Boxing adviser and manager Al Haymon's "Premier Boxing Champions" series is coming to ESPN and will replace stalwart show "Friday Night Fights" as the network's platform for live boxing beginning this summer, ESPN announced Wednesday.
ESPN and Haymon Boxing Management have finalized a long-rumored deal under which Haymon has purchased time on the network that will see the return of regular big-time fights to ESPN in prime time -- not ESPN2, where FNF has aired since 1998.
The monthly PBC series, which will feature many of the elite fighters from Haymon's star-studded stable of nearly 200 boxers, will debut on ESPN and ESPN Deportes on July 11 (9 p.m. ET) with a card that is to be announced.
The final show of "Friday Night Fights" will air May 22 on ESPN2, with the finals of the 2015 heavyweight and junior middleweight Boxcino tournaments. While the new deal means that ESPN will televise fewer cards than it has been, the quality should be significantly better with the PBC bouts.
"ESPN has a long history of carrying world-class boxing events and the new 'Premier Boxing Champions' series continues our commitment to the sport with premier-level prime-time fights previously only available on premium cable networks," ESPN president John Skipper said.
Although most of the PBC on ESPN cards will air on Saturday nights, the heavy fall schedule of college football means there will also be shows during the week.
Over the course of the two-year deal, which runs through July 2017, at least two of the 24 two-hour cards will air on ABC, ESPN's sister network, on Saturday afternoons. Haymon is buying the air time for the 24 cards. ESPN is footing the bill for the production. PBC holds an option for six additional cards. Haymon also has to pay the fighter purses and the other expenses related to putting on an event.
ESPN3.com will stream preliminary bouts from each card. It will also stream PBC on ESPN weigh-ins the day before the fights. Live coverage of the fights will also be available through WatchESPN on computers, smartphones, tablets, Amazon Fire TV and Fire TV Stick, Apple TV, Chromecast, Roku, Xbox 360 and Xbox One via an affiliated video provider.
The deal with ESPN, which will retain the worldwide rights to the fights and editorial control over the broadcast, is just the latest for Haymon in an ambitious project that has already altered the landscape of televised boxing in the United States as he continues to lock up one broadcast platform after another with a series of time-buy deals that include the return of boxing to three broadcast networks -- ABC, NBC and CBS -- after decades in which they largely ignored boxing.
Haymon's investors are pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into the PBC, which this year already announced deals with NBC/NBCSN (40 shows through 2016), CBS (at least eight shows this year in a multiyear deal), Spike TV (at least 33 monthly shows through 2017) and Bounce TV (monthly prospect-oriented cards beginning in July on the network Haymon helped found in 2011).
Haymon's PBC franchise launched with fanfare on NBC on March 7 with the network's first major prime-time fight in 30 years when welterweight titlist Keith Thurman outpointed Robert Guerrero in a slugfest in Las Vegas.
Six days later, the series premiered on Spike TV with former two-time welterweight titlist Andre Berto knocking out Josesito Lopez in the sixth round of an exciting fight in Ontario, California. PBC on CBS debuts on April 4 in Quebec City with an afternoon card headlined by light heavyweight champion Adonis Stevenson defending his title against former super middleweight titlist Sakio Bika.
Haymon does not speak to the media, and a spokesman for his organization did not return a message seeking comment on the ESPN deal, so his grand plan has not been outlined. It would appear that by bringing regular big-time boxing back to network television and basic cable -- even if his investors have to initially pay to do it -- he hopes the cards will bring in strong-enough viewership and advertising support. That way, networks will see boxing's value and eventually pay big money to air his fights the way Fox did when it agreed to a nine-figure annual deal with the UFC.
Although PBC on ESPN means the end of "Friday Night Fights" after a 17-year run, blow-by-blow announcer Joe Tessitore and analyst Teddy Atlas, both ringside fixtures, will continue in their roles on the PBC cards. Additional on-air commentators will be announced at a later date.
"It's bittersweet because 'Friday Night Fights' has been an integral part of boxing for 17 years at ESPN, but this opportunity to bring bigger and better fights to the network has been a long time coming," said ESPN's Brian Kweder, an ESPN senior director of programming and acquisitions, who is responsible for boxing at the network.
While FNF had a studio portion of the show each week to cover the latest boxing news, there will not be a studio element on the PBC shows. However, Kweder said there will be time in the broadcast to go over the news of the week from the site of each card.