Many have been preaching the “boxing is dying” narrative for years, but ESPN certainly seems to believe in the sport’s future, signing a deal last summer to gain significant numbers of Top Rank fights (the promotion had previously put most of its fights on HBO) and giving those fights big slots, including even the coveted post-Heisman Trophy slot that had previously been reserved for high-profile 30 for 30 installments.
The network seems pretty happy with how those Top Rank events have gone so far, judging by their recent year-in-review release on the subject.
Top Rank on ESPN has racked up banner results in its 2017 debut. The series kicked off July 1, 2017 with the memorable live telecast of the “Battle of Brisbane,” Manny “Pac Man” Pacquiao’s first non-PPV fight since September, 2005. The Pacquiao vs. Jeff Horn battle for the WBO World Welterweight Championship fight ranks as the highest-rated and most-watched boxing telecast on cable television since 2006 and ESPN’s highest-rated boxing telecast since 1995.
Viewers are tuning in in large numbers with the series earning the most-viewed fights of 2017:
- Top Rank on ESPN in primetime averaged 1,575,000 viewers on ESPN and 95,000 on ESPN Deportes
- The twelve most-viewed fights on cable in 2017 have been Top Rank on ESPN fights
…“2017 was a landmark year for boxing on ESPN,” said ESPN executive vice president of programming and scheduling Burke Magnus. “We are thrilled and excited to have served as home to some of the best boxing events in 2017 and look forward to continuing to work with Top Rank to showcase these great events across all our platforms in 2018 and beyond.”
Of course, not all of the fights were equally strong. The viewership breakdown in the post shows that July 1’s Pacquiao-Horn fight was the only one to cross the 3 million viewer mark on average (3,925,000), and only two others pulled in over two million, Jerwin Ancajas/Teiru Kinoshita (2,234,000, on the same card as Pacquaio-Horn) and Vasiliy Lomachenko/Guillermo Rigondeaux (2,114,000, in December). But it is definitely interesting to have the 12 most-viewed fights on cable on ESPN rather than premium cable outlets like HBO and Showtime.
Pay-per-view’s still a big factor too, of course, and the audience for something like Mayweather-McGregor (4.3 million pay-per-view buys) was bigger still, but ESPN appears to be staking a pretty decent claim as a channel to watch for boxing, and Top Rank appears to be getting some of the wide audience envisioned with this deal.
This series is far from the only boxing option out there (in addition to the pay-per-view fights, there’s also Premier Boxing Champions, which has several upcoming events on Showtime and Fox, to say nothing of other promotions), and it has attracted some controversy (such as the decision to pull Teddy Atlas from live fights, or Stephen A. Smith screaming about judges after Pacquaio-Horn), but it does seem to be working well for the most part so far. We’ll see how it does in 2018.