ESPN fights its way back into the boxing business

Manny Pacquiao faces Jeff Horn in a rematch Nov. 11 on ESPN.

More boxing on the way

As the sports world Saturday was focusing on the Floyd Mayweather-Conor McGregor pay-per-view fight from Las Vegas, ESPN made some boxing news of its own over the weekend by announcing a new, multi-deal year to carry boxing matches from Top Rank, a promotion run by legend Bob Arum.

Top Rank tested the waters recently with two live bouts – a Manny Pacquiao-Jeff Horn fight from Australia and another with Terence Crawford, whose success help put his hometown of Omaha, Neb. on the sports map despite the 74th-largest television market not having any professional teams. The ratings success of both bouts obviously led to this larger deal.

The pact also ends Top Rank’s association with HBO as the premium channel is focusing more on scripted series and other programming, though the network remains in the boxing business through other promotions. Top Rank is also ending its boxing programming on Spanish-language broadcaster UniMas, (formerly Telefutura) due to low ratings.

The deal includes eighteen big-name fight cards (in the boxing realm) in the first twelve months, kicking off with a two-card bout September 22 from Tucson, and the November 11 rematch between Pacquiao and Horn in Australia.

“ESPN is thrilled to announce this new relationship with Top Rank, the most comprehensive and innovative media agreement in the history of the sport,” said ESPN executive vice president of programming and scheduling Burke Magnus. “We believe in a new vision for boxing that will super-serve existing boxing fans and create legions of new fans through world class boxing content across multiple ESPN platforms — 365 days a year. Together, ESPN and Top Rank will build the superstars of tomorrow through unrivaled exposure, original content and cutting edge technology.”

The deal also includes streaming on ESPN’s new over-the-air streaming service, set to launch next year. Also included in undercard fights, pay-per-views, and classic boxing matches from Top Rank’s library. In addition, Top Rank acquired rights to air matches on Canada’s TSN and RDS networks (the latter a French-language sports network available only in Quebec.) Though not in the deal, some cards could wind up on ABC (both ESPN and ABC are owned by The Walt Disney Company.)

This marks a homecoming for Top Rank as the promotion had aired a boxing series in the past, from 1980 to 1996.

Boxing has had a renaissance of sorts on broadcast and basic cable TV over the last several years. The sport had been common on television in the 1950’s and 1960’s, but faded as pay-per-view and pay TV became more attractive options. An attempt to bring back big-time boxing via Premier Boxing Champions has met with mixed results – a match featuring Keith Thurman and Shawn Porter drew four million viewers for CBS in primetime last March and various other cards have aired on NBC and Fox and also FS1, ESPN, and Bounce. However, PBC matches have become more sparse recently and the future of the promotion is unknown.

As for the Mayweather-McGregor fight, the spectacle on Saturday surprised a lot of experts as the bout went into the tenth round as Mayweather won in a technical knockout as many people thought the UFC star (McGregor) would be knocked out as early in the first round. PPV numbers were not available, but three million people accessed the stream illegally, according to reports. The fight was delayed due to PPV ordering problems, sending servers crashing.

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