At the same time the Floyd Mayweather-Connor McGregor boxing match was setting pay-per-view records, ESPN and Top Rank Boxing were forging a milestone deal to return the sport to linear TV and OTT streaming.
The four-year pact will see ESPN air Top Rank-promoted fights on ESPN and ESPN Deportes and stream them on the ESPN app. Some bouts could also air on ABC. Fights and other Top Rank video content will also be streamed on the just-announced ESPN stand-alone OTT app. Some pay-per-view events may also be components of the deal.
On Sept. 22, World Boxing Organization champs Oscar Valdez and Gilberto Ramirez will square off in a Top Rank match on ESPN. The network and Top Rank teamed up earlier this month for two championship bouts. The Aug. 19 matchup between Terence Crawford and Julius Indingo averaged 1.2 million viewers, the network said—a healthy number on a summer Saturday night.
An upcoming marquee attraction could be the Nov. 11 rematch between Manny Pacquiao and Jeff Horn, which is still being finalized. The two faced off on ESPN in July, marking Pacquiao’s first non-pay-per-view fight since 2005.
ESPN’s own report on the news called it a “complicated arrangement” and noted that it would run a “minimum” of four years. Under the deal, ESPN will get at least 16 fights a year, with a minimum of two additional live boxing cards created exclusively for ESPN’s forthcoming direct-to-consumer OTT service, which is due to launch in early 2018. Plus, 50 additional hours of programming will be provided for ESPN every year, including documentaries, studio shows and other ring-related shows.
Bob Arum, the octogenarian promoter who founded Top Rank, said WME-IMG chief Ari Emmanuel had made an offer to buy Top Rank’s library of fights. The mega-agency, hot off its $4 billion purchase of UFC, has been exploring ways to enter the boxing world. Top Rank’s illustrious catalog includes such classics as the 1975 “Thrilla in Manilla” between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier.
Bringing boxing to linear TV and OTT streaming is seen as one way to help it regain some of the cachet it lost to MMA and UFC, especially among younger fans. The sport has increasingly existed in a pay-per-view environment, one that Arum helped pioneer. He engineered the first pay-per-view match in 1987 between Sugar Ray Leonard and Marvin Hagler.