Manny Pacquiao Coming to Basic Cable, Why It’s A Big Deal

Ever since the rubber match with Timothy Bradley in April of 2016, the future and direction of Manny Pacquiao’s career seemed uncertain. Would he retire? Would he go on a world boxing tour as proposed by his promoter Bob Arum? Would he commit himself to being a full-time politician in the Philippines? His future became even more unclear when HBO declined to carry his unheralded fall showdown with Jessie Vargas.

HBO had televised his bouts since 2005, and it was a marriage that saw both sides enjoying incredible financial success while making Pacquiao a household name. It is difficult to imagine that a boxing superstar, who has produced huge Pay-Per-View numbers for over a decade, including a mega fight with Floyd Mayweather, would not be able to find a premium network to televise his fights.

In April, Pacquiao signed to fight relatively unknown Welterweight Jeff Horn (after negotiations for a fight with fellow superstar Amir Khan fell through), but until the announced deal with ESPN last week there was no TV outlet. While it may seem as if a former boxing megastar appearing on a non-premium cable network is the completion of the standard “falling star” narrative, this deal could have a massive impact on the televised boxing infrastructure and ultimately benefit the fans.

The fight will take place on July 1 at 9pm from Brisbane, Australia for the WBO World welterweight title. Also appearing on the card is former Irish Olympian Michael Conlan.

ESPN can succeed where the PBC failed

The Al Haymon-owned broadcast operation known as Premier Boxing Champions attempted a takeover of boxing and considering recent evidence, has failed. The abbreviated version of the story goes something like this: Haymon was backed by asset management company Waddell & Reed with a reported investment of approximately $900 million dollars. Haymon used that money to sign inflated management contracts with big name fighters such as Adrien Broner, Danny Garcia, Danny Jacobs, and Deontay Wilder. The PBC promised to bring the biggest names in boxing back to cable television while still maintaining the lofty paydays that the fighters had enjoyed on HBO and Showtime. The only problem with that was that Haymon was actually paying for the airtime to televise his events, as opposed to the traditional method where the network pays the promoter. Essentially, the plan was to lure the biggest names in boxing by overpaying them, buying as much airtime as possible to get the fighters on tv, and survive long enough to choke out the competition. Once the other promoters were adequately weakened, Haymon would reverse the cashflow by owning the supply to the demand, and begin profiting from his mini-monopoly. While that all seems like a game-changing plan on paper, it didn’t pan out that way and proved to be an unsustainable business model. The PBC ended up with too many fighters that weren’t active enough, and save for a few events, the PBC wasn’t putting on competitive matches. There was just too much money going out, and nowhere near enough coming in.

Further issues arose with the filing of a lawsuit from Oscar De La Hoya’s Golden Boy Promotions. GBP sued Haymon in 2015 on antitrust allegations and predatory pricing, among other things. While the case was dismissed in January 2017, the court documents revealed that the PBC had lost massive amounts of money estimated in excess of $800M. Whether the PBC survives remains to be seen, but their failure does not necessarily doom the resurrection of boxing to the masses.

If ESPN is truly inserting itself back into boxing, it has all the advantages to do so with seemingly few hurdles to overcome. Even amidst companywide layoffs, ESPN is still the world wide leader in sports programming and can provide quality primetime coverage of boxing events. They also aren’t acting as the promoter, so unlike the PBC, they will not have to compete for airtime and talent in the same way that PBC must compete with promotions. While it may be too early to fully see what ESPN intends on doing, the forthcoming boxing schedule shows great promise. Starting with and including the Pacquiao fight on July 1, ESPN has televised boxing scheduled on eleven different dates through the end of the year on either ESPN, ESPN2 and/or ESPN Deportes. Though many of the dates occurring later in the year do not have fights officially announced yet, it is not uncommon to have a boxing schedule in a “to be determined” status this early in the year.

So why should you care?

Boxing fans in the U.S. who wish to watch the most popular fighters box in marquee matchups are all but required to pay monthly subscription fees to HBO and Showtime as well as purchase pricey Pay-Per-View events. The days of your dad or grandad watching Howard Cosell call a heavyweight title fight on ABC are merely relics of the past, and over time the premium networks have taken advantage of being the only resources for premier boxing. And in turn, the product has suffered. The promotional model of scheduling contenders in mismatches to preserve their undefeated records, then moving them to main event overpriced Pay-Per-View cards with boring undercards has turned off many viewers. There is also the constant conflict of HBO and Showtime refusing to co-distribute fights which leaves countless interesting matchups and title unifications unrealized and relegated to fantasy discussions. Sure, there has been plenty of boxing on cable in the past; ESPN Friday Night Fights and USA Tuesday Night Fights both had long runs of successful boxing broadcasting, but they often lacked in star power, competitive matchmaking and relevant title fights. The reason to care about this fight is that even though his prime is behind him, Manny Pacquiao is still Manny Pacquiao. And to be able to see him in primetime on a Saturday night demonstrates that ESPN is willing to invest its resources back into the fight. The best-case scenario is that having a giant like ESPN become a legitimate player in the game will lure some of the other super star fighters to leave the premium networks as well. There are obviously no guarantees that any of this will be successful, but at the very least it is disruptive to the natural order of how the sport is distributed. In the meantime, fans can enjoy a steady increase of boxing events on regular cable with the hope of more to come.