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Sky TV is Not Anthony Joshua’s Limit

Anthony_Joshua_3069946bBy Donald “Braveheart” Stewart

Over here in the UK we often think that boxing in the good old US of A is tied up in pay per view figures. Fights that can do great pay per view figures seem to be highly prized whether they are great matches or not. Often the best fights are the ones that surprise you and they tend to build their audience slowly rather than burst onto your screens so we over here, think you over there, are a bit obsessed.

Part of the problem is that the biggest prize in UK boxing is to get your fight onto the free channels. That’s right, the biggest audience is on the channels that don’t ask for money to watch. With recent news that some of the free channels are looking to provide increased coverage people have got excited – boxing is back in the mainstream.

Let me try and explain…

The box office card that is with us on Saturday night, headlined by Charles Martin 23-0-1, 20 KO’s Vs Anthony Joshua 15-0, 15 KO’s for the IBF world heavyweight title can be seen only if you buy it. For the princely sum of £16.95 you are able to tune in and zone out to an undercard followed by the spectacle of whose O has to go. The whole bill shall hinge on how good the headline is as fans buy for that fight but they do get a whole lot more in their package. But like the fight in the venue, many fans will not be in their seats for the rest of the evening but get to sit and watch when the main event comes on.

Like in the venue, for both the undercard and the main event there are the possibilities that people may miss out on the chance to see some of the cream of British boxing. For Anthony Joshua, our Olympic superstar that could be a major pity. Joshua, like Frank Bruno and Henry Cooper before him has become a national favorite. He has a short career and will be looking to cash in on it before he retires in a decade or so. To be fighting exclusively on satellite TV for a UK audience bizarrely could limit his appeal.

When I was growing up British television was simply not like this. The cable and digital networks did not exist and television was governed by a lack of choice. We had only three channels. The BBC had 2 of them – BBC1 and BBC2 – with ITV providing the rest of the entertainment. In a country of around 55 Million that was believed to be plenty. It meant that any sporting event was guaranteed to reach most of the UK and massive fights attracted massive audiences and all 3 channels were free.

Known now as the terrestrial channels, because they don’t depend on a satellite, they have been joined by the unimaginatively named Channels Four and Five. For the payment of about £130 per year you get to watch all five of these channels without paying any more. The whole of your fee goes to the BBC. ITV, Channel Four and Channel Five are dependent upon advertising. There are, however strict rules on advertising, just like the states.

Satellite broadcasting changed all that and we became used to monthly fees and Sky TV bundles that meant we could get to watch extra special stuff – like reruns of Friends and Cheers. By the time Sky came though we were already sick of only having 5 channels. Whilst the sporting events like massive boxing matches got huge audiences there was a lot of complaint about one side of the remote getting all the subsidy of that licence fee– the BBC. The BBC were advert free. The argument went that it meant that we got programming that was quality and not dependent on market forces. It did not need to make a profit so it could concentrate on the public and serving them rather than advertisers. We still think this is valuable but in the global TV market that can be problematic. Promoters of any show want to sell it to the highest bidder and money out of the same purse as health, education and so on going to the same money rich sports as formula one or football (soccer) or boxing was controversial. Eventually boxing disappeared from this mass audience base.

It was about 20 years ago that boxing stopped being shown on any of the 5 terrestrial channels. For some of this it was a shame because boxing had regularly been on TV, highly popular with great audience figures every time a British boxer moved onto the world stage. It made stars out of the likes of John Conteh or Joe Bugner or Henry Cooper. It was also where massive international fights were broadcast so we got to know Ali and Sugar Ray. We were spoiled as it was all for nothing.

Sky changed all that. The way in which we organised broadcasting was always a source of pride amongst people who believed we were superior to anyone else. In America we heard you had to pay for your TV – at least we gave it away free.

As Sky grew won popularity, boxing was struggling to find its place but now Eddie Hearn and Matchroom have resigned their big deal with Sky Sports whilst Frank Warren is celebrating a few years in charge of the exclusive boxing channel Box Nation. Channel Five were the first to make inroads back into the boxing world for free TV. A number of up and coming fighters, like Chris Eubank, JR. 21-1, 17 KO’s have featured on bills that they have broadcast and they did do the Eubank/Blackwell fight so will be making a mint from their footage.

ITV have announced plans to bring it back and whilst we shall all be trying to tune in to the Martin/Joshua fight the pay per view figures would be swamped if it were on BBC1 or ITV. Market forces would dictate that IT or the BBC would have to pay a fee and whether we like it or not if that does not match what would be gathered in revenue from a pay per view event mass market television coverage of our sport in the UK may be a thing of the past. Recent controversy thanks to the Blackwell injury and the Tyson Fury 25-0, 18 KO’s outbursts have been controversial but they have also brought boxing back into the newspapers as a possible mass market interest.

The British public hold onto their conceit that watching TV in a traditional manner through our 5 main channels is to be valued and cherished. The younger generation like watching TV on their tablets and smartphones but we still have a significant conservative viewing public who are suspicious of Sky and the like. With the juggernaut that is Joshua, and with the possibility that he may win on Saturday he may end up shaking up a whole lot more than just the heavyweight boxing scene…

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