Boxing Is Taking Over America!!! (Or Is It?)

(In an effort to show that not all boxing blogs  have to be off-the-cuff ravings devoid of analytical thought, the following post will be footnoted.)

It is nice to see that Chris Arreola, after entering the biggest fight of his life grotesquely out of shape and getting hammered for 11 rounds by Vitali Klitschko, will get another fat paycheck under the HBO charity program against the same C-Level competition that got him a title shot in the first place. Shortchanging the public by coming into the ring resembling John Goodman is bad enough, but being rewarded for it is downright icky.  The reason Arreola gets a freebie on HBO is because he is alleged to be some sort of television ratings magnet. The Vitali Klitschko-Chris Arreola telecast drew attention after scoring a 4.8 rating on HBO, which translates to roughly 2.1 million viewers1.  This bit of information was offered as further proof that boxing is taking over the world.  But are the numbers really that impressive?

In addition to having the Mayweather-Marquez replay as a lead-in (do we really need to hear that having arguably the most recognizable fighter in America as an opening act had no bearing on the number of viewers who tuned in to the telecast?), this telecast also showcased the heavyweight division (historically the marquee division in boxing), featured a fairly well-known heavyweight “champion” in Klitschko, and tapped into a dedicated Mexican-American market hoping to witness history.  If this kind of perfect storm hit every time a boxing match was televised, then all HBO shows would score 4.8 ratings.

By the way, 2.1 million viewers can be easily put into perspective with a little research and some facts, two things boxing observers are rarely interested in.  One only needs to point out that 10 years ago one of the highest-rated telecasts on HBO was the Felix Trinidad-Pernell Whitaker broadcast.  This fight drew a rating of 16.52.  This is not a typo.  Again: 16.5.  Only in boxing can it be called progress when the highest-rated show of 2009 draws a quarter of what the highest-rated show a decade earlier drew.

Well, it can be argued that Whitaker was an established fighter–although never an exciting one–and that Trinidad had a devoted Puerto Rican base to draw from.  In that case, maybe a few more examples are in order.  Lennox Lewis, long thought to be an unpopular champion, drew a 10.3 rating to face a virtually anonymous foe, Zeliko Mavrovic, in 19983. Naseem Hamed, a British featherweight, drew ratings of 10.3 and 10.1 in 19984.  Hell, even David Reid drew a 10 share to fight the obscure Frenchman Laurent Boudiani, who retired immediately after earning the largest paycheck of his career5.  Finally, the ratings average for the entire Boxing After Dark season in 1999 was a 7.46.   Keep that in mind the next time you read that boxing is as popular now as it was in the 1980s, when fights were aired regularly on ABC, NBC, and CBS. The “boxing is dead” argument is only slightly less annoying than the “boxing is thriving” argument, but it only takes a little analysis to figure it out.

Lack of established media coverage is proof in itself that the public at large is not interested in boxing.  No matter what overblown but under-thought fan pages say, boxing in the United States lags well behind other sports.  And not only the “Big Four” established sports, at that.

For all the dopey jokes about rodeo events, the October 4th telecast of the Professional Bull Riders (PBR) Ford Built Tough series drew an average of 1,867,000 viewers7. PBR has had three events televised on CBS since October and has also been televised on NBC.  Similarly, on November 7, over four million viewers tuned in to CBS to watch Fedor Emelianenko stop Brett Rogers in the second round of an MMA bout8 produced not by the MMA superpower the UFC, but by its weaker competitor Strikeforce.

Even peripheral events often overshadow boxing.  More people watched the Yankees victory parade in New York City, for instance, than purchased the Mayweather-Marquez bout across the country9. Mayweather-Marquez is often pointed out as proof that the boxing is on the upswing and that people will galvanize in order to watch the best fights and the best fighters go at it. (When has that ever been in doubt, anyway? If the biggest names in boxing fight each other, people will watch.) One million pay-per-view buys is a very impressive figure, even with the phony weight shenanigans, but citing it consistently only highlights the fact that Mayweather is an anomaly.  Only a handful of boxers have hit 1,000,000 pay-per-view buys in the last 10 years, and only two of those fighters—Floyd Mayweather Jr. and Manny Pacquiao—are currently active.  Whether Mayweather can reproduce these figures after a dull fight against an outgunned opponent remains to be seen.  With a non-critical media hyping up large-scale mismatches as “superfights,” it is entirely possible.

As for Pacquiao, he is a legitimate superstar and a genuine attraction.  If boxing continues its upswing it will be because Pacquaio and Mayweather Jr. will keep on stirring interest in casual sports fans.  If so, tens of thousands of potential converts may become interested in the sport.  And when they do will they be frustrated by the fact that boxing is not as accessible as the NBA or the NFL or Major League Baseball?  Only time will tell.   But limited exposure is part of the problem.

As it stands, current televised boxing is teetering on the edge as well.  As noted previously in The Cruelest sport:  “Over the last 15 years TNT, FX, ABC, HBO Latino, CBS, Versus, USA, FSN, Telefutura, NBC, and Fox have all abandoned boxing at one point or another.  A decade or so ago you could see Shane Mosley and Floyd Mayweather Jr. on TNT, Bernard Hopkins on FSN, Stevie Johnston on ABC, etc.  Today the only outlets that regularly televise boxing are HBO, Showtime, ESPN2, Azteca America, and Telemundo.  Occasionally ESPN Classic, or a regional network like MSG in New York, will step in and televise a heavyweight title bout no one else cares about, and syndicated shows still air occasionally on local cable outlets.”

But the trend is clear: television, propped up by boxing in the 1950s, is no longer as interested in the sport as it used to be.  Even ESPN2 cancelled its “Wednesday Night Fights” series and scaled back its “Friday Night Fights” episodes.  So an entire sport survives on about 40 total television dates offered by HBO and Showtime, and a handful of blockbuster Pay-Per-View shows.”  Thankfully, Fox Sports has recently jumped in the mix and will now be airing “Fight Night Club,” where future champions take turns beating up Cristian Favela.  When boxing returns to network TV in a significant way, the real mainstream floodgates will open.  Until then, boxing will continue to be a relatively minor pursuit in the United States, with one or two superstars holding it up like Atlas holding up the celestial spheres.

To hint, as the Associated Press recently did, that boxing is as popular now as it was in the 1980s is so loopy as to be asinine.  “Mainstream sponsors like Pepsi and Subway have shown interest in Pacquiao-Mayweather,” wrote the anonymous optimist, “one more sign the sport is returning to the popularity level it enjoyed in the early 1980s.”1o

Sugar Ray Leonard, Roberto Duran, Alexis Arguello, Larry Holmes, Ray Mancini, Thomas Hearns, Marvin Hagler, and Mike Tyson were household names in the 1980s.  Most of them had product endorsement deals and all of them had mainstream sponsors backing their televised fights, not just two or three of them.  Right behind the superstars were popular fighters like Bobby Chacon, Hector Camacho, Barry McGuigan, Aaron Pryor, Michael Spinks, and Matthew Saad Muhammad.  Holmes, for example, used to defend his heavyweight title on network television during prime-time.  Every fight televised on ABC, CBS, and NBC was a mainstream sponsored event.  Sasson, Pony (it was the 80s, what do you expect?), Budweiser, Michelob, Sprite, etc. all sponsored boxing 25-30 years ago.  As proven by the HBO ratings cited above, boxing, if anything, is getting closer to early 1990s popularity levels.

Context, along with facts, of course, is something most boxing websites, blogs, and writers can do without, but why not try it once in a while instead of shaking pompoms day and night?


1. Rafael,Dan.

2. Ring Magazine, July 1999

3. Ring Magazine, January 1999

4. Ring Magazine, September 1998

5. Ring Magazine, July 1999

6. Ring Magazine, April 2000

7. rodeo


9. New York Times

10.  Associated Press

Tags: ALEXIS ARGUELLO Boxing BOXING HISTORY Chris Arreola Floy Mayweather Jr Footnotes HBO Larry Holmes Manny Pacquiao MArvin Hagler New York Yankees Pernell Whitaker Pom Poms Professional Bull Riders Ray Mancini Roberto Duran Rodeo Sasson Sugar Ray Leonard

  • Edgar A de Dios

    It’s really hard to think that a non-American in Manny Pacquiao could immensely contribute to the revival of America’s interest in the sport of boxing. So, let’s all be thankful to his very exciting display of boxing skills every time he enters the ring. Remember, it takes lots of sacrifice, discipline and hard work to do it. Therefore, thank you so much, Manny for the rebirth of boxing worldwide!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  • gagongsiraulo

    bad font selection, hardly read most of the stuff

  • Johanne

    It’s not as dire as you make it out to be. When a fight with a main event featuring non-Americans generate 1.25 Million PPV buys in Las Vegas while drawing A-list celebrities like Magic Johnson, Derek Jeter, Roberto Duran, P. Diddy, Mark Whalberg, Jeremy Piven and Will Ferrel, then boxing is still experiencing some form of an upswing.

    BTW, Manny Pacquiao, has become a household name especially in the west coast, mid-west and southern states. Nike wouldn’t be endorsing him if he didn’t have massive appeal.

    But then again, Manny Pacquiao is entering politics and will retire from the sport as early as 2011 which, I admit, will be a huge blow for the sport.

  • johnpaulfutbol

    Thanks for this! It’s too early in the morning for me, so my gears aren’t turning yet, I’ve got nothing too try and add. But, as usual this was spot on, and a very good read. A good way to start the day, I’ll put my pompoms down and get ready for work now!

  • PacDaMan

    Well written. Almost hurts to hear the truth, but it’s important to know.

  • http://Pacland Ottog Hahn Matalam

    Everytime a Pilipino or Mexican household buys a PPV fight, I noticed that there’s always like a big birthday party.
    Therefore, if the PPV buys is 1 Million, it is reasonable to assume that the total number of viewers in the U.S. is approximately 20 Million.

  • willfrank

    Largely agree as to Chris Arreola. I don’t dislike him, but I resent the HBO force feeding of him to its audience that would prefer to see a more interesting bout/deserving prospect. Such as the Clottey/Quintana bout that was origiinally scheduled.

    I hear you on the rating numbers CA– but isn’t it true that has the number of channels have saturated the viewing audience, its a zero sum game and the ratings of most TV programs have suffered. In some ways the “pop culture buzz” that the sport is now generating– especially after a long dormant period– is perhaps the most optimistic sign that I see that things are perhaps picking up. But regular TV exposure is a must– and that means sponsorship willing to pay for a small, but diehard, fan base. I understood the Telemundo cancellation last fall wasn’t due to poor ratings, it was due to high costs of putting a show together week in and week out– and better for the network bottom line to show programmings without such fixed costs.

    Now ESPN claimed to cancell WNF to “put the money into better FNF matchups”. I didn’t see much improvement in that regard this year, did you? Especially in the summer months, Teddy constantly complained about the lack of competitive matchups. I don’t expect P4P matchups every week on ESPN, but I do expect a decent matchups and meaningful fights, and we all too often don’t get that.

  • Pacquiao vs Mayweather

    Manny Pacquiao is responsible for bringing back the fans interest in boxing.

  • Nathan

    Hey Carlos,

    Interesting article and I appreciate all the ratings data that you provided to back up your argument. I strongly agree with both you and Will that having major network exposure is critical to the success of boxing and keeping the sport “alive” so to speak in the minds and hearts of the american public. It’s left me wondering however if viewer ratings really have a direct relationship to fanbase and success? What really quantify’s the “success” of a sport anyway? If ratings numbers rule, then I would imagine that the sport of curling is much less successful and perhaps inferior to let’s say the NFL? Would the a curling fan agree with that?

    I guess my point here is that network ratings shouldn’t matter in the eyes of the sportfan despite whatever sport that person may be a fan of and better yet, give that sportfan any doubt relative to the sport he/she admires. I think most would prefer a smaller dedicated fanbase over a larger one who the majority could care less about the sport anyway.

  • JDL

    Excellent article as always, Carlos. I remember well the days of watching top boxers fight on ABC’s “Wide World Of Sports” with my dad & uncle. Back then, as you’ve stated, boxing was on prime time and the boxers were household names…unfortunately, I believe that boxing will never see that type of success again. If it even becomes half as successful as it was in the 80′s I’d be one happy boxing fan.

    Although his comment seems to have gotten a bit off topic, I’d like to give a quick reply to Nathan as to his question: “What really quantify’s the “success” of a sport anyway?” Two things…it’s popularity and the amount of money the sport generates. Period.” This post is not about what makes a true fan, but of the popularity (or lack there of) of a sport which has seen better days.

  • Alexander

    Hi!. Thanks for the blog. I’ve been digging around looking some info up for shool, but i think i’m getting lost!. Yahoo lead me here – good for you i guess! Keep up the good work. I will be popping back over in a couple of days to see if there is any more info.

  • carlos-acevedo


    Good point. But it is also safe to assume that rodeo folks get together to watch bull riding and calf wrestling. Same with MMA fans. So their numbers are also higher than the ratings suggest.

  • carlos-acevedo

    Hi Johanne,

    Thanks for writing. I am not saying the situation is dire…I am merely trying to put things in perspective with some facts. Boxing has momentum right now, but to say that it is as popular as it was in the 1980s is just silly.

    BTW, I never said Pacquiao was not a household name. I referred to him as a genuine superstar. And his Nike deal is nice, too. The point is, after Pacquiao and Mayweather, things get a little slim.

    Also, celebrities have been at ringside since at least the 1920s.

  • carlos-acevedo

    Hi JPF,

    You’re better off drinking old coffee than reading TCS in the morning!

  • carlos-acevedo

    Hi Will,

    two comments in one night/morning! I feel honored. I have no beef with Arreola either, except he bamboozled the public and gets right back on HBO again. HBO pretends they are not matchmakers, etc., but really, this kind of fight is every manager’s dream and exactly the kind of matchup a manager would make for a fighter on the comeback.

    I’m not sure I understand your second point. Are there more things to distract people from boxing these days? Yes, but it’s not more boxing. There is less boxing on TV now than since the late 1940s (except possibly for a fallow period in the early-mid 1960s) and despite that fact, ratings don’t match up to those of even 10 years ago. Theoretically, fewer outlets might mean higher ratings because the same audience has to converge on a handful of events. But it hasn’t happened because the audience has not been there for the most part.

    If you mean the HBO fights are split across channels and replays–that’s true, but the same was true in 1999. There was an HBO, an HBO2 and an HBO3 in 1999 as well. So the Pernell Whitaker-Felix Trinidad fight–to use my example–garnered a much bigger audience than its 16.5 rating. Not to mention fewer people had HBO back then and that makes the ratings look even stronger. I picked several examples to prove that the Whitaker-Trinidad thing was not just a one-shot deal a decade or so ago.

    I agree that boxing has some momentum, but to say that it is approaching 1980s levels of popularity, as the AP suggested, is pretty boneheaded. Sugar Ray Leonard, Ray Mancini, and Larry Holmes were all featured in Time magazine articles. Gerry Cooney was once on the cover of Time Magazine, and that was when Time did not have to compete with the internet, etc. It was no big deal to see this kind of media coverage for boxing. Now, it’s so rare, that the whole boxing community goes into convulsions whenever it happens, which actually bolsters the argument against its supposed uber-popularity. I’m not one of the “boxing is dead guys”, but I also understand the value of perspective and I dislike the “ready-made” thinking of both sides.

    Anyway, it only takes one superstar (read: Manny Pacquiao) to convert casual observers and today we actually have two, counting Mayweather. All it will take for boxing to really take off in the US is two big names swapping punches in a great fight on NBC in prime time….

    As far as ESPN goes, that stuff is usually unwatchable and I don’t see a purpose in 60-75% of their telecasts. And since HBO has decided to use ESPN caliber fighters for some of their shows, it means ESPN has an even smaller pool to draw from. Heh.

    Thanks for the input, WF, and don’t be a stranger…

  • carlos-acevedo

    HI Nathan, thanks for writing.

    I don’t quite understand your point. That there is a correlation between a sport’s exposure and it’s popularity is obvious. The last time boxing was mainstream was in the 1980s, when boxing was all over the place and not just on a premium cable network that airs about 25 cards a year. When one says “such and such fight drew nearly 3 million viewers, wow, boxing is back!” then all you have to say is “well, no, boxing used to get much bigger ratings CONSISTENTLY as recently as 10 years ago.” More people watched the sport in the U.S. back then than they do now. It’s not an opinion, it’s a fact. If a sport is not “successful,” it will disappear, like six-day bicycle races, WUSA, the NASL, USFL, and, more or less, jai alai. Your curling point, I don’t get either. It’s not a question of the inherent “quality” of a sport. And, yes, curling in the US is much less successful than the NFL, which is a billion dollar industry. Ratings, attendance, mainstream exposure, and mainstream media coverage are all vital to a healthy sport. Every sport, no matter how obscure (like DB Drag Racing), has its adherents, but the smaller the fanbase in boxing, the less money there is to come up with solid matchups which would attract the public. The reason boxing has such a small following in comparison to its past (when boxing was the #2 sport in America) is that networks and unscrupulous promoters decided to ignore, with contempt, the general public’s demand for quality.