Boxing puts out the welcome mat

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A pair of much-touted reality shows have put boxing in the spotlight, but even in a world running wild with marketer-backed sports, the "sweet science" has a long way to go to become the kind of must-see TV it was for our grandfathers.

"The Next Great Champ," from reality TV pioneer Endemol USA and Oscar de la Hoya's Golden Boy Promotions, debuted in September on News Corp.'s Fox to lukewarm ratings. Arriving next January on General Electric Co.'s NBC is "The Contender," from reality TV czar Mark Burnett and DreamWorks SKG co-principal Jeffrey Katzenberg. Boxing celebs Sylvester Stallone, Sugar Ray Leonard and George Foreman are also involved in this 15-episode reality series. Marketers tying into "The Contender" include Everlast Worldwide, Foot Locker, Home Depot, Toyota Motor Sales USA and PepsiCo's Gatorade.

There's also new activity in traditional boxing circles, as Walt Disney Co.'s ESPN and promoter Main Events this month expand the cable network's "Friday Night Fights" with the first of several top-card billings featuring young up-and-coming boxers.

The Mark Burnett project "is boxing-based, but it will be entertaining and dramatic," says Conrad Riggs, co-executive producer with Mr. Burnett's Contender Partners. "Boxing has slipped out of the public consciousness. If they put together the right show and cast it properly, we could have a compelling program that could help invigorate the sport."

Boxing continues to have strong appeal among select audiences. Recreational boxing and kickboxing have found favor among the fitness set, and the sport remains popular with Hispanics. Among second-generation U.S. Hispanic fans, boxing often outdraws soccer for TV viewing, says Kathy Duva, CEO of Main Events.

But the potential of boxing hasn't exactly shown itself via "The Next Great Champ." Blame it on the sport or blame it on the reality TV format, but Street & Smith's Sports Business Journal notes that through the four telecasts since its Sept. 7 start, "Champ" averaged a 3.1 rating/5 share from Nielsen Media Research. After the fourth episode, "Champ" was exiled to cable's Fox Sports Net.

wide spread of interest

Boxing currently plays out between two extremes. Matchups on premium cable or pay-per-view can pay millions of dollars to fighters. At the other end in certain urban and Hispanic markets, club-level boxing consists of smaller events featuring lower-profile fighters and drawing purses of several thousand dollars.

The sport could use a change, Ms. Duva says, adding, "There has to be something in between. That's what's missing."

Producers of boxing programs would like to attract younger viewers. ESPN is trying to do that with its expansion of "Friday Night Fights." The sports cable network already has an established audience of younger viewers and hopes to lure them to the fights with young boxers. Main Events' card includes fighters like Juan Diaz, a 20-year-old University of Houston student, and Rocky Juarez, a 2000 Olympic silver medalist.

"The idea goes back to people becoming stars on network TV, where the young people are watching," Ms. Duva says. "All our boxers will have star quality. Everyone is hip."

Sports marketers are backing the new boxing shows. New products, including apparel, from Everlast, easily the brand name most closely linked with boxing, will feature "As seen on `The Contender' " hang-tags when the merchandise debuts this month.

Everlast and the sport of boxing will enjoy a boost in public exposure not seen since the days of such bouts as Muhammad Ali and George Foreman, says George Horowitz, chairman, president and CEO of Everlast. The company is working with AKA Advertising, New York, to create the tags and supporting material.

For Foot Locker, the chance to get involved and branded with "The Contender" is a "ground floor" opportunity, says Rubin Hanan, senior VP-marketing at the specialty retailer.

Whether the broadcast side can wrest the viewer crown from the premium cable and pay-per-view promoters remains to be seen, says David M. Carter, principal at consultancy Sports Business Group.

"Boxing's business model is now controlled by a precious few cable and pay-per-view networks and promoters," he says. "So before anyone considers the viability of returning boxing to broadcast TV, you first have to ask if sufficient incentives are in place to persuade the sport's power brokers that they can be made whole without damaging their cartel and ability to capture dollars."

sees farm system developing

HBO Sports President Ross Greenburg envisions the broadcast side becoming, at best, a kind of farm system for developing young boxers. Eventually, these fighters could graduate to premier cable venues like HBO.

"If `The Contender' creates a mainstream star out of its finalists, then those boxers could move on to graduate to some significant prize fights and appearances on" cable and pay-per-view, he says.

Regardless of how the reality-style shows turn out, boxing is getting a shot of much-needed publicity.

"The beauty of "The Contender' is it will open up the door for sponsors to at least look at boxing in a significant way," Mr. Greenburg says.