Boxing on British Television – From Matt Hamilton

At time of going to press (May 2003) a series of meetings were scheduled for the British Broadcasting Corporation’s headquarters in White City, West London.

On one side of the table will be several BBC executives led by Mike Lewis, the Corporation’s Head of Boxing Strategy, and on the other representatives of the fighter who spearheaded the Corporation’s 2001 full-time return to the sport, Audley Harrison.

The BBC had been tiptoeing towards a return since the late 1997, when the odd Ensley Bingham or Paul Jones highlight started to appear on Grandstand. But the manner in which Audley caught the public imagination in Sydney convinced new Director General Greg Dyke the time was right for the Corporation to throw its hat into the boxing ring.

Dyke had previously run Channel 5 and had facilitated the station’s brief flirtation with the Noble Art when C5 presented live coverage of Holyfield v Moorer II in 1997. Boxing was once a huge ratings winner for ITV (Nigel Benn v Gerald McClellandrew 9million viewers in February 1995) and Dyke believed its waning popularity could be revived to the BBC’s advantage.

Mike Lewis, whose years with BBC Radio Five Live prepared him for boxing’s particular style of frontier capitalism, explained: We saw an opportunity with Audley off the back of the 2000 Olympics, where he’d become a huge name through the BBC’s coverage and Greg Dyke, a huge boxing fan, knew a gold medal winner and personality like Audley would serve as a tremendous catalyst for our return to boxing.

Thanks to a lead-in from Posh and Becks on Parkinson, the first bout in Audley’s initial 10-fight deal drew a peak of 6.2million viewers in May 2001. Now negotiating a second deal – where the BBC is said to be pushing an explicit clause guaranteeing a bout with Herbie Hide, Michael Sprott or Danny Williams by fight 15 – Audley remains the most watched fighter in Britain, averaging 2.4million viewers despite varied timeslots.

Lewis said of his top star: It is our view that even thought he’s taken a lot of criticism he’s got a large core of support and when he does move into a higher level the (ratings) will go back up again. Audley is one of those characters – like Chris Eubank, Nigel Benn and Naz – who have what it takes to become a massive household name.

It took time for the BBC to build a viable stable of fighters around Harrison but now they have Howard Eastman, Danny Williams, David Haye, the Class of 2002 and virtually every British-based heavyweight that matters fighting under the BBC banner. While there hasn’t been a true ‘event’ fight on the BBC yet, the Corporation believes the pieces are falling into place.

Even the BBC’s most flint-faced critics must admit the BBC really began to get it together in its second full year back in the sport. In September of 2002 Lewis signed a two-year deal with American cable giant HBO, giving the Beeb access to any big fight to which HBO owns the international broadcast rights (that excludes De La Hoya and Jones Junior bouts, who own their own rights).

We have an on-going and long-term strategy, said Lewis. Of course, we’re very proud of showcasing world class talents like Marco Antonio Barrera, Johnny Tapia, Vernon Forrest, and Ricardo Mayorga through our HBO deal but we are also pleased that we are developing our own stars in fighters like Danny and Audley and – a stage below that – talents like David Haye and Carl Froch. And when Carl and David are at Danny Williams and Howard Eastman’s level we hope to have more young stars ready to take their place at the bottom of the ladder. We see our coverage of amateur boxing as a way of introducing viewers to the potential stars of tomorrow.

With respect to Eurosport, before the BBC swooped for Audley, the only major boxing outlet was satellite/cable network Sky Sports and, a few times a year, its pay-per-view arm, Sky Box Office. A few isolated shows here and there aside, it had been that way since Frank Warren uprooted his entire stable of fighters – including Nigel Benn, Frank Bruno and Naseem Hamed – from ITV to the satellite network. The Warren defection – reportedly worth around 15million – was the death knell for terrestrial boxing for six years.

Boxing had always been important for Rupert Murdock’s ambitious venture. Live viewing of Mike Tyson’s world heavyweight defences (including the first Bruno bout) helped establish Sky One as a ‘must have’ subscription channel in 1989/1990. In the early 1990s the newly created Sky Sports began gobbling up the rights to big fights like Lewis v Ruddock and the first Holyfield v Bowe collision; Murdock’s group were saying to sports fans: ‘If you want to see all the big fights, you need to get a Sky dish.’

In 1994 Sky spent a reported 10million to lure Chris Eubank, the biggest star in Britain, away from ITV for an eight-fight deal. Within two years almost every domestic fighter and promoter who mattered was on Sky.

In 1995 eight of ITV’s ten highest rated sports shows were boxing, so it is unsurprising the network tried to soldier on. But Las Vegas based Irishman Wayne McCullough’s ratings were disappointing and when attempts to create a white Nigel Benn with Shea Neary failed, ITV gave up the ghost.

Meanwhile, Sky was delivering the goods. In a five-week period in late 1995 alone, Sky presented live coverage of Hamed v Robinson, Bruno v McCall, Collins v Eubank II and Lennox Lewis v Tommy Morrison.

As a subscription service Sky Sports’s primary concern is not ratings maintaining and developing the number of homes who shell out for a sports package. Right now BSkyB programming is received by digital satellite or cable in 10.2million homes and half of those subscribe to a Sky Sports package.

The quantity of boxing on Sky has increased year on year. Including its Ringside magazine show, Sky Sports broadcast 570 hours of original boxing programming in 2002, plus the Hamed v Calvo and Lewis v Tyson pay-per-view shows presented on Sky Box Office. The year before Sky presented 568 hours plus PPVs.

Sky’s lead commentator Ian Darke, and ex-BBC man himself, said: It was always interesting to me during the time when only Sky were showing the slightest interest in boxing that fans would write to the trade press moaning that Sky weren’t showing all the big fights. But we showed the likes of De La Hoya, Felix Trinidad, Tyson, Holyfield, Mosley, while the BBC and ITV and everybody else weren’t showing any boxing at all.

A good point, yet the major criticism of Sky for the past five years has been too much of its boxing coverage consisted of average domestic talents facing off for bogus titles. Sky Sports boss Vic Wakling is known to be very proud of Sky’s support of the domestic game and in the past Sky argued their viewers favour live, prime time domestic bouts to sitting up all night for even megastars like De La Hoya.

This seems to be at odds with figures provided by Sky Box Office.

In 1997, for example, 550,000 fans bought Holyfield v Tyson II, which is 200,000 more than tuned in to see Ricky Hatton v Eamonn Magee last June, which was Sky Sport’s highest rated boxing show of 2002. Yes, a large proportion of Sky’s late-night PPVs have been headlined by Lennox Lewis, a Brit, or have had a lead-in from a British star like Naseem Hamed or Joe Calzaghe, but it appears the same people who watch Sky Sports’s offering will also shell out for the genuine world title bouts.

Sky have done a fantastic job of making PPV part of British boxing culture since rampant success of the March 1996 Tyson v Bruno rematch, where just over 370,000 homes paid for the card setting a worldwide buy-rate record of 16 (meaning 16% of the total possible audience bought the PPV). With audiences packed into friend’s homes, pubs and clubs it is not unreasonable to estimate over 12million Britons were watching Big Frank’s final hour.

Pay-per-view boxing was here to stay and over the next seven years Sky would present 29 further PPV specials, and the vast majority were successful. This is a testament to Sky Boxing’s Executive Producer, Chris Brown, and his production team, who do a tremendous ‘hard-sell, but also to the fact that fans in this country really want to see the fights that matter.

Certainly, pay-per-view specialists Setanta believe boxing has a deep enough fan base to charge for live coverage of Don King’s shows. The broadcast has already presented Jones v Ruiz and Tua v Rahman II and more Kingvision bout are likely to follow.

After investing thousands of hours of airtime and millions of pounds BSkyB would be remiss to surrender its supremacy of the squared ring. It is no coincidence Sky Sports has upped its US fight coverage in the last 12 months. Sky Sports will show Floyd Mayweather’s and Oscar De La Hoya’s upcoming bouts and one monopoly Sky is likely to keep is the ability to screen US bouts live.

As Mike Lewis said: The BBC is not a dedicated sports channel and it is not always easy to justify spending large amounts of money for programming to be broadcast at 4am Sunday morning.

Yet Lewis doesn’t believe the Sky/BBC dichotomy will evolve along the same lines at the HBO/Showtime rivalry in the United States. Yes, to an extent we are in competition with Sky, but there is room for both of us. A lot of dedicated boxing fans would have long since got Sky because for years that’s the only place they could watch boxing. Now, none of those fans are going to cancel their Sky Sports subscriptions because the BBC now has boxing programming. Sky and ourselves are on twin tracks: we do our thing and they do theirs.

Right now, perhaps. But last September Sky had almost reached terms for De La Hoya v Vargas, only for the deal to hit a last minute snag. Out of spite promoter Bob Arum struck an overnight deal with the BBC, almost giving the fight away as if to illustrate to Sky that its monopoly was over. Three months before that, the BBC and Sky were competed for the Lewis v Tyson extravaganza, but the BBC couldn’t match a deal where Sky paid no actual fee but surrendered the overwhelming majority of revenue garnered via pay-per-view.

While neither side wants a bidding war, a degree of competition is inevitable. And not just over overseas events. Last summer BBC boxing adviser Ben Anderson was invited to Manchester to speak with Ricky Hatton, whose contract with Warren – and thus Sky – had expired. Hatton is Sky’s biggest ever homemade attraction; his bouts helped draw over 3million individual viewers to Sky’s boxing coverage during the calendar year.

While Anderson and Hatton had a single meeting before the Hitman elected to re-sign with Warren, a major name will jump from Sky to the BBC or visa versa at some point even though the broadcasts are very different animals. While the BBC will always attract more eyeballs to its screens, Sky can offer promoters huge long-terms deals which are beyond the Corporation: Warren is in the second year of a three-year deal to provide 31 shows per annum while Matchroom/Ringside provide 26 bills.

As a public broadcaster the BBC simply cannot offer that sort of commitment to its four promoters of Lion, A Force, Hennessey Sports and Evans/Waterman/Hobson.

It is swings and roundabouts, said Lewis. Yes, fighters want to be seen by the largest number of people and even our smaller mid-week, late nights shows get over a million viewers and obviously that’s better than Sky. But what we can’t deliver is the amount of airtime Sky can offer. So there’s a balance for a promoter or fighter to think about (when he’s deciding which network to work with).

Of course, major promoters would ideally want contracts with both networks. It is difficult to see this happening in the near future despite Warren – who had previously harangued the British Bullshit Corporation – recently inking an 18-month deal with BBC Radio Five Live believed to be worth 125,000. Neither network wants to screen its rival’s hand-me-downs and a time-share where a promoter shows fighter A on Sky and fighter B on the BBC appears to be impossible to broker.

The BBC doesn’t need Sky’s content, BBC boxing advisor Anderson. I believe that Hatton v Junior Witter aside, all the best domestic fights of the next two years will be on the BBC. When Audley fights Danny or Herbie Hide this year everyone down the pub will be talking about it. We also believe Carl Froch will be ready for a big fight against David Starie or Robin Reid next year and that will be a huge fight. Right now the BBC viewing figures are good, but we think they will go up significantly once we have two names who the BBC has established fighting each other.

To people in the trade, it will be fascinating to see how the BBC-BSkyB dichotomy develops but for the fans (some of whom just can’t afford Sky, let’s remember) the most important thing is boxing is been shown on terrestrial TV again. After years of missing out on a large percentage of the fights that really mattered, we now have a situation – especially with Channel 4 and Channel 5 showing an interest in late-night boxing – where fans don’t ask Can we see this fight? but Where do we see this fight?

There is also the hope that now millions of people are watching boxing again, the mainstream press will be forced to give it due coverage. Mike Lewis believes that is already happening: I think the BBC can help give boxing a higher profile and, certainly, it seems to be getting more newspaper coverage than it did several years ago. Of course, if we showcase Barrera and then Barrera fights Scott Harrison (a Sky fighter) then we’ve helped promote interest in a Sky bout, but we are happy to do so. We believe the top boxers are athletes on a par with any type of sportsmen in the world, and they deserve to be known across (the UK).

Friction between BSkyB and the BBC could be enough to spark nationwide interest in the Noble Art once more; certainly, this is the hope.

Ian Darke summed it up: Now British viewers have access to probably 80% of the big US fights – more than ever before – and the real winners here are the fans.

NOTE: Despite repeated requests, not a single Sky Sports executive cared to be interviewed for this piece. The writer wishes to acknowledge the kind efforts of Sky’s publicity team, though.

NOTE II: This article was originally presented in the May 2003 issue of BOXING MONTHLY.

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