ESPN, Top Rank Turn To Classic Matches To Appease Boxing Fans

    • While still waiting for fights to resume, ESPN and Top Rank have dug into the vault to tide its boxing fans over.
    • Classic fights like Ali-Frazier III and Mayweather-Pacquiao have drawn from 700,000 to 563,000 viewers, respectively.

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When Top Rank CEO Todd DuBoef looks at 2020, he remembers a time – not that long ago – where boxing seized the attention of millions of sports fans. It was on February 22 that the world tuned in to see Deontay Wilder vs. Tyson Fury II at the MGM Grand Garden Plaza in Paradise, Nev.

By generating $16,916,440 in official revenue, Wilder-Fury II broke the Nevada gate revenue record that dated back to 1999. Along with drawing 15,816 in attendance, the rematch saw between 800,000 and 850,000 pay-per-view buys in the United States alone, and more than 300,000 purchases via digital platforms. Some estimates that an additional 10 to 20 million people viewed the encounter through illegal streams on social media and websites.

“We walked away from Wilder-Fury II as probably the last great sporting event that had happened,” DuBoef said. ‘With masses of attention from all around the world, and setting an attendance record and the gate record in Las Vegas and doing terrific on pay-per-view everywhere, I think it was the height of the sports era. Now I pinch myself saying, ‘when is that coming back,’ but now we have to look at things from a different optics – and we’re doing that.”

While fans continue to wait for the next great boxing match, ESPN and Top Rank have worked to bring historic bouts to the sport’s passionate followers. Since mid-March, DuBoef estimates that Top Rank has been programming between six to 12 hours per week of classic boxing fights across ESPN’s various channels. 

The ESPN-Top Rank relationship dates back to 1980 when the pair started the “Top Rank Boxing Series,” which lasted until 1996. In 2018, ESPN and Top Rank reunited, inking a seven-year agreement running through 2025 that includes 54 events per year as well as exclusive shoulder programming, classic fights, and studio content. Fights air both on linear television and ESPN+.

Its current partnership Top Rank is further proof that it wants to continue strengthening its boxing programming, Matt Kenny, ESPN’s vice president of programming and acquisitions, told Front Office Sports in December.

“We look at it as a way to continue to grow our audience,” he added. “We look at our partnership with Top Rank as a means to drive our direct-to-consumer priority. In addition, there’s no shortage of interesting stories that can be told from the athletes themselves and the personalities in the sport. It really felt like a wonderful opportunity for us to better serve fans, take a leadership position in the space, and continue to support boxing in a way that ultimately grows the sport.”

DuBoef says that despite Top Rank’s recent string of cancellations and postponements, bringing old-school fights to ESPN has been relatively smooth. Top Rank’s content library goes back to 1966 and contains nearly 15,000 fights to bring back into the spotlight. 

READ MORE: ESPN, International Superstars Keeping Top Rank Boxing Relevant

Top Rank’s recent ESPN airings have varied in terms of length and time slots. On April 18, ESPN showed an 11-hour block of classic flights with prime-time showing of the Ali-Frazier trilogy. It began at 12 p.m. with Ali-Foreman, which drew 342,000 viewers. It also featured a trilogy of Mike Tyson bouts that generated a combined total of 1.4 million viewers.

Ali-Frazier I aired at 7:00 p.m., with II and III arriving at 9:00 p.m. and 10:00 p.m., respectively. The trio quickly became the three most-watched fights that night, accumulating nearly two million total viewers. As of May 18, the showing of Ali-Frazier III is still the most-viewed Top Rank rebroadcast, with 699,000 viewers.

Another series came on April 25 featuring a four-hour block of various Floyd Mayweather and Manny Pacquaio matches. They included Pacquaio-Marquez II at 8:00 p.m., Pacquiao-Cotto at 9:00 p.m., and Mayweather-Pacquaio at 10:00 p.m. Every fight was rebroadcasted on ESPN, drawing 577,000, 576,000, and 563,000 viewers, respectively.

What DuBoef has seen with these re-airs is that while the boxing community – like most sports fans – is eager to return to live matches, it is just as excited to relive old fights. 

No matter which fight comes on, DuBoef has been impressed with what Top Rank and ESPN have been able to achieve in this boxing-less world. 

“We’re using it and they’re using it terrifically as it resonates with the audience – at its highest platform,” he said. “To have Saturday prime time and to be using it for our content – it’s a real credit to the partnership and relying on great content that relates to the fans and to general sports fans.”