Return to network TV a hit for boxing

Leo Santa Cruz's exciting style could be on display on the Floyd Mayweather-Robert Guerrero card. Jeff Gross/Getty Images

The first live boxing match on CBS in 15 years was a hit and probably means more cards to come.

On Saturday in Los Angeles, CBS -- sister network of Showtime -- aired bantamweight titleholder Leo Santa Cruz's defense against Alberto Guevara. The fight, the first on CBS since then-middleweight champ Bernard Hopkins stopped Glen Johnson in a 1997 title fight, generated a 1.3 rating and a 3 share, according to the overnight ratings. (Full ratings won't be out until later in the week and likely will vary at least slightly from the overnights.) The overnight rating translates to about 1.5 million households tuning in to the fight.

Santa Cruz is about as bankable as any fighter in boxing when it comes to getting an action fight, and Guevara, an unknown, performed very well. The result was an exciting fight -- credit to Golden Boy matchmakers Eric Gomez and Robert Diaz for making a good match -- with Santa Cruz retaining his title via unanimous decision.

The telecast, titled "Showtime Boxing on CBS," ran from 4:45 p.m. to 6 p.m. ET. It started 15 minutes late because of the overtime NCAA basketball game between then-No. 1 Indiana and unranked Butler, which won in overtime. The overtime cost junior featherweight Joseph Diaz, a 2012 U.S. Olympian, the chance to make his pro debut on network television, but it probably helped the performance of the show because the exciting finish to the hoops game provided a great lead-in for the fight.

Each rating point represents 1 percent of all U.S. television households, so 1.3 percent of all 114 million U.S. television households watched the show. The share is the percentage of households watching television that are tuned to a particular program, so a 3 share means 3 percent of people watching TV at that time were watching boxing, although CBS has not yet released the actual number of viewers. That is not part of the overnight ratings breakdown.

"We're very pleased with the show and the rating it generated," said Showtime Sports general manager Stephen Espinoza, who spearheaded the arrangement with CBS. "This kind of rating illustrates what we have been saying -- i.e., that boxing has an enthusiastic fan base that is hungry for quality boxing content and will turn out to support boxing on network television."

Even better than the raw number of households watching the fight, at least as far as CBS is concerned, is that it retained about 90 percent of the audience from the basketball game, which did a 1.5 rating.

In fact, of all network sports events this past weekend -- excluding the huge ratings done by various NFL programming -- the fight had the second-best rating behind only the Butler-Indiana game.

For example, a golf tournament on NBC on Saturday did a 0.9 rating, the Dew Tour ski event on NBC did a 0.6 rating on Saturday and Sunday's Dew Tour coverage did a 0.4.

Golden Boy promoter Richard Schaefer, who promoted the fight at the Los Angeles Memorial Sports Arena along with Saturday night's Showtime card featuring Amir Khan-Carlos Molina, was ecstatic about the performance.

"To be able to retain about 90 percent of the audience which watched the basketball game, it's very exciting and it shows the strength of boxing and shows that Leo Santa Cruz probably gained a lot of fans.

"You only get one chance to make a first impression, and for us it was very important. I knew if you put in a Leo Santa Cruz, he's a guy who can't make a bad fight. This will hopefully get CBS excited about boxing."

Schaefer said the key is to get similarly good lead-ins for future boxing cards.

"You have a built-in audience," Schaefer said. "Could I see boxing following an NFL or college football or basketball games more often in the future? Absolutely. I'm an ambitious guy, so the perfect slot would be after the Super Bowl."

That's extraordinarily unlikely, which Schaefer knows, but he added, "One is allowed to dream, right?"

Schaefer said he knows he won't get that kind of superb slot, but he said he is talking with executives about the next show.

"I think this worked for everyone. My hope is to have at least one card per quarter," he said.

"If you do it once a quarter and it works and everyone likes it, maybe you do one every other month and then maybe once a month. We worked on this for a long time. [Golden Boy president] Oscar [De La Hoya] always said he wanted to bring boxing back to network television, and the right opportunity presented itself and it worked. We went into this well prepared.

"We branded it well, the production was good, the crowd was good, the fight was good. There was not one glitch, and, when you look at the early ratings, it's very, very encouraging for the sport of boxing."

As somebody who grew up in the 1970s and '80s watching boxing on network television, I loved seeing a good fight on CBS. This Saturday, NBC gets back in the act when it televises the rematch between heavyweights Tomasz Adamek and Steve Cunningham, who fought a great action fight for the cruiserweight title in 2008. The NBC fight is part of promoter Main Events' deal with NBC Sports Network to televise regular fights on the "Fight Night" series.

Maybe this is the start of a new era in boxing with fights back regularly on network television. Schaefer is bullish.

"Boxing is the best buy in town," he said. "If I was a stockbroker, I would suggest everyone go out and buy some in boxing because this is an indication that boxing is the most undervalued live sports property in the world, period. If you see what networks have to pay for NCAA basketball or football or the NBA, NFL and Major League Baseball for the ratings they do and then compare it what they have to pay for boxing, it is without any question a great buy."