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A Streaming Pile of Crap: ESPN/Top Rank Add Yet Another Paywall to Boxing

(Originally Published: April, 2018 @

Last summer, when Top Rank and ESPN announced a partnership to bring high-end boxing back to the masses via basic cable, the deal was lauded as a “win” for boxing. If there was anything that would facilitate the sport recapturing the fancy of mainstream sports fans, it would be primetime, premium-level boxing as part of the main ESPN programming.

Early shows yielded mixed results and TV ratings that were consistent with what typically could’ve been had at Top Rank’s old HBO home. But there was hope that, at the very least, new eyes were being exposed to a sport which had spent the last thirty years or so hidden behind two layers of paywalls.

And then that hope crumbled.

Last month, ushered in by the deceiving ESPN headline: “ESPN, Top Rank expand partnership by adding 12 more cards,” it was announced that the sports giant would be adding extra boxing content, indeed, but only to their new ESPN+ streaming service.

What stays on ESPN and what gets shipped off to the 4.99 per month app is not clear at this moment. However, Monday’s announcement that the June 9 Terence Crawford-Jeff Horn welterweight title bout would be aired exclusively on ESPN+ gives one the impression that fans are losing out on some premium content in an attempt to lure them over to crossing the paywall.

So, to lay out the Top Rank/ESPN business model here—boxing fans will be getting some fights on ESPN’s basic cable service, others on the ESPN+ pay app, and then will have to dish out pay-per-view money for the “big” fights on ESPN PPV. This “free” boxing deal will cost you three times over.

Top Rank’s promise to bring boxing back to the masses again lasted all of eight months before they found a way to work paywalls back into the business model.

Monday’s announcement from ESPN says that the new streaming service will air twelve live cards and six international cards over the course of the first year, along with studio shows and archived boxing footage. All of this, of course, is in addition to the other sports programming the service will have, presumably culled from what didn’t make the cut on the network’s “regular” channels.

For boxing fans, is it worth 4.99 a month or 49.99 a year for eighteen cards and some other boxing content? A lot would depend on the quality of the cards. But, with the Top Rank roster stretched to fulfill dates on ESPN and ESPN+, there has to be serious concern as to the ability to produce consistent quality content on both platforms. One suspects that if the streaming service is a hit, the best boxing content would be shipped there, leaving behind subpar shows, a full level below the worst Friday Night Fights had to offer.

We already know that we’re losing “free” access to Terence Crawford, one of the very best pound-for-pound fighters in the world at the moment, as he moves up in weight to try for a welterweight title. (As an aside, Crawford, who has desperately needed to get his tremendous skills showcased to the casual fan, gets ZERO push from this Horn fight now. He would’ve been better off fighting for the 700,000 faithful HBO Boxing viewers who tune into every event these days rather than fight for a few thousand on a new streaming app).

Even if Top Rank can maintain quality control and the new streaming service proves to be worth the subscription fee for boxing fans, this whole thing is a loss for the sport.

There was a chance to wedge our very best back into the mainstream and, finally, it seemed that one of boxing’s biggest promoters understood the importance of embracing long-term growth at the expense of immediate gratification. But it appears that this whole deal—the move away from HBO and to ESPN—was just an effort to leverage themselves into another, possibly more lucrative, cash grab at the fans’ expense.

What boxing didn’t need was yet another paywall between the fans and the fights.

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