Friday, November 9, 2012

How to Fix Friday Night Fights

ESPN's flagship boxing series, Friday Night Fights, had a tough season in 2012. Featuring a relatively weak lineup and some changes to its on-air talent, ratings cratered, with a 25% drop in weekly viewers – the series' lowest audience since its inception in 1998. Going beyond the numbers, the programming of the series seemed to be on autopilot last year. Many of the matchups just weren't compelling. Obviously, quality with any regular boxing show will vary, and Friday Night Fights does have a plethora of televised slots to fill. However, I just get plum tired of Joe Tessitore and Teddy Atlas talking about everything except the fight in front of them and who's to blame them? 2012 just didn't feature the scintillating matchups that we have come to expect from the series.
Doug Loughrey, ESPN's director of programing and acquisitions, has been the man behind the series for years and has had a mixed record. He certainly deserves credit for making Friday Night Fights a destination for boxing fans where the sport in total is discussed, not just what appears on ESPN's airwaves. He also has provided the forum for Atlas to opine about the sport, beyond his calling of the on-air action. However, Loughery certainly has his favorites, and at times it has caught up with him.
Prior to 2012 season, there was a corporate reorganization at the network with Loughrey assuming additional responsibilities. The thought was that there would be someone brought in to replace Loughrey in handling Friday Night Fights duties, but lo and behold, as the 2013 installment of series begins in January, Loughery will still be at the helm.
Personally, I think it's time for some fresh ideas with the series and a clearer mission about what fans can expect from ESPN for their Friday Night boxing fixes. Here are a few thoughts about how I think the series can be improved.
1. What is the mission? Communicate it to boxing fans.
To me, Friday Night Fights has featured three kinds of main events during its run: good TV fighters (Micky Ward, Delvin Rodriguez, Darnell Wilson, Emanuel Augustus), prospect showcases (Andre Berto, Gary Russell, Demetrius Andrade, Joel Julio) and title and title eliminator bouts of less-heralded North American fighters (Ray Austin-Sultan Ibragimov and Juan Carlos Burgos-Cristobal Cruz). Although these three types of fights have been featured as a part of the series, the viewership decline and overall entertainment value of the end product suggest that this mix may not be optimal. Perhaps it is skewed too much towards prospect showcases (Andrade vs. the dreaded TBA) or past-prime fighters who are at the end of their careers (Jose Luis Castillo, Glen Johnson)?
Should this be the right formula for the series? There are tons of ways to program a series. Should it be more prospect-based or more veteran laden? Is the purpose to highlight future stars or uncover hidden gems? Or should it just air the most competitive fights, records and hype be damned? Right now, Friday Night Fights seems to be a slapdash of programming. There isn't necessarily a right or wrong answer of what Friday Night Fights should be, but what can boxing fans expect from the series moving forward? There needs to be serious thought given at the network on how Friday Night Fights can best maximize the return for its dollars.
The lack of communication between the network and its audience is problematic. Both head boxing honchos at the premium U.S. networks (Ken Hershman at HBO and Stephen Espinoza at Showtime) give periodic interviews where they communicate their visions, goals, objectives and wants for their boxing programming. Besides a quote here and there in a press release, Loughrey rarely provides much direction regarding ESPN's boxing programming and its Friday Night Fights series. ESPN has dozens of platforms to get its boxing message across and yet the devotees of Friday Night Fights are left in the dark about expectations for the series moving forward. Are their concerns acknowledged and/or being addressed? What is being done to improve the series?
Loughrey should speak clearly to the sport's fans. Is Friday Night Fights important to ESPN? What role does it play at the network? Are budgets being expanded or decreased? How has ESPN's new agreement with HBO affected the sport's role within ESPN and will any of these additional features from the pact be used to augment Friday Night Fights?
Perhaps, most damningly, a vision for Friday Night Fights isn't communicated to boxing fans because there isn't a clear one. The network must determine what it wants to be within boxing and then relay these expectations to its audience. ESPN needs to engage its boxing audience, which will help give its viewers more of an ownership stake in the series.
2. Restore the brand.
ESPN treated its boxing fans like dirt in 2012. Start times were delayed for events such as Mid-Atlantic Conference basketball games and women's softball. In short, boxing fans never knew when the shows would actually start. These delays became comical on social media networks and the level of frustration amongst boxing fans was palpable; the audience was turned off. It felt like the network was treating the sport's fans as second-class citizens. In prior years, the network had already slashed the second installment of the show which used to run on Wednesdays and then Tuesdays.
Throughout 2012 I asked myself if boxing was on its way out at ESPN. It sure felt that way. I kept thinking that there was some nameless corporate exec at the Bristol, Conn. headquarters of ESPN yelling at Loughrey, "Shut up, be grateful that we're showing any boxing at all."
A frustration that I have every year with Friday Night Fights is its varied start times from week to week, with shows beginning at any time from 9:00 p.m. eastern to 11:00 p.m. The link above shows that start times varied from 9:00 p.m. to 11:25 p.m. EST in 2012. Of its highest-rated five programs during the 2012 season, only two of them started on time and the five start times varied by two hours and twenty-five minutes. How is this a consistent formula to build and retain an audience?
In short, ESPN has not treated its boxing viewers with respect. Program times are delayed with regularity, advertising for Friday Night Fights on any non-boxing ESPN platform is minimal and there is a lack of consistent communication from the network about its commitment to the series. Try googling "Doug Loughrey interviews." It's not a very affirming search query.
Obviously, this year's deal with HBO confirms that boxing does play a role at ESPN and its programmers have decided that the sport provides value to the network. ESPN will receive more content from HBO, like 24-7 shows, and it will have greater access to air highlights. However, what's ESPN's overall strategy with boxing? Other networks, from Showtime, to Fox Sports Net to NBC, have increased their boxing programming over the last two years. Clearly, they believe that the sport is a good strategic play for them, yet does ESPN share the same enthusiasm?
The Friday Night Fights brand is damaged and it needs repairs. But is Loughrey the right person to make changes? Is he still invested in the series or has it just become obligatory for him? Are key decision makers at ESPN even aware of the lingering resentment from viewers because of its cavalier attitude toward its programming of the series? If so, do they care? And what is boxing to them?
3. Quality control.
All boxing networks have their favorite promoters and content providers. ESPN is no different in this regard, assigning multiple dates each year to Artie Pelullo's Banner Promotions, Joey DeGuardia's Star Boxing and Luis DeCubas' stable of Cuban fighters. I understand all of that. These promoters can work within budget parameters and handle the tasks of filling out complete fight cards on relatively short notice. Again, I am not saying that these promoters don't deserve a seat at the table. But why should Demetrius Andrade fight complete stiffs? Why must the pacific Yudel Jhohnson become a staple of the network? If these fighters aren't matched well or are not quality entities, why must they continue to appear on the network? Similar to HBO or Showtime's periodic problems with trying to maintain quality content with Al Haymon fighters, ESPN must ensure that its favorites still put forward product which is entertaining to boxing fans.
It's not enough for competence in this area. Demand quality. It's Loughrey's role to make sure that Friday Night Fights' viewers – and its potential viewers – get the best bang for its buck. If Loughrey is past caring about these issues, then it's time for someone new. At the end of Ross Greenburg's tenure at HBO, he was routinely outwitted by Haymon and continued to give the manager's fighters large sums of money for fights that presented minimal risk. Despite criticism within the industry, Greenburg succumbed to the path of least resistance by overcompensating Haymon's boxers instead of setting a harder line for better fights. Is Loughrey now putting ease ahead of quality with the assignment of too many dates to his favorite promoters?
Loughrey needs to demand more from his usual stable of content providers. If he can't get better quality from them, then he must be more aggressive in reaching out to others promoters. The product has suffered and it's happened on his watch. A lack of urgency from Loughrey on quality control suggests that his replacement for Friday Night Fights should be brought in sooner rather than later.
4. Hire a Co-host.
I think most fans of Friday Night Fights would agree that the high-water mark of the studio portion of the show was the pairing of Max Kellerman with Brian Kenny. These two hosts displayed an intoxicating blend of opinions, humor, knowledge and passion. They were great television together.
Once Kellerman left, he was replaced by boxing figures (mostly fighters) on a rotating weekly basis. Some of this worked as Kenny remained excellent on camera but the quality of the boxing professionals on-camera varied. (I remember a particularly brutal night co-hosted by former referee Arthur Mercante, Sr.) Eventually, Kenny became a solo act on the series (although often with fill-in replacements). He left the network in 2011.
For 2012, Bernardo Osuna was hired as the anchor for Friday Night Fights. Osuna was a well-known figure among Hispanic-American boxing fans. He often called fights on smaller Spanish-language boxing programs and also wrote articles for ESPN.
Right off the bat, Osuna was not a natural fit as a solo anchor. He was stiff in front of the camera and didn't seem very fluid using the teleprompter (he did get better as the season progressed). On occasions where he could interview boxing figures or interact with ESPN boxing personalities, he did fine. He has a good working knowledge of the sport and conducts insightful interviews with guests. However, too much of the studio show was just him and that damn prompter. And while Osuna got through these portions with professionalism, the fun and wit of the Kellerman-Kenny days was sadly missing.
ESPN allots 15-30 minutes of studio time per broadcast. That's a ton of time to fill for someone not entirely comfortable reading from the prompter. How best could that time be utilized? Shouldn't ESPN's studio portion function similarly to how it broadcasts other sports, like football, baseball and basketball, where they have numerous experts in studio to provide additional insight about the sport?
It's clear that ESPN used to take these factors into consideration for Friday Night Fights. Why else would the network have two co-hosts and then a permanent co-host with a rotating cast of fighters if it didn't see the value of having additional voices on set? Perhaps it was a budget crunch that led to the reduction of a co-host or maybe it was just a plain, bad decision. Nevertheless, the studio show as currently constructed is nothing more than mediocre.
ESPN should hire a permanent co-host to go along with Osuna. The additional voice would provide a more comprehensive window into the fights that ESPN will be airing as well as added perspectives on the state of the sport. There are numerous veteran or retired fighters who would be good fits. Two that come to mind are former lightweight champion Nate Campbell (Campbell is still active but towards the end of his career) and former heavyweight champion Chris Byrd. Both fighters have excellent perspectives about boxing, can communicate incisively about the sport and continue to remain current with the contemporary boxing landscape.
In addition, although ESPN has wisely relied on boxing writer Dan Rafael and former Ring Magazine editor Nigel Collins (who now works for ESPN), the network should further utilize its strong bench of boxing talent to provide additional perspective for the studio show. Writers such as Michael Woods, Kieran Mulvaney, Brian Campbell or Diego Morilla all have a firm grasp on the sport and could provide additional texture to the studio show.
These changes could go a long way to healing Friday Night Fights' self-inflicted wounds. The series has suffered from neglect (benign or otherwise) and it's in some serious need of repair. If ESPN wants to continue to have a meaningful weekly boxing series (which isn't a certainty) then it must rethink how it can better captivate its potential audience. The network could start with a clear vision for the series. Maintaining a consistent start time with minimal delays would further build viewer loyalty. Having a better slate of fights would keep audiences engrossed. Finally, a more engaging studio show will help enrich and entertain its viewers throughout the season. These fixes would put Friday Night Fights on solid footing and lead to an expansion of interest in the series, instead of further audience retraction.

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