Good News or Bad News?

By Paul Magno on June 28, 2018
Good News or Bad News?
But this is boxing—ass-backwards ‘til its dying day. (Carlos Osorio/Associated Press)

Boxing is falling back on, again, messing with its loyalists. More and more, fight fans are being asked to pay more for less quality…

Depending on how you look at things, Tuesday’s release of the Nielsen TV ratings for last Friday’s Claressa Shields-Hanna Gabriels Showtime main event was a nice piece of good news or a sign of very, very bad things for the high-end players in the game.

According to reports, the Shields-Gabriels bout generated an average viewership of 376,000 for the Friday night live airing. That number beats anything posted in Showtime’s usual Friday night ShoBox slot this year (and since 2014), as well as besting all but one of Golden Boy’s second tier ESPN show ratings. It also, by the way, topped the live, late afternoon viewership numbers generated by March’s Anthony Joshua-Joseph Parker heavyweight unification.

Shields, the two-time Olympic gold medalist, has shown herself to be a solid presence in terms of generating interest in the usually stagnant US boxing scene, especially considering the lower than low profile women’s boxing is afforded in the country. This writer recalls being practically laughed out of a room full of old school boxing people when he suggested that Shields could make some waves and generate some money.

Women’s boxing in the American market, though, has always been more novelty than anything else. Even in the “golden” era of Christy Martin, Laila Ali, and Lucia Rijker, the growth of female boxing was limited, not only by the inherent sexism prevalent in the business, but also by the lack of quality, high-end fighters to challenge the stars. Right now, there’s more depth among the ranks of women boxers and a higher overall skill level than ever before. Whether women’s boxing can become anything more than a peripheral part of the US boxing scene remains to be seen.

But whether the Shields-Gabriels numbers were an anomaly or a harbinger of good things ahead for women in boxing, those ratings, when stacked up against high-end main stage TV numbers, should open some eyes about the domestic boxing scene at the moment.

Errol Spence, widely regarded as one of the top American names in the sport and a “star-in-the-making” only drew an average of 688,000 viewers for his June 16 blowout of Carlos Ocampo and only 637,000 for his January bout with Lamont Peterson.

Is Claressa Shields, as the numbers seem to suggest, more than half the star Errol Spence is?

If so, boxing is fucked.

It’s not that Shields being halfway to Spence is necessarily bad for the sport or anything like that. It’s just that, given the general low profile of women’s boxing juxtaposed against Spence’s status as top American in the historically glamorous welterweight division, the TV ratings numbers should not be so close.

And, for that matter, Shields-Gabriels numbers shouldn’t be so close to the numbers generated, also on Showtime, by Fight of the Year candidates Santa Cruz-Mares 2 (600K) and Erislandy Lara-Jarrett Hurd (490K). Danny Garcia, who had always been a solid draw, pitted against faded, but name-valuable Brandon Rios averaged 516,000 viewers, just 27% higher ratings than this past Friday’s women’s boxing.

American boxing has had some solid showings sprinkled here and there, but for the most part, whether it’s on Showtime, HBO (which has twice as many subscribers as Showtime), or ESPN (with a reach of about 90 million households), boxing has tragically underperformed. Network streaming services may be pulling some of the viewers away from TV sets, but not THAT many, not to this extent. We’re, literally, talking about a 400% to 500% decline in ratings in less than one full generation of fandom.

As recently as the late 90’s, one of every five or six subscribers to premium cable services HBO and Showtime was watching boxing. Now, just one of fifty subscribers is watching. The overall downward trend can’t be denied. Hell, even a relative nothing fight like David Reid vs. Laurent Boudouani on HBO used to deliver at least 3 million viewers.

It seems that a lot of boxing people simply don’t want to hear any of this about the shrinking fan base in the States. There’s always some blowback when people point out that the numbers are, well, becoming scary for those interested in keeping the fight game alive and thriving in the US.

And forget about the old school boxing businessmen addressing the issue in a constructive manner.

Having torpedoed recent efforts to take the sport back to free network TV, the boxing establishment now seems to be embracing the comfortable tactic of simply adding more paywalls.  The new trend seems to involve further burdening the sport’s already heavily-tapped hardcore base with yet another layer of subscription fees to see the sport they love. New streaming apps are popping up, like ESPN+ and the upcoming DAZN, already grabbing at exclusive content, making high-end matchmaking even more difficult.

Rather than building outward, boxing is falling back on, again, messing with its loyalists. More and more, fight fans are being asked to pay more for less quality. And, from what the numbers have been showing for quite some time, fans are just opting to walk away.

This explains why a fresh face like Claressa Shields, appealing to, ostensibly, a new subsection of fight fandom, is already more than halfway to being an equal TV draw with fighters the boxing die-hards acknowledge as “real” stars.

The silver lining here is that Shields does, possibly, represent a new wave of fandom—albeit a still relatively small wave—for the sport. Boxing desperately needs new fans with new energy. And maybe that new wave discovers talents like Spence, Crawford, Garcia, etc. And maybe they will have the energy and real world common sense to insist on change in the way boxing does business.

It’s kind of ass-backwards logic—counting on newcomers and upstarts to make upper tier fighters into real stars and to guide the future of the sport. But this is boxing—ass-backwards ‘til its dying day.

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  1. Kid Blast 11:43am, 07/01/2018

    Hmm. So what is Yugoslavia in this usage as it relates to boxing. The WBO, WBA, IBF, WBC,? I mean, how did they become Balkanized? Reason I’m driving this is that it might spark an idea for an article or survey.

  2. don from prov 10:21am, 06/29/2018

    Bal·kan·ize
    ˈbôlkəˌnīz/
    verb
    past tense: Balkanized; past participle: Balkanized

    Def: divide (a region or body) into smaller mutually hostile states or groups.

  3. Kid Blast 05:38pm, 06/28/2018

    Thrasher has the beat

  4. Thrasher 01:06pm, 06/28/2018

    Boxing fans want to see a fight with some boxing. Boxing is pricing itself out of business, especially after performance from Money Mayweather. No-one in their right mind is going to pay those prices to greedy fucks like HBO, Showtime, Goldenboy Productionss….

    Maybe reality TV will come up with something “So you think you can box” That is where it all started, on TV for free. Let the networks buy into this and stop top ranked fighters from signing up with these crooks. People will watch two walrus duke it out for free rather getting ripped off for the prospect of seeing a fight. If the girls are going to bang it out for free, let see it!

    When I was kid in the 60’s-70’s most weekends on the Wide World of Sports would carry boxing main events for free and Gillette would sell razors. Champs would fight 6 times a year or more.

    Prize fighting has ruined boxing!

  5. Kid Blast 12:50pm, 06/28/2018

    Paul, as you know I am working on the subject of female boxing as we speak and I must take issue of your description of it. Your comment to wit: “Even in the “golden” era of Christy Martin, Laila Ali, and Lucia Rijker, the growth of female boxing was limited, not only by the inherent sexism prevalent in the business, but also by the lack of quality, high-end fighters to challenge the stars.”  Yes, that was the golden era but there were plenty of female fighters on a global basis and there are a multitude today.

    Female boxing has had a great period starting with the Martin-Gogarty war and then ending too soon. But in the last few years a s second surge has begun and I sense this one will be around for a while. There are some great fights to be made on a global basis and the interest will continue. Maybe we are saying the same thing here, but if people are willing to pay to see Layla McCarter do a number on someone in Germany, then let the good times roll.

  6. Kid Blast 12:41pm, 06/28/2018

    OLLIE, ON THE BEACH WE ARE TALKING QUASI-THONGS

  7. fruitcakepauliemagno 12:34pm, 06/28/2018

    Weren’t you saying boxing needed more guys like Eddie Hearn to disrupt the status quo? Now you’re bitching about DAZN. Guys like Hearn and Haymon are no better than the establishment.

  8. Ollie Downtown Brown 12:12pm, 06/28/2018

    Kid Blast… I love to watch volleyball in the Olympics. It is definitely more exciting to watch than soccer. Would definitely watch a woman’s Olympic volleyball match over a WNBA game or a World Cup soccer match any day of the week. World Cup = zzzzzzzz.

  9. Kid Blast 10:56am, 06/28/2018

    What are “Balkanized politics”? Might that have something to do with Kosovo, Serbia, Macedonia, Croatia, etc.? If so, how does that fit here? Trying to get the connection.

    Politics there are pretty simple. They just kill one another and mostly it’s Christians killing Muslims.

  10. Kid Blast 10:52am, 06/28/2018

    Ollie, may I suggest Female Beach Volley ball for your enjoyment.

    I am a great—-err—fan.

  11. Ollie Downtown Brown 09:28am, 06/28/2018

    Lucas McCain… Who would have thought that Keef would live to make it into old age? Keef turning 75 this year? I hope I am still alive to see Keef when he makes it to the century mark. “The sunshine bores the daylights out of me. “

  12. Lucas McCain 09:03am, 06/28/2018

    Worrisome stats, but when hasn’t there been something worrisome about boxing?  Too much hand-wringing may bring on arthritis.  Do you want Keith Richards’ knuckles?  (Though I admit he’s done very little hand wringing in his life.)

  13. Ollie Downtown Brown 07:01am, 06/28/2018

    Female boxing is definitely more enjoyable to watch than the WNBA, NASCAR, golf, world championships of darts and/or poker, arena football or the World Cup. No mention of Ann Wolfe? Shameful. Best female fighter of all time.

  14. Your Name 06:50am, 06/28/2018

    Shields represents, among other things, glitz. And glitz is not what this sport needs right now. It needs substantive matches that can be made without endless and mind-numbing negotiations as in Wilder vs. AJ. But to make a very long story short, “just follow the money” and that’s where boxing and a lot of other things are heading—good or bad.

  15. don from prov 04:19am, 06/28/2018

    Don’t always agree with you, Mr. Magno, and if boxing is fucked in the U.S.—it has been for a while, maybe just less so—but this is a good article.

    Fewer deep—from top to bottom—divisions, fewer tough and well tested veterans and/or constant new blood to push those who would aspire to being great fighters.  Throw in what seems to be ever more Balkanized politics, boxing as more and more of a business, and a whole complex of other shit—

    And it doesn’t seem the same sport to me .  Maybe a function of age.
    Even so, it is also reality—IMO.

  16. Kid Blast 05:47pm, 06/27/2018

    And I agree. If Shield is more than half the star that Spence, Boxing is truly fukced.

  17. Kid Blast 05:46pm, 06/27/2018

    New wave also = a cadre of new Eastern Euros

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