What the Mayweather-Pacquiao Distribution Problems Say About the Future of Linear Television

Of the many, many issues with the Mayweather-Pacquiao fight, from the fact it took so long to be put together to the continued arguments even after the fight came together to Credential-gate to the lackluster nature of the fight itself, the one that I found to be most interesting, and most telling both of the problems facing boxing and of the future of big-time sporting events in general, was the massive problems just getting the fight to the people who ordered it on pay-per-view. Every major cable system and probably most of the top minor systems were fending off complaints:

Though the cable systems took the brunt of the abuse, I’m not sure they were really to blame. HBO and Showtime called on people to “order early to avoid possible problems late” out of fear “the system” wouldn’t be able to handle a surge of orders, and the use of the singular suggests their concerns were on the joint venture’s end. As people flooded Twitter and operator lines with complaints on Saturday, though, HBO seemed to pass the buck back to distributors, so maybe I’m reading too much into it. Regardless, the result was the same: so many people wanted to watch the fight that “the system” couldn’t handle them all, to the point that the fight itself was delayed 45 minutes to allow all the orders to be processed. That doesn’t happen with other live events with far larger audiences than the over 3 million estimated buys of this fight:

What’s the difference? When it comes to events like the Super Bowl, cable operators don’t have to process each order individually – anyone can just turn on whatever channel the game is on if they’re already subscribed to or otherwise able to receive it. Hmm, I wonder if there’s any other means of distribution that’s like pay-per-view in this way

Besides serving as a potential knockout punch (if you’ll pardon the pun) to the idea that the Internet can ever replace linear television entirely, more evidently and directly this debacle raises serious questions about whether or not the Internet might lead to more widespread adoption of the pay-per-view model, which this fight showed cannot scale to the level of many millions of households with or without the benefits of linear television. Broadcasters are hoping to include the ability to restrict their content to paying customers like cable networks have in the next-generation television standard, but methinks that’s more likely to take the form of the subscription model than a pay-per-view model; I can’t imagine big events like the Super Bowl moving to a platform any more restricted than an ESPN/HBO-type platform (and I certainly hope the NFL, already courting streaming disaster with this upcoming season’s experiment with airing one London game on a digital platform, won’t compound it by making it a pay-per-view experience). Indeed, I can’t help but wonder, assuming there’s sufficient economic incentive to avoid this fate in the future, whether the WWE’s move to a subscription model with the WWE Network, as well as boxing’s sudden recolonization of broadcast and non-premium cable television this year (by way of Al Haymon’s Premier Boxing Champions), might be rooted in a recognition that both “sports” might need to either dump the PPV model entirely or at least maintain the advantages of linear television if either one is going to continue to survive and thrive in the media landscape of the future.

2014 Boxing Ratings Wrap-Up

Putting together a list of the most-watched boxing fights of the year by myself poses a unique challenge. Both HBO and Showtime break up their boxing cards into multiple parts for ratings purposes that include both actual fights and bridge segments between fights, and to someone like me who’s just looking at the raw numbers it’s not at all clear which is which, especially when fights end in early knockouts – if you look at the chart you see I’ve listed two different time slots for one fight because I’m not sure my primary source identified which one was the actual fight correctly. I’m confident enough in the completeness of my sources that next year I’m probably going to do a chronological list of fight cards, similar to what I had for UFC last year, with all the numbers I have for them, and let you interpret them as you will. In the meantime, I’m going to take Dan Rafael’s top 16 fights of 2014 and use that as a baseline to extend the list as far as I can be reasonably confident in to a top 20, though I can’t be 100% certain there isn’t an interloper in the bottom four spots. The second table lists buyrates for all the PPV cards of 2014.

18-49 ratings, when available, from TV by the Numbers, TV Media Insights, or other sources. Household ratings for HBO/Showtime fights from SportsBusiness Daily, for ESPN from Son of the Bronx.

Read more2014 Boxing Ratings Wrap-Up

Can boxing re-colonize broadcast television?

I didn’t pay much attention when NBC announced an expansion of its relationship with promoter Main Events for its Fight Night series on NBC Sports Network – it wasn’t even enough to budge my Sports TV Wars count. But there is one aspect of the deal that is intriguing: up to two fights (presumably per year) airing on the main NBC network.

Before you go heralding the return of boxing to broadcast television a year after Fox’s relationship with the UFC began, keep in mind that these probably aren’t even fights of the caliber you’d see on Showtime, let alone HBO or pay-per-view. Don’t expect many if any world title matches; most fight cards on ESPN2, NBCSN or FSN tend to be focused on building up-and-coming fighters in hopes that, one day, they’ll fight for a title and justify the investment in the original broadcasts. To me, that makes it somewhat mystifying that NBC would put boxing on its broadcast network when it’ll pale in comparison to the matches even hardcore fans of the sport would be interested in. I doubt any of the other broadcast networks are going to put boxing on anytime soon, though CBS could certainly take a card off Showtime if they wanted. Granted, calling the NBC shows “Fight Night” is a bit of a misnomer, as the first broadcast show will run 4-6 PM ET, but that raises its own questions regarding whether it’s a good idea to hold US-based cards so early. (And it’s emblematic of the decline of the sport that boxing, once a broadcast mainstay, isn’t a solution for a network looking to follow Fox’s lead in giving Saturday night to sports, even with Saturday’s own decline. To be fair, though, that timeslot does better facilitate a European audience.)

NBC and Main Events seem to be big on the notion of inviting fighters from any promotion to participate on their cards, thus presumably pinning their hopes on being the premier source of boxing on broadly-available television. I’m not a big enough fan of the sport to know how well it’s worked so far beyond press-release spin, but color me skeptical. Boxing, rather infamously, has become a rather territorial sport, and just because Main Events is willing to play with others doesn’t mean the others, especially the big boys Golden Boy and Top Rank, will want to play with them.

NBC and boxing can help each other greatly, but I’m skeptical whether the relationship will be enough to overcome the larger problems with the sport. Considering how high most people seem to be on the partnership, though, I’m willing to be pleasantly surprised, but don’t expect it to be a panacea, especially for the ongoing loss of interest to mixed martial arts.

The State of Boxing

WWF Superstars, 6/2/12

“Ladies and gentlemen,” says Mean Gene Okerlund, “I’m standing backstage with World Wrestling Federation heavyweight champion Manny Pacquiao, and his manager Bob Arum. Manny, next week you’ll be defending your World Wrestling Federation championship against Timothy Bradley on Saturday Night’s Main Event on NBC, in a match where if you lose, you get an automatic rematch at the Survivor Series pay-per-view Thanksgiving week – ”

“I’m not going to lose, Gene,” Pacquiao interrupts. “I’ve beaten everyone they’ve thrown in front of me for years, and I’m not going to go down now.”

“Well, Mr. Pacquiao,” Okerlund continues, “you’re going up against a former Intercontinental Champion that hasn’t lost a match in the World Wrestling Federation. Are you concerned about the challenge he poses compared to what you’ve faced in the past?”

“I’m not worried,” Pacquiao replies. “He’s never faced anyone as tough as me.”

“Everyone wants you to fight Floyd ‘Money’ Mayweather, Manny,” says Okerlund. “What do you think are the odds of that happening once he returns from his suspension?”

“If it happens, it happens,” says Pacquiao. “Right now all I can worry about is my match against Tim Bradley at Saturday Night’s Main Event.”

“One last question, Mr. Pacquiao,” says Okerlund. “It’s been reported that your contract with Bob Arum ends at the end of this year, are you going to – ”

“I’m just worried about my match with Tim Bradley, Gene,” says Pacquiao as he walks off.

Later that night, Okerlund conducts another interview with the challenger Timothy Bradley, but only gets one response out of him before Bradley walks off:

“Don’t believe the hype,” Bradley says. “I know how good Pacquiao is. But trust me, there will be a rematch at Survivor Series. I guarantee it.”

Saturday Night’s Main Event, 6/9/12

Pacquiao comes out like a man possessed, whipping Bradley from pillar to post. Bradley can barely get any offense in against the champion, and at one point Okerlund begs the official to stop the fight. But the fight continues, and Bradley starts to come back, getting more and more offense in, eventually getting Pacquiao in his Desert Storm submission move. Pacquiao begins struggling to break the hold… and then the bell rings.

“Did he tap?” asks Okerlund. “I don’t think he tapped!”

Pacquiao looks incensed as Bradley quickly grabs the belt from Arum and runs off with the official raising his hand in victory, boos raining down from the rafters and garbage being thrown into the arena. Pacquiao looks around for Arum, who takes off like a rocket through the crowd. Pacquiao spits in his general direction, then storms off in a huff as Okerlund expresses his astonishment at the spectacle we have just witnessed.

WWF Superstars, 6/16/12

Okerlund informs the audience that WWF Commissioner Jack Tunney will not investigate what happened in the Pacquiao-Bradley fight at Saturday Night’s Main Event, news that does not sit well with the audience in the arena or with Rowdy Roddy Piper, who expresses his displeasure at the outcome in rather colorful language before introducing Pacquiao as the guest of his Piper’s Pit segment. Before he can get a question out, however, Pacquiao grabs the mic from him.

“I don’t want questions, I want answers,” says Pacquiao. “I want Bob Arum to come out here right now. I want him to answer for what he did to me last night.”

“Manny,” says Arum, “I’m as upset about this as you are. What happened to you last night was an outrage, and I have an official complaint in to the WWF Board of Directors. In fact, I’m not going to allow there to be a rematch at Survivor Series until there’s been a full and thorough investigation, I assure you of that.”

Pacquiao ponders these words for a few seconds, then steps up and embraces Arum… before giving him Pac-Man Fever and dropping him through a table, then ripping his shirt off as the fans go wild.

“April 7th,” yells Pacquiao into the microphone. “Me and Floyd Mayweather are gonna have the Fight of the Century at WrestleMania and there’s not a damn thing you can do about it!”

The crowd goes nuts and Pacquiao soaks in their adulation as his theme music plays.

Okay, maybe that’s not what happened, but doesn’t it say a lot that it’s close to what people THINK happened?

A new set of college football rankings for us to play with!

That feeling is in the air… it’s college football time again, and with it comes the return of all-out obsessive coverage on Da Blog. Both lineal titles (college and NFL) have been belatedly updated, including the new 2009 Boise State title and Super Bowl XLIV title. (I’ll have a post on the new holder of 2006 Boise State coming soon.) Although my Da Blog Poll came out to two votes to keep the College Football Schedule to one to junk it, I’m getting rid of it anyway. I need all the free time I can get to work on other things, and along with the College Football Rankings, starting Week 3 I’ll be premiering a new college football concept that has a lot more reason to premiere at the point any two teams can be connected to one another through a series of games… and one that could prove to be a lot more time-consuming than the Schedule ever was.

I started thinking about this with regards to combat sports like boxing and MMA, which I may extend this concept to eventually. If any sport has a more confusing title situation than college football, it’s those two (and horse racing), with all the different weight classes, not to mention all the different sanctioning bodies in the former. But for all the confusion over who the champ is, how the champ is determined is fairly straightforward: to be the man, you have to beat the man. So long as the champion does not lose, that person will remain the champion. This is taken to the point where lists of rankings will actually separate out the champion from the ranked fighters. No matter how strong a record you may rack up, to be the man, you have to beat the man. The championship system in combat sports is predicated on the notion that the result of a single fight is representative of which fighter is better overall. The same principle should be in play for ranking fighters below the champion.

Now, in what other sport is this the case? I don’t just ask this rhetorical question because I already created the college football lineal title on the same notion. You regularly hear the argument that Team A is better than Team B because Team A beat Team B, even if it was by one point in overtime at home. In a sense, this is the philosophy behind the BCS Title Game, as well as, to a lesser extent, the Super Bowl. (In most other sports a series of games determines the champion, removing some of the uncertainty and ambiguity of a single game.) You take what you think is the top two teams, pit them against each other, and the winner is the champion, as well as considered “better”.  As I pointed out last year, 2005 USC may well have been as good as ESPN said they were when they infamously started comparing the Trojans to all the great teams of the past, but we take it as given that Texas was the better team, because they beat USC. And BCS arguments are regularly settled by comparing whether one of the teams under discussion beat the other.

So I’m introducing what I call the line-of-sight rankings, to bring if not objectivity, at least consistency to the criteria we already use to argue about college football. Every team is situated below all the teams it lost to and above all the teams it beat. Obviously, there will be contradictions in the rankings, and in those cases we’ll have to throw out some games. We’ll determine what games to throw out in this order:

  • If two or more different contradictions can be resolved by throwing out a single game, throw out that game. Throw out the game that resolves the most contradictions, except that if a game is the most recent game for at least one team, it is considered to resolve one fewer contradiction than it actually does.
  • Otherwise, always eliminate home-team victories before neutral-site games, and neutral-site games before road-team victories.
  • Among games of similar siting, for every full 10 points of the margin of victory, add one to the week number. Then eliminate the game with the lowest week number, but do not eliminate a team’s most recent game. In event of a tie, eliminate the game with the smaller margin of victory. If there is still a tie, add the total number of losses for the winning team to the total number of wins by the losing team, and eliminate the game where that number is higher. If there is still a tie, remove the prohibition on eliminating a team’s most recent game, and if that does not help, subtract the losing team’s C Rating from the winning team’s C Rating, and eliminate the game where that number is lower.

Because every team doesn’t play every other team in college football, there will still be ambiguity in the rankings. If a team’s worst relevant loss is to the #5 team, and their best relevant win is to the #10 team, where between those two numbers is the team itself ranked? I settle these situations as follows:

  • If there is a “pod” of only one team as described above, including undefeated teams, rank the team directly ahead of the best team beaten in a relevant win. Winless teams are ranked directly behind their worst relevant loss. The team in question will have the rank of their worst relevant loss in parenthesis or, if undefeated in relevant games but not #1, have their entry boldfaced.
  • If there are two or more “pods” of multiple teams each that can be ranked a certain way between any two teams (or at the top or bottom of the rankings), or if there are two individual teams that can be ranked between another two teams but whose ranking vis-a-vis one another is unclear, break them up and rank them separately, within their own pods. Each team’s rank is listed as their best possible ranking except at the top of the rankings, when it is their worst possible ranking. In the case of the individual teams, they are listed as tied and in C Rating order unless one has a lineal title.

I’ll whip out the first rankings Week 3, when they become meaningful, and we’ll see how they play themselves out over the course of the season, and how much work they add to my already heavy workload.

Sports Watcher for the weekend of 4/14-15

All times PDT.

1-3 PM: MISL Soccer, Detroit at Milwaukee (VS.). Did you know the Detroit Ignition are an expansion team? You wouldn’t be so impressed if you knew four teams make the playoffs… out of a six-team league.

4-6:30 PM: NHL Hockey, Tampa Bay at New Jersey (CBC). Folks in Canada are incenced the game between the Pittsburgh Penguins (w/Sid the Kid) and Ottawa Senators (only Canadian team in the Eastern Conference Playoffs) is not in prime time, and they have to watch an all-American game on CBC, solely to appease NBC. But the worst part is, the game CBC is airing isn’t available nationally in the States! Personally, I blame NBC for not showing any hockey in primetime other than the Finals. If you really want to grow the game so much in the States by force-feeding us Sidney Crosby, would it really hurt to put it in primetime on by far the weakest night of the week, which the Big Four hardly bother to program anyway?

(Before you think “Is that a sign they’re adding insult to injury by throwing CBC a game no one on either side of the border cares about?” consider that the game on Versus pits the 8-seed Islanders “versus” the 1-seed Sabres. Talk about a squash.)

(Incidentially, while CBC recently locked up a long-term deal with the NHL, NBC only re-upped for one more year with an option for a second… which at first glance appears to be a retread of the previous deal, which was similar, until you note that this coming year is also the last year of the NBA on ABC.)

10:30-3 PM: NASCAR Racing, Samsung 500 (FOX). Three drivers have over 900 points out of five with 800. It’s lonely at the top of NASCAR.

5-8 PM: MLB Baseball, San Diego @ Los Angeles (ESPN). It’s Jackie Robinson Day in MLB and Bud Selig is allowing any player to wear his number; the Dodgers, the team that first put him in the big leagues, is one of a few teams doing it for everybody (Mike Cameron is the only one for the Padres). Expect more 42’s than even Douglas Adams could have ever dreamed. Clearly that day will be the day our planet is obliterated for a freeway bypass.

Baseball and hockey pre-empt boxing, TNA wrestling, and BodogFight MMA from the Watcher, but I did find out that my local cable system now shows exactly THREE PPV channels (outside the porn-only channels), which show porno in lighter hours than you’d think. Is “on demand” creating a new world, one which could force boxing, wrestling, and MMA to re-think their strategies as they increasingly become the only reason for PPV’s existence (alongside porn, but that might be headed for “on demand” as well once parental controls are advanced enough to allow it)? Spike TV will carry UFC 70 for free in the States next week in what could be the most watched (by network executives) and most pivotal sports event on television in recent memory. It could be a test that could establish, once and for all, the viability and popularity of MMA, could be a “test of the waters” for boxing and MMA, to determine if cable is financially viable, to determine if it’s time to come out of the PPV shelter and possibly on the road to respectability, and if that part’s successful, it could be one final nail in the coffin for PPV. (What it would do to professional wrestling, for which PPV is an integral part of the business model to the point where a “big event” happens once a month, not once a year, is anyone’s guess.)