don-draper

Growing Boxing’s Fan Base, One Broadcast At A Time

We all can agree that the organizational side of boxing is a mess. Politics stymie matchmaking. The term “titleholder” has been watered down by an endless supply of spin-off belts churned out by suspect sanctioning bodies. For every meaningful unification bout, there are dozens of mandatories against no-name challengers, forfeitures on the scale, or big fights simply not happening for the excuse du jour.

These issues have plagued the sport for years, and yet fights continue to (eventually) get made and checks with lots of zeroes on them still get signed. We all manage.

The sport is undeniably stagnant, stuck in the doldrums and no longer worthy of being considered a “major sport” in the U.S.

This is fixable, though, and I don’t think it begins with any type of coup d’état of the establishment.

While the executive branch of boxing leaves a lot to be desired, the broadcast side is just as grim. Innovation is lacking. PBC’s efforts to “bring boxing to the masses” is coming at a great cost. Its sequestered stable of fighters has spurred yet another promotional Cold War, and if Al Haymon’s operation is hemorrhaging money as quickly as rumored, it might be teetering further out on the precipice of failure than we thought.

Mainstream interest has evaporated. TV ratings are down. The 18-to-34 year-old demographic coveted by advertising executives is nowhere to be found. (I like to imagine PBC execs sitting around a sprawling mahogany conference table, tearing at their hair and shouting “where are the millennials?”) Sponsorship agreements are hardly visible. Hell, at this point, the product is hardly visible. It’s March, and with the cancellation of Porter-Thurman, we’re still more than a month away from a national PBC broadcast worthy of anticipation.

I’ve written before how I’m bullish on PBC. I thought its inaugural year, while flawed, had a number of significant successes – even if some of them were unexpected. But I also said adjustments would need to be made and untapped opportunities pursued. That begins and ends with how the fights are translated from the arena to television sets across the country.

Here are some of the modifications PBC (and HBO and Showtime as well, for that matter) should make to their broadcasts that can not only improve the overall product, but also ensure boxing’s long-term viability on a nationally televised stage:

Capture – and then share – the science of the sweet science

Casual fans have never been more interested in sports-related data and statistical analysis. Qualitative information not only helps fans evaluate and compare performances, but also highlight truly unique features of world-class athletes.

While there are hundreds of metrics tracked and made widely available in a sport like baseball, only a handful are measured in boxing. Companies such as Hykso hope to fill this void.

Hykso makes wrist sensors that quantify the strikes thrown by athletes in combat sports, calculating the speed, volume and type of each punch that is thrown in real-time. This data can be pushed to custom apps – or television screens – for a myriad of uses.

“Data has been used in many other sports to unify fans by generating a whole new way to talk about the sport and engage with it,” said Hykso’s Chief Data Scientist, Patrick Chandler.

“Boxing is such a personal sport, with only the biggest personalities shining through. A new injection of data in TV broadcasts would give casual viewers a snapshot of the people they’re watching and allow them to join discussions previously dominated by hardcore viewers who had to become boxing history buffs in order to participate.”

Enhance the viewer experience with on- and second-screen features

 In-match data would provide commentators, networks and fans alike with an added layer of insights. But the data’s visual applications might have the greatest potential to enhance the overall broadcast.

What shape might these visualizations take? I’m not sure, but all four major sports have embraced similar technologies and largely benefited from doing so.

Major League Baseball’s K-Zone adds immense value, even if it’s intrusive at times. Diagrams regularly appear between batters, plotting everything from pitch usage to a defender’s first step and top speed to a home run’s exit velocity and everything in between. In the simplest sense, MLB broadcasts take the data surrounding amazing athletic feats and turn it into pretty pictures that even the most casual fans can digest.

But not all broadcast enhancements are created equal.

“The FoxTrax glowing puck is a good example of a well-intentioned broadcast enhancement that just didn’t work out,” said Tommy Duquette, a founding member of Hykso. “Looking back, it’s hard to say why people reacted so negatively to that feature while the football audience embraced the glowing ‘first-and-ten’ line so enthusiastically.”

Boxing no doubt would need to find a happy medium between on-screen features and a fight-first focus. But that line needs discovered through experimentation.

“The NHL is no worse off for having tried the FoxTrax experiment,” said Duquette. Boxing needs to start experimenting and taking the same types of risks to capture younger generations or promotions like PBC might not last.

Follow a logical schedule

Want more people to tune into your fights? Make sure they can find them. Otherwise, nothing you air matters.

While that sounds painfully obvious, it has been a massive failure for PBC, whose fights are spread out over numerous, sometimes obscure networks (are you telling me you watch Bounce on the regular?) with no set scheduling routine. Even ShoBox and Boxing After Dark cards fall into this trap, toggling between Fridays and Saturdays, with start times ranging throughout the night.

ESPN’s now defunct Friday Night Fights franchise was a shining example of the power of boxing consistency. It wasn’t a mainstay because it offered exclusive, world-class match-ups. Fight fans tuned in because it was a chance to watch the same sport on the same day on the same channel every week. Sure, some people chose to ignore it, but at least they knew it was happening.

Play the mainstream game

For as much as we want a larger chunk of the sporting public to care about boxing’s premiere fighters, industry execs aren’t giving them much of a reason to, let alone a chance to even make the introduction.

TV producers should spice up ringwalks, rather than dull them down. PBC poster children like Deontay Wilder and Keith Thurman should be the late night talk show circuit or making cameos in commercials. A “Hard Knocks” or 24/7-style show following a handful of fighters preparing for an upcoming card seems like an easy way to build consistent interest, while entertaining audiences in a popular format.

Look no further than “The Ultimate Fighter.” The show helped UFC turn the corner as a brand, allowing viewers an inside look at the training and (more importantly) personalities of athletes fighting to make their dreams come true. Over time (and a whopping 23 seasons) the show has become an MMA staple, serving as a breeding ground of champions and steady source of engagement for fans along the way.

I know some of these efforts are easier said than done, but ultimately, promoters need to craft a narrative and spread it to make more people care.

Balance new and old school mentalities, and the rest will fall into place

Boxing isn’t broken and it certainly isn’t dead. It is, however, stubborn. The action in the ring is as good and the primetime slots as bountiful as ever before, and yet the sport is no closer to regaining its mainstream stature of yore. Live events just aren’t being presented on national TV in ways that capture modern, casual fans.

This inertia can be overcome, though. The production, marketing and technological opportunities are there to make it happen. I just hope boxing’s powers that be are bold enough in their decisions moving forward to find the right recipe for growth.

 

(Special thanks to Tommy Duquette, my friend and a founding member of the Hykso boxing technology team, for facilitating quotes for this piece. While he shared his and other’s thoughts, I was in no way compensated for this piece.)

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