For the last three years, one of college sports’ most prestigious events has served as an appetizer for a sport trying to resonate with younger generations.
Starting with the Heisman Trophy presentation in 2017, which was won by Baker Mayfield, ESPN’s coverage of that event has always been followed with boxing.
Four college football players – LSU’s Joe Burrow, Ohio State’s Justin Fields and Chase Young, and Oklahoma’s Jalen Hurts – will be vying for the Heisman Trophy on December 14 at 8:00 p.m. ET. Following the event, ESPN viewers will go straight to Madison Square Garden, where WBO welterweight world titleholder Terence Crawford will face Egidijus Kavaliauskas at 9 p.m. ET in the main event of a Top Rank Boxing card.
But unlike the sport of football, which has minted several new stars at the Heisman event, boxing is still looking to help develop the next boxer with the starpower of Holyfield or Tyson – something Top Rank thinks this unique time slot can help happen.
“We’ve had massive numbers on that weekend,” said Todd DuBoef, president of Top Rank. “That weekend with the Heisman – the cross-promotion, everything is correct. Our ratings we expect will be fantastic again, and I think it’ll be a terrific night.”
Heading into the Crawford-Kavaliauskas bout, ESPN’s Top Rank coverage is hoping to continue its recent run of success. When Manny Pacquaio took on Jeff Horn in Brisbane in July 2017, ESPN drew an average viewership of 3.1 million viewers and a peak of 4.4 million viewers, according to Deadline. Deadline also wrote that it was not only the highest-rated boxing telecast on cable since 2006, it was also ESPN’s highest-rated boxing telecast since 1996.
The high interest that resulted from the Horn-Pacquiao encounter led to a four-year minimum deal between ESPN and Top Rank. The deal meant that ESPN would televise live Top Rank promoted fights on ESPN, ESPN Deportes, and stream them on ESPN+. It was the first partnership between ESPN and Top Rank since they worked on the “Top Rank Boxing” series from 1980 to 1996.
In 2018, ESPN and Top Rank extended its partnership by signing a seven-year agreement that runs through 2025 that includes 54 events per year as well as exclusive shoulder programming, classic fights, and studio content, wrote Deadline.
On the same night that Kyler Murray won the 2018 Heisman Trophy, Top Rank on ESPN’s telecasts of Vasily Lomachenko and Jose Pedraza on both ESPN and ESPN Deportes averaged 1,980,000 million viewers, a 6% rise from the same window in 2017. For the Lomachenko-Pedraza fight specifically, it lasted from 11:39 p.m. to 12:26 a.m. ET and averaged 2,013,000 viewers, and became the third-most viewed fight of the year.
On ESPN alone, the telecast averaged 1,865,000 viewers, making it the second-most viewed boxing telecast across broadcast and cable in 2018. It capped off a year which saw Top Rank on ESPN air the top two – and three of the top five – boxing telecasts.
“Boxing is very much part of the fabric of ESPN,” said Matt Kenny, ESPN’s vice president of programming and acquisitions. “If you think about all of the big fights and big events over our company’s 40-year history, ESPN has always had a prominent role in covering those events. By virtue of our relationship with Top Rank, we’re a more active participant in that.”
Along with a direct-to-consumer product like ESPN+, Top Rank was able to lean on ESPN for insight into the state of boxing in the United States.
Courtesy of the media giant, DuBoef was able to see that 44% of the U.S. population considers themselves fans of boxing. In the last decade, boxing has grown 15% domestically in terms of popularity, behind only international soccer and the NHL, said DuBoef.
He also credited the 18 to 34-year-old audience for helping boxing regain its place in the national sports conversation. Ranking only behind the Heisman Trophy Ceremony, last year’s Top Rank on ESPN telecast was the second-most viewed telecast of the day on cable among males 18-to-34, 18-to-49 and 25-to-54.
“When you look at what Top Rank has been able to deliver over the last 12 months, it is really impressive, and we couldn’t be more excited for the culmination of what’s been a great 2019,” Kenny said.
Although Crawford’s racked up an undefeated 35-0 record and three world championships in three different weight classes, DuBoef doesn’t want Top Rank’s focus to be solely on American talent. For him, it’s making sure that his company – and the sport of boxing – don’t limit their geographical reach.
Outside of the U.S,. boxing fans have been gravitating towards foreign boxers, said DuBoef. Lomachenko hails from Ukraine. Irishman Michael Conlan was a quarterfinalist in the 2016 Summer Olympics at bantamweight and will be facing off against Russian rival Vladimir Nikitin in the first boxing match at MSG on December 14.
With an audience that’s 60% African American and Hispanic, DuBoef sees this as proof that boxing has a future that extends beyond the U.S. and to other parts of the world.
“I think a lot of times we get concentrated on, ‘hey, what happens here in the U.S. is what happens everywhere,” DuBoef said. “Everywhere has seen growth, meaning the rest of the world has a very robust boxing climate. I think those types of opportunities lead to endless opportunities for all of us in the sport of boxing in understanding that there is an appetite, and its global nature is making it more compelling each day.”