ESPN Boxing: The Island of Misfit Toys?

By Paul Magno on February 20, 2019
ESPN Boxing: The Island of Misfit Toys?
Bob Arum is not someone to turn to if the goal is to grow and mainstream a niche sport.

An optimist, or a boxing-ignorant mainstream sports network executive, might see Arum’s recent signing of heavyweight Tyson Fury as a stroke of genius…

When ESPN first re-entered the world of big-time boxing, their partnership with Bob Arum’s Top Rank Promotions allowed them direct access to the elite levels of the sport without having to build their own stars and pave their own way to world class events. And when they re-upped with Top Rank, turning a relatively short-term deal into a multi-year partnership, it was clear that the “Worldwide Leader” was, as Arum recently said, “in with both feet.”

But, while signing on with the Hall of Fame promoter provided them the ability to simply “plug and play” their way to a main stage boxing presence, the partnership with Arum also brought them a lot of the headaches associated with the aged promoter.

Arum, who seems to be stuck in the failed old school boxing mindset that saw the business shrink dramatically in this modern sports era, is not someone to turn to if the goal is to grow and mainstream a niche sport. And the assumption is that ESPN picked up on boxing as content with an eye towards growth and on increasing reach and revenue for both their network as a whole and for their new ESPN+ streaming service.

Arum’s brand of tribalism, born of a shrinking-market necessity that he helped create, is rooted in peddling names and exclusivity offers to networks willing to pony up easy-money licensing fees. This business model, which boxing promoters milked for over 40 years via premium cable services like HBO and Showtime, is a clean and easy way to make everyone in the business a buck, but it does nothing for the sport’s growth or long-term health. If anything, it has created a generation (or two) of lazy promoters, who don’t really promote anymore as much as wrangle talent to pimp out for network deals.

ESPN has bought into this shortsighted hustle of a business strategy by letting Arum have free rein when it comes to their boxing product.

An optimist, or a boxing-ignorant mainstream sports network executive, might see Arum’s recent signing of heavyweight Tyson Fury as a stroke of genius. ESPN will get exclusive rights to air the lineal heavyweight champ’s upcoming bouts and sly ol’ Arum just may be angling towards luring WBC champ Deontay Wilder to the network in search of a lucrative rematch with Fury.

The realist, or boxing-savvy person who has seen this game play out before, will see this ploy for what it most likely is—a way for Arum to ingratiate himself with the network, make a quick score or two with the Fury name, and cockblock a rival promoter/manager/network.

Given the fact that ESPN—beyond Kubrat Pulev and Oscar Rivas—will have nobody to match against Fury and that Fury’s access to truly big events against Wilder and Anthony Joshua will now be blocked by major business obstacles, it’s fair game to doubt the wisdom of spending big money (reportedly as much as $100 million) in acquiring “The Gypsy King.”

But this Fury deal is nothing new in ESPN’s Arum era.

The entire ESPN Boxing landscape is littered with misfit toys, unmatchable elite-level fighters, airlifted behind ESPN’s walls and left there as, apparently, little more than novelty signings and press release fodder.

Terence Crawford and Vasiliy Lomachenko, two generational talents and, arguably, the top two pound-for-pound fighters in the world, were given lucrative Top Rank contracts made possible by ESPN’s interest and established as cornerstones of the new ESPN Boxing program. Neither was brought aboard, however, with anyone against whom they could be competitively matched nor was much thought given, apparently, to the fact that they had been permanently separated from the fights they needed to actually become the superstars their talents suggested they could become.

Crawford’s need for bouts against fellow welterweight elite like Errol Spence, Keith Thurman, Manny Pacquiao, Shawn Porter, and Danny Garcia will forever be hampered by conflicting business ties between his ESPN home and those fighters’ TV deals through Premier Boxing Champions (PBC).

Similarly, Lomachenko’s ESPN deal keeps him away from the big fights he needs against Mikey Garcia and Gervonta Davis, who are both PBC players.

Jose Ramirez, who is a top three presence in an increasingly interesting junior welterweight division packed with young talent, will not be part of the all-out war to establish a new 140 lb. king. He’ll be right there at ESPN, all by himself, playing to loyal hometown Fresno audiences while matched against secondary “best available” fighters.

Featherweight titlist Oscar Valdez will likely never get a crack at breaking into the 126 lb. elite because the 126 lb. elite—Leo Santa Cruz and Gary Russell Jr.—are outside of Valdez’s reach as an ESPN house fighter.

Super middleweight titlist Gilberto Ramirez will soon be moving up to light heavyweight—the one division where Top Rank actually has some depth and high-end matchmaking possibilities—in part because everyone else worth fighting at 168 is out of reach while he’s stuck on ESPN island.

Paying out big money for exclusive rights to fighters who will have nothing to do is a dead end game.

How long before the current run of high-end talent vs. no hopers and fringe contenders starts to produce flat-lining TV numbers? How many forced/failed tries at PPV (like the upcoming Crawford-Amir Khan card) will it take before the PPV idea gets nixed?

And, more importantly, how long after all of that will ESPN, a network with a notoriously itchy trigger finger when it comes to boxing, decide that the sport just can’t be resuscitated?

Follow us on Twitter@boxing_com to continue the discussion

Discuss this in our forums

Related Articles

Leave a comment