By Rory Hickey: Through their parent company, Paramount Global, Showtime announced that they will no longer be airing boxing programming on their network. The decision ends a 37-year run of Showtime televising boxing. Showtime joins their premium cable rival HBO in exiting the boxing broadcasting business, which HBO did in 2018 after 45 years of airing the sweet science.
When the news initially broke, ESPN’s Mike Coppinger reported that Premier Boxing Champions is exploring broadcast deals with DAZN and Amazon Prime Video. This next step is part of a broader trend for the entire cable industry. As consumers have shifted away from cable networks towards streaming platforms, also known as cord-cutting, cable companies have felt the pressure to cut costs.
In the United States, cable television subscriptions reached their high-water mark in May 2011, when just over 105 million people (or 90.7% of all TV households) subscribed to cable television. Twelve years later, in September 2023, Nielsen counted 75.3 million multi-channel households (accounting for 60.8% of all TV homes). That is nearly a thirty percent decline in twelve years.
The one area that has been immune to this industry-wide trend has been live sports. The NFL and college football are TV-ratings behemoths, with NFL games alone accounting for 82 of the top 100 most-watched cable programs in 2022. The NBA will shortly sign a new television rights deal, which will likely push the salary cap, based on basketball-related income, into the range where top players are making $70-$80 million a year. But boxing has always been more of a niche sport, especially in the decades after television revenue became such a determining factor in broadcasting circles. This fact was certainly not lost on Showtime.
Al Bernstein, Jimmy Lennon, and Jim Gray had become synonymous with big fights. Seeing their faces and hearing their commentary made big fights feel even grander. The silver lining is that the same technology that has made boxing on premium networks lose its commercial viability will also preserve the classic moments and great fights that made Showtime Championship Boxing so revered. The trio of Showtime voices will live on through clips and replays of old fights much as the HBO trio of Jim Lampley, Harold Lederman, and Larry Merchant have.
This fall has been quiet for boxing, with the marquee fight of Canelo Alvarez vs Jermell Charlo being uncompetitive. The most buzz-worthy thing in boxing of late was when Tyson Fury fought former UFC heavyweight champion Francis Ngannou in a ten-round exhibition match.
I have no problem with that fight happening now that Fury has agreed to face off against Oleksandr Usyk in early 2024. Exhibitions like Fury-Ngannou have a long history in boxing, like Mayweather vs. McGregor in recent years and dating back to Muhammad Ali facing professional wrestler Antonio Inoki in “The War of the Worlds” in June 1976 and so on.
The disconnect with how fans receive these exhibitions seems to be the distinction between what is “good for boxing” and what is best for the participating fighters. Legacy is great, and most of the top fighters in the sport are concerned about theirs, but legacies do not cover bills or pay for vacation homes. If Tyson Fury knows he can fight a mixed martial artist in Saudi Arabia for an ungodly sum of money, why should he care about the health of boxing when considering his next career move? A fighter has a shelf life in terms of earning potential, and while I would have preferred Fury face Usyk straight away, why should we frown on Tyson Fury making more money just because we would prefer clarity in the heavyweight division?
Premium cable networks, streaming services, promoters, and the like operate in their best financial interest without anyone batting an eyelash. Why should fighters receive a disproportionate share of criticism for doing the same? Isn’t the sport of boxing what it is because of the boxers themselves? When a retired boxer falls into financial hardship, people naturally feel bad for them. But when active fighters do whatever they can to maximize their financial earnings, they are almost always villainized. Holding those two beliefs is like trying to square a circle.
Until the financial incentives of boxing change (which is a different, lengthier discussion), boxers should not be looked down on for trying to maximize their earning potential. In any other area of society, diminishing your income for the greater good of your industry would be questioned at best. Yet boxers who put their lives on the line every time they step into the ring are supposed to consider the health of boxing as a whole when making career decisions?
Showtime made the understandable decision to get out of boxing after nearly four decades, which generally was received as a savvy, inevitable outcome given financial realities. Shouldn’t Tyson Fury taking a fight against Daniel Ngannou be received in the same way?