The Biz: Showtime, HBO ready to rumble

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When boxers Mike Tyson and Lennox Lewis step into the ring June 8 for the heavyweight championship, it marks the coming together of bitter rivals.

No, not the fighters. Opposing TV networks.

Both AOL Time Warner's HBO and Viacom's Showtime have lowered the gloves, so to speak, and agreed to an unprecedented joint production of the pay-per-view event. It's as if Coke and Pepsi suddenly joined forces on a new drink.

"It was different," says Mark Taffet, senior VP, HBO Sports. "But with respect to the relationship with Showtime, both companies are filled with professionals with long histories of working in this business, and we got together like professionals."

HBO and Showtime are jointly marketing the fight as "Lewis-Tyson Is On." The message: Here is the bout the public has thirsted for. Lewis twice lost his title and Tyson's legal problems had delayed the event.

The fight promotions share the logos of both networks, but the telecast itself will be non-branded. The nets declined to specify an ad budget.

Much of the credit goes to HBO Sports President Ross Greenburg and Showtime Exec VP-Corporate Strategy and Communication Mark Greenberg, friends from their days at HBO before Greenberg left for Showtime in 1989.

When Lewis said his legacy as the best fighter of his era wouldn't be complete without beating Tyson, Greenburg realized he needed to make a deal with his Showtime counterpart.

There was no way the fight could come off unless an agreement was reached. Lewis is contractually obligated to fight on HBO. Tyson has a similar arrangement with Showtime. Neither side was willing to let its fighter appear on the other network.

half the pie

But half the pie is better than no pie at all. Financially, the fight is already a windfall. The telecast will cost an all-time boxing pay-per-view high of $54.95, and experts expect it to break the $100 million sales record set by the second Tyson-Evander Holyfield fight in 1997. The networks will split revenue 50/50, except the loser's network gets $3 million extra to compensate for the fact the winner's network will later run the bout.

"It makes sense from a lot of different angles, but this was an obvious money-maker," said Neil Pilson, ex-CBS Sports chief who now runs his own consulting firm. "I commend both networks for getting it done."But don't think the love-in will last forever.

In fact, call this a one-night stand. Four times in the last six weeks, HBO and Showtime have counter-programmed each other's boxing shows, forcing fight fans who subscribe to both cable networks to go 12 rounds with the remote control. For this one event, however, the co-op effort appears to be working.

"Cable operators and distributors have given a record level of marketing support," said Showtime's senior marketing consultant Suzan Couch. "Within a day of the decision [to join forces] being made, the plan developed from there."

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