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Battle of the boxing broadcasters

Broadcasters have long had an important influence on boxing, but in the past year it has intensified to another level.

For most of its history, the sport has been all about battles in the ring, but we are entering an era in which the biggest fights are those between media companies.

The USA and UK are seen as boxing’s biggest markets, and both countries now have three different networks competing against each other.

For British fight fans, it is common practice to turn to Sky Sports to provide the best and biggest contests in the sport. However, Sky’s arch-rival BT Sport is also becoming a major player, especially after the success of its pay-per-view (PPV) coverage of Deontay Wilder vs Tyson Fury.

If that wasn’t enough, ITV have decided to join the battle of the broadcasters by signing a deal with promotional company Premier Boxing Champions (PBC) last December.

PBC have had great success in America, especially through their dealings with Floyd Mayweather; now the company is venturing into the UK market and spicing up the party.

Shockwaves

The situation has long been similar in the States where boxing fans are accustomed to the ongoing stalemate between boxing broadcasters. However, as in the UK, things have escalated.

For a while, the competition in the US market has been between Al Haymon (PBC), Bob Arum (Top Rank) and Oscar De la Hoya (Golden Boy Promotions), all on separate TV networks.

In addition to its recent contract with ITV, PBC also have ongoing deals with Showtime and FOX, whilst Top Rank’s dealings are solely with ESPN.

However the introduction of DAZN  last year may change boxing for good, and has already sent shockwaves throughout boxing in America.

Branded as the Netflix of sport, DAZN is a streaming service that shows various sport events for monthly subscription fee – potentially signalling the end of PPV.

DAZN have already teamed up with Golden Boy and UK-based Matchroom to create a great triple-threat fight between ESPN, Fox and DAZN.

Why is this so important?

Promotional deals

Boxing works differently to, say, football, where organisations such as the Premier League and Uefa sign broadcast deals for their ‘product’ to be shown in various markets.

Promoters have always been the key figures in boxing, and their stables of fighters become aligned with whichever media companies they do deals with.

More recently, individual boxers have been signing with broadcasters directly. Mayweather fought under the Showtime banner; last year, Saul ‘Canelo’ Alvarez signed a £278m deal with DAZN; Tyson Fury has just announced an £80m tie-up with ESPN.

How does this affect viewers?

When fighters sign long-term promotional deals with media companies, all of their fights for the duration of that contract will have to be shown on that platform.

One of the most common criticisms of boxing nowadays is that the best do not fight the best – well, it’s quite difficult when two fighters are contracted to two separate broadcasters.

Now we have the three best heavyweights on three separate television stations. With Fury signed to ESPN, Wilder with Showtime and Anthony Joshua to the DAZN.

Resurgence

This has been an ongoing problem in boxing over the past decade and has put several mega-fights on hold, including Mayweather vs Manny Pacquiao.

After being talked about for several years, it finally went ahead in 2015, when former multi-weight champion Pacquiao – at the age of 36 – was deemed by many to be past his best.

Boxing has seen a resurgence in its fortunes in recent years, and is now generating a much larger following worldwide.

The key to this upsurge isn’t easy to pinpoint, but one thing is clear – large sums of money are being invested in the sport with a view to making even larger sums.

So, what will happen going forward?

Record-breaking

The most alarming issue, as mentioned earlier, is the battle of the broadcasters could make it much harder to ever see certain fights happen. A few that spring to mind include:

Big fights that may not happen…

  • Tyson Fury vs Anthony Joshua
  • Anthony Joshua vs Deontay Wilder
  • Errol Spence vs Terrance Crawford
  • Canelo vs Genady Golokvin III
  • Vasyl Lomachenko vs Gervonta Davies

One thing that has been evident since these networks have been going head to head is fighters have been getting extremely big paydays thanks to broadcast budgets increasing significantly.

DAZN broke into the US market last year with a record-breaking budget of $1bn over the next eight years. Fox and PBC have a budget of $120m a year for the next four years.

With these unprecedented amounts comes huge financial incentives for fighters, as broadcasters will offer ridiculous amounts to have the biggest draws on their platforms.

We have already seen the consequence of this already. Last year boxing saw the ‘richest contract in sports history’ when Canelo Alvarez signed his 11-fight deal with DAZN.

Since then we have seen many top-tier fighters in the majority of weight classes sign contracts for career high paydays.

Fortunately for fans, this means fighters are much more active. There is no longer a situation where boxers are fighting once a year.

However, that also means more expense for boxing fans who want to be able to see as many key bouts as possible across all the media platforms now involved in the sport.

This cold war between the broadcasters is already creating unsavoury situations such as White v Chisora being on Sky Sports PPV on the same night as BT Sport’s Warrington v Frampton PPV last December.

However due to the power of these companies, the resolution to this dilemma is further away than ever.

John Hindhaugh and the art of sports commentating

John Hindhaugh has been commentating on sports for over two decades, working his way up from hospital radio to owning and running sportscar racing’s leading station: Radio Le Mans. But talking to millions of listeners every week is no easy ride.

Hindhaugh always loved radio, he always wanted to be on it. Like many, he grew up listening to live events and shows, and wanted to be apart of it somehow, whether it was through music, or sports.

“The audience will never forgive you for any technical issues”

“I got into it through the backdoor,” he told Elephant Sport. “There wasn’t a shining moment that brought me to it, but there was always something special about listening to sport on the radio, desired by people who care about it.

“I would sit up late into the early hours of the morning as a kid and listen to boxing commentary. It was a big deal listening to something from the other side of the world, live. I love the feeling of a big event.

“And when I started I always felt speaking to people and broadcasting came naturally to me more than most, I didn’t find it that difficult. It’s a way of me expressing myself, I enjoy the buzz and thrill of analysing something on the fly that is by nature unpredictable.

Well rounded

“My ambition was originally to be Noel Edmonds, I thought he was an excellent presenter. He did a lot of good features and was a good music presenter. In the end though, that didn’t happen, I didn’t become a music jock. The big break for me was going to the States to broadcast on motorsport, and that’s what I’ve stuck with.”

So, in 1979, Hindhaugh made a career move and started broadcasting on hospital radio in Sunderland. He was tasked with all sorts of jobs, getting involved in many different sports.

“I wanted to cover different things. You rocked up at various places, and built up a network of contacts.

“That meant I was doing cycling in Newcastle, I did basketball for the Newcastle Sporting Club and Eagles, I did ice hockey for the Newcastle Cobras and rugby commentary for the Newcastle Falcons. I had no idea what to expect sometimes, from week to week.

“It’s really hard, when you work in so many sports. I’d never played basketball, ice hockey, I didn’t have a grounding. But I got involved doing onsite stuff and eventually turned it into my full career.”

Excite

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Hindhaugh and Jeremy Shaw during an ESPN broadcast

Hindhaugh agrees that whatever it is, people think it’s easy, because people think that anyone can just talk about sports. But it’s hard to flow, be objective and excite people – especially when they are listening over radio and can’t see the action.

You have to be able to paint pictures, which can be extremely difficult; many of us take that for granted.

“What people don’t realise is that commentating for a team, as an example, means that not only do you have to be prepared and know everyone and everything about that one club, but you need to know what it’s like when a club you only see once a year comes to town.

“You have to know all the names and study their form. It’s so hard to research in any depth when you are working at small local events.

“But it meant you have to be rounded, as a presenter and commentator. If you think back to Barry Davies and David Coleman – they did everything – not just football: athletics, hockey, all sorts.

“You had to be versatile. Back when I started, there weren’t many of us, being a commentator then was a skill, and a specialist commentator was in some ways were closing off opportunities.

“Ironically, I started doing motorsport commentary because there were so few people doing it.

“Nowadays it’s broadened out, as at each ground for a Premiership game or an F1 race there’s two or three sets of commentators. When I was doing football there weren’t as many positions, there was only one broadcast a week.

When it all goes wrong

Aside from being knowledgeable, you also have to be prepared for the worst to happen. Broadcasts can and do go wrong, but that’s when commentators really earn their money.

“I think it’s the times when things don’t run smooth that you get more of an indication of how good a commentator is. The audience will never forgive you for any technical issues or issues with the event, it’s what you do to fill that dead air, that’s your job.

“If you stop feeling nervous before events, and don’t feel the pressure, then the magic is gone”

“Sometimes, you only have one camera filming an event, or you don’t have a full list of who is playing or riding, or driving, but you just have to make up for that. Often, fans have more information as it happens, and a better view, than you do.

“And sometimes you have to find things to say when you have nothing to talk about while an event is being delayed.

“You come home exhausted when those things happen, but you think ‘I did alright there’.”

In recent years, Hindhaugh has become the voice of endurance racing across the globe, on Radio Le Mans as well as for other platforms like IMSA Radio and ESPN.

Broadcasting from a football ground is one thing, but commentating on a 24-hour race, sometimes for the entire event, and sometimes without TV-cut pictures, is another all together.

Round the clock

“Doing what I do now, is extremely hard. It’s so tiring, and because you’re talking about sometimes over 100 cars, all with three drivers [in rotation], it becomes a blur trying to remember form from previous races. One weekend I’ll be working in America at Daytona, the next in Italy for a GT race at Monza.”

During a season, Hindhaugh may broadcast live from five 24-hour races in different countries, with completely different sets of cars. Each one is also set over the course of a whole week, with practice and qualifying sessions to work on too.

“You have to have extreme stamina, and you have to be interesting to broadcast for long periods.

“For every driver, you need more than one or two snippets of information. You also need to know different ways of describing the same things. If you keep calling Arnage corner at Le Mans ‘a tight right-hander’ for 24 hours, it’ll get boring.

“One thing I learnt is to write down loads of adjectives for the same thing and having them in front of me. So I’ll have the words: tight, narrow, 90-degree right, a squeeze. It’s little things like that you need to prepare, and prevent yourself from sounding the same every lap.

“Broadcasting is not easy, and that’s why those of us who are good at what we do, are few and far between.

“That’s why if you stop feeling nervous before events, and don’t feel the pressure, then the magic is gone and you should stop.”