LAS VEGAS, Nev. – To hear the fighters talk, the heavyweight title fight Saturday night between Deontay Wilder and Tyson Fury is so big it took two TV networks to make it happen.
That’s only partially true, though it might be forgiven. This is boxing, after all, and a bit of hyperbole goes a long way toward selling a fight.
What is true is that ESPN and Fox Sports had to come together if the heavyweight showdown at the MGM Grand hotel was to happen. And it’s also true that both networks are blanketing the airwaves this week like never before in an effort to get people to dig into their pockets for the $79.99 it will cost to watch the fight at home.
In the end the attention being paid the fight is good for a sport — and a heavyweight division — that is suddenly a mainstay again on America’s sports networks.
“Quite frankly this hasn’t happened in a long time. We believe this sport is on the right path,” said Bill Wanger, executive vice president of programming, research and content strategy for Fox Sports. “It continues the evolution of our boxing program with PBC (Premier Boxing Champions) where we’re mounting a charge to bring boxing back to the masses and create stars out of these fighters.”
To be sure, Wilder and Fury were already stars in their sport. The two fought to a draw 14 months ago in an entertaining fight in Los Angeles, and they’re both unbeaten and arguably the two best heavyweights in the world at the moment.
But the constant drumbeat of programming by both networks in the days leading up to the fight — ESPN is even running a special produced by Fox — should make both fighters more well known outside of their sport. It also will make them much wealthier if the pay-per-view buys are anywhere near the level of publicity.
“There’s never been a fight ever that’s been publicized like this,” said Bob Arum, the fight's co-promoter who has been promoting fights since Muhammad Ali was in his prime. “I mean we even had two Super Bowl commercials, when did that happen?”
For fight week that means interviews and shows previewing the clash and the broadcast of Wednesday’s pre-fight news conference on both ESPN2 and Fox Sports 1. The networks will also both air Friday’s weigh-in, the press conference in the ring after the fight and a portion of the undercard itself.
To get the main event, though, will not be cheap. Both networks are counting on the massive publicity to prompt people into inviting a few friends over and splurging on the fight.
While neither network is willing to predict just how many households the fight will do (Arum says he’s hoping to get near 2 million buys), it will likely be the biggest boxing pay-per-view since Manny Pacquiao and Floyd Mayweather Jr. teamed up — in another network cross-promotion — to sell 4.6 million for their 2015 fight.
“We don’t talk about projections but what I can say is that this fight has captured the attention and imagination of not only boxing fans but casual sports fans,” said Matt Kenny, vice president of programming and acquisitions for ESPN. “Both of these fighters have shown an ability to really transcend the sport.”
So far, though, neither has shown the ability so far to sell pay-per-views in large numbers, which makes projections tricky. Their first fight did a little more than 300,000 buys on Showtime, though at the time few in America knew much about Fury.
The networks aren’t just combining to promote and show the fight from the MGM Grand hotel in Las Vegas. Ordinarily heated rivals competing against each other for event rights and viewers, they’re also teaming up on the production and mixing their talent for the actual broadcast.
The formula worked for Showtime and HBO for the Mayweather-Pacquiao fight, and while the heavyweight fight will not come close to their record it’s got a real chance to crack the million mark and inch toward the 1.9 million heavyweight record sold for Mike Tyson’s second fight with Evander Holyfield in 1997 and his 2002 fight with Lennox Lewis.
“We’ve merged the two biggest TV networks in the world to make our fight happen,” Fury said. “That’s what it’s about, getting it out so people think they know it and recognize it. So if these two can’t do a good job promoting the fight we’ve got no chance.”
With both men being noted talkers, it also didn’t take much convincing to get them to constantly talk up the fight.
“I’ve got two guys who are great salesmen and they have sold this fight the way a fight should be sold," Arum said. “They're showing boxing is back, and not just as a niche sport anymore.”