Bringing top boxing matches back to cable and network television has been en vogue in recent years with Premier Boxing Champions seemingly having fights on every American television network that airs sports. However, the PBC has lost steam over recent years and struggled to keep up its early pace.
Networks haven’t yet given up on boxing though as evidenced by ESPN going all-in for the controversial Manny Pacquiao-Jeff Horn fight from Australia on Saturday. And while the decision to give Horn the victory over a clearly more dominant Pacquiao drew a huge amount of outcry from anyone who watched the fight, at least it got people talking about boxing for a few minutes on the national scene.
And more importantly for ESPN, the fight seems to have delivered in the ratings front. According to ESPN, its 1.8 overnight rating was the highest for a bout on cable since 2010. And as the final numbers come in, it could be ESPN’s most watched fight in 20 years.
ESPN’s live telecast of the Saturday, July 1, “Battle of Brisbane” (10 p.m. ET to 1 a.m. ET) delivered a 1.8 metered market rating according to Nielsen, making it the highest-rated fight on record for a cable network this decade.*
The WBO World Welterweight Championship main event between Manny “Pac Man” Pacquiao (59-7-2, 38 KOs), the Filipino legend and boxing’s only eight-division world champion, against undefeated No. 1 contender and Brisbane’s favorite son Jeff “The Hornet” Horn (17-0-1, 11 KOs) (12 a.m. ET to 1 a.m. ET) delivered a 2.4 overnight rating. Horn defeated Pacquiao by a controversial unanimous decision.
Based on overnight Nielsen results, the “Battle of Brisbane” is likely to be the highest-rated fight on ESPN’s networks since the mid 1990’s.
Why is this significant? Well, the Pacquiao-Horn fight may just be the beginning of big time boxing on ESPN. Even though the network retired its Friday Night Fights series a couple years ago, Bristol is on the verge of getting back into the boxing game on a more significant basis. Last month The Ring reported that Pacquiao-Horn could be the beginning of Top Rank airing several fights per year on ESPN that featured some of the sport’s biggest names.
Boxing has been seemingly on a never-ending search for relevance for the past two decades but the buzz generated by the Pacquiao-Horn fight and ensuing fights on ESPN could be a win-win for both. The only way boxing is really going to get back as a major player on the national sports scene is to make more of these top fights easily available to wider audiences instead of stuffing any fight actually worth seeing on pay-per-view.
For ESPN, because major fights have been on PPV for so long there hasn’t really been a rights fee or bidding process for big fights. With the increased competition that is out there in cable sports, ESPN has to get more and more creative to continue to stay ahead in offering more premier programming to fans. Perhaps one of those ways to do just that is to go deeper into the sweet science.
Update: ESPN confirmed that the fight drew 2.8 million viewers on ESPN (and another 206,000 on ESPN Deportes), making it the most-watched boxing match on cable since 2006 and ESPN’s highest-rated boxing match since 1995.