A few weeks ago, several media outlets reported statements from boxing promoter Kathy Duva that outlined a potential deal between NBC and the most secretive and powerful man in boxing, Al Haymon:
“He’s promised NBC that he’s going to take his fighters off premium cable…He’s going to put Showtime and HBO out of the puzzle.”
Many boxing fans heard rumors of such a deal months ago from decorated fight scribe Thomas Hauser, who wrote:
“Multiple sources say that NBC has agreed in principle to a plan pursuant to which Haymon’s company (or a stand-in) would buy $20,000,000 worth of time on NBC and televise at least twenty fights cards during a one-year period. Most of the fights would be on the NBC Sports channel, but at least three would be on NBC.”
While Hauser reported that ultimately Haymon seemed to be planning a subscription-based boxing channel, Duva’s more recent comments point to a longer future on network television.
In either case, the goal is not merely to just make it onto network television but to reinsert boxing into a sphere of cultural relevance. To do that is much more difficult than signing contracts. To accomplish Haymon’s lofty goals is going to require a careful understanding of exactly how and why today's fans consume sports at all.
Sports are an escape and a challenge, a calling and an obsession, a mirage and a mirror. Fans continue to watch, day after day, year after year, because sports offer, above all else, drama. And drama, at its core, is a well-structured narrative.
In combat sports, there’s more to drama than just blood. There’s no denying that blood has a way of escalating tension and visually reminding all watchers of the real dangers sports can offer, but it alone can’t sustain a fan’s attention and devotion.
Professional wrestling is fake. It was suspected for decades before it was actually confirmed, but once the dirty secret became public, did the entire industry crumble? Was Vince McMahon driven to bankruptcy? No. The sport has endured and remains popular and highly profitable. Why?
Pro wrestling, more than any other sport, understands the importance that narratives play in creating drama. Yes, they sell blood in the form of tack matches and flying elbows from 10-foot ladders. But that’s not all they’re selling. Those theatrics are window dressing. Professional wrestling is in the business of action-packed theater. Pro wrestling fills story lines with acrobatics and awe-inspiring feats of physical manipulation. The ends are predetermined, but the well-crafted story lines give meaning to the high-flying kicks and exaggerated punches. The conclusions of fake matches are palatable because the story leading up to the ending gives fans the drama they demand from their sports.
The UFC was a fledgling organization until "The Ultimate Fighter" reality series provided the story lines that curious viewers could cling to and that initiates to the new sport could use to help them digest the new sport’s vocabulary, concepts and rules. The series also provided an easy way for those new fans to share their experience with the new sport in a manner that fostered dialogue and created intrigue.
For the fake violence of professional wrestling, and the often brutally real violence of MMA, properly developed narratives breathe meaning and purpose to the blood and blows on screen, imbuing the action with long-lasting resonance. For other sports that lack the visceral impact of combat sports, such as golf, the narratives create intrigue out of even the most mundane of actions.
Golf fans understand the beauty of a perfect swing, the satisfying sound of a ball dropping in the tin and the excitement of a long drive off the tee because they also have a connection with the frustrations of a terrible slice, a shank and a sand trap. But how do you teach that to a viewer who has never stepped foot on a golf course? You can’t. You tell the viewer a story to give the numbers meaning. And no story in golf has had a greater impact than that of Tiger Woods.
His early dominance was intertwined with the stories about his upbringing, his father and his race. Woods’ contrast with the typical image of a golfer was so stark it was dramatic. Coupled with his once-in-a-life abilities, non-golf fans quickly found the excitement in a tiny ball and a swing, leading to exploding ratings and prize money for everyone in the game.
If narratives can be constructed to elevate sports lacking immediate emotional impact and a sport that at its base is utterly fake to place of widespread cultural relevance, then they can also once again reinvigorate boxing. For too long people have been saying boxing is dead. It’s repeated often without thought or analysis, which in turn has helped the mantra become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
To his credit, Al Haymon has not fallen victim to such slovenly thinking. It’s taken him years to get to this point — poised to bring boxing back to network television. In the 1950s, Gillette Friday Night Fights was one of the most popular sports shows on TV. It helped grow the popularly of television itself.
Now, three generations removed from that heyday, Haymon has an opportunity to make boxing matter again in the same way people believe MMA matters. The numbers for years have shown that boxing continues to thrive financially, especially for those near the top of the sport’s apex. But the financial rewards can grow even further if Haymon manages to craft and present the right narratives of his fighters and fights once they’re on the big stage. The stakes have never been higher.
Kathy Duva captured the importance of the opportunity perfectly:
“I pray he doesn’t [mess it up], because if he does, we’re not going back to [network TV for a while]. If he’s successful, all the networks will want boxing.”
Sports are an escape and a challenge, a calling and an obsession, a mirage and a mirror. Boxing has been an escape for the poor and multiple waves of immigrants since the word “prizefighting” was coined. Its challenge and arduousness are clear from the bruised faces of winners and losers alike. The sport demands either a calling from birth or a learned obsession — anything less ends in broken dreams or broken bones. Legions of fighters toil away for a dream that was likely never within their grasp. How these fighters are treated, by the sanctioning bodies, by the media and by the fans, is telling of who we are as sports fans and people. These are just a few of the narratives that boxing has to offer. Countless more are there for the taking.
All Al Haymon needs to do is remember that big punchers thrill for an evening, but big knockouts with a great story entertain for generations.
A former college wrestler, Taekwondo black-belt, and wannabe boxer, Paul Navarro (aka Fight Like Sugar) is now a full-time lawyer, part-time fight scribe, and high school wrestling coach.