IN terms of exposure, and fights available to the armchair consumer, British boxing has never had it so good. Frank Warren, head of BoxNation and Queensberry Promotions, announced a deal that will see his channel join forces with BT Sports – a huge broadcasting platform rivalled only by Sky Sports – to deliver a package that should encourage the leading promoters to up their games, and see the quality of top-end British boxing improve over the coming years.
The deal will see BT, in conjunction with BoxNation, broadcast 20 live British shows a year – the same amount of shows Matchroom stage for Sky Sports. The BT broadcasts will take place on Saturday evenings, and be sandwiched by Premiership football coverage. BT customers will also have access to BoxNation, who will televise a further 40 live events (30 international) every year.
But this isn’t just about the numbers. What Warren has done, alongside his son George Warren – very much the orchestrator of this deal – is create a platform capable of seducing the leading fighters in the country, provide better competition for his existing troops, and in turn, ensure his endeavours reach a vast audience. While BoxNation remains an excellent station for the hardcore fan, it does not have the reach nor clout of Sky. And when you’re a fighter of repute, you want your work to be seen by the largest possible audience. As a result, when Warren went to the negotiating table he could not match the exposure being promised – and largely delivered – by Matchroom and Sky Sports. As a consequence, Matchroom Boxing, led by Eddie Hearn, were close to securing a monopoly over the sport at the highest level. What Hearn has accomplished over the last five years on that platform, with a huge leg-up from some exceptionally talented fighters, is bring boxing back to the masses. It hasn’t always been pretty, but it should be deemed a huge success; even Hearn’s biggest critics cannot argue that British boxing is not bigger, from a business standpoint, than it’s ever been.
But within the Hearn empire is an increasing number of egos and personalities, which now need to be juggled when they were once only nurtured. Hearn himself will admit it’s an almost impossible task to keep all of his fighters happy, and Warren can create an appealing alternative for the more disgruntled among Matchroom’s ranks. In turn, both Warren and Hearn will be under increased pressure to deliver, and the only way to do that will be to create the best opportunities and challenges for their boxers.
Warren, of course, has been here before. A veteran of this game, he had to fight hard to get a foothold many years ago, when Mickey Duff was at the head of the sport, and television space at a minimum. Back then, in a 1980s era now regarded far higher than it was at the time, Warren strode confidently into the 90s and beyond, and he’s battling tenaciously to re-establish supremacy. Whether he can do it still remains to be seen, though. Certainly, Hearn will be up for the fight. The first show is scheduled for February 2017, with details for the opening event – and the following months – expected in December.
Ultimately, one hopes, it creates healthy competition between the promoters and broadcasters to deliver the best possible product to the fans. And of course, it’s the fans, the consumers who pay for subscriptions, who are at the crux of it all. With the fans in mind, that competition should not create a division. What we don’t need is a situation where the best fighters from each side cannot fight each other. That scenario developed between Showtime and HBO in the USA, and several fights became almost impossible to make as a consequence. Ultimately, what the fans want and deserve, is not just the best fighters, but the best fights. Those contests must happen, and not be a casualty of politics. Perhaps that’s blue sky thinking, but more than ever, with UFC on the rise, and more eyes than ever on boxing, it really is time for the sport, and the powers behind it to be the best they can be.