I couldn’t help but think it was time cable companies started to hear more from fight fans.
Who Should Floyd Mayweather fight next: