Golden Boy’s New ESPN Deal Could Be Encouraging

Will Oscar de la Hoya deliver?

It’s still January and the stench of 2016 lingers. The only things that can kill it are good fights and good news.

While the draw verdict for Badou Jack vs James DeGale was less-than-ideal, it was a fine bout with a fun co-feature in Gervonta Davis vs Jose Pedraza. Those good fights last weekend were followed up by the good news this week that Oscar de la Hoya’s Golden Boy Promotions would be airing several fight cards on ESPN through 2018.

Most notable fighters of the last 25 years have fought on ESPN, whether early on in their career or headlining. In the 2000s ESPN became best known for its “Friday Night Fights” series — a dependable weekly boxing card on television, even if quality dipped considerably in recent years as the network’s interest in boxing waned, along with the budget for such a seedy sport.

While Premier Boxing Champions’ 2015 deal with ESPN killed the tradition of weekly fight cards, their planned monthly shows still promised to bring back the recognizable names that “Friday Night Fights” lacked for most of the last decade. But nearly two years into Haymon’s PBC experiment, the company seems to have spread itself too thin and its success is very relative.

Boxing is a niche sport to begin with in the 21st century, and subsets of fans within the larger niche already find it unnecessary to televise fights that aren’t considered world class matchups. A series of lawsuits saw PBC lose momentum on ESPN, the biggest sports TV network in the world, and fail to capitalize on the faithful group of fight fans who simply like watching boxing and provide consistent (if generally mediocre) ratings on the network.

While Golden Boy’s series “Golden Boy Boxing on ESPN” will not be any sort of determining factor of boxing’s health or lack thereof in the U.S., many local scenes have dried up and the stateside amateur system is a sputtering mess. While the knee-jerk response might be to suggest that boxing needs more superstars, the long-term health of the sport would be better served by developing young fighters into serious contenders.

There is no guarantee that GBP will match their fighters tough, but common criticism of the promotional company in its early days centered around its lack of fighters who had been built up in-house. The company instead threw money at established names, critics said, and then relied on a favorable relationship with cable giant HBO to gain a foothold among other promoters like Top Rank, Don King Productions and Main Events.

Likely by necessity rather than any sort of design, GBP has had to adjust its approach. A recent article by Paul Gift of BloodyElbow that detailed pre-trial documents from the company’s lawsuit against Haymon confirmed that the company relied heavily on Saul “Canelo” Alvarez as a source of income in recent years. But in losing the majority of its huge stable in 2015, just prior to the inception of PBC, Golden Boy was made to focus more energy on young, promising talent.

A quick scroll through the web page that lists the company’s fighters reveals dozens of fighters in their late teens and early 20s, many undefeated and others with losses. Some are familiar names like Diego de la Hoya and Joseph Diaz, Jr. who could make for good TV. But there are new names like Jonathan Navarro and Vergil Ortiz that could turn some heads if given a chance to.

It’s unclear whether or not Golden Boy can use the opportunity with ESPN to develop talent and put on worthwhile fights that keep an audience engaged. It’s a precarious balancing act that tests the abilities of a matchmaker and the depth of a promoter’s stable, and GBP now faces the extra pressure of having to contend with a version of PBC that claims to be intent on matching its fighters tougher this year. But as that kind of competition in boxing usually forces promoters to be bolder and more creative, it may very well wind up a good thing.

ESPN’s Dan Rafael reported that there would be extra perks to GBP’s deal with the network:

“In addition to the live fights, ESPN will also feature Golden Boy Media and Entertainment content on multiple platforms, including Golden Boy’s classic fight library; ‘In the Ring,’ a half-hour interview show with a variety of fighters; ‘Mano-A-Mano,’ an original half-hour series featuring fighter training; ‘The Ring TV Express,’ which will consist of three-minute highlights of fights; and podcasts hosted by De La Hoya and other Golden Boy talent.”

Highlights, training footage and a podcast might get lost in the shuffle, but access to a promoter’s library and a regular interview show sure appeal to the more hardcore contingent of boxing fans.

Details are vague at this point, and we won’t know what exactly Golden Boy has in store until the first March card is announced. There’s potential for fun fight cards, if this truly is aimed at pleasing fans.

When Golden Boy Promotions was launched in 2002, Oscar de la Hoya vowed that the company would be geared toward putting together competitive fights that were accessible to regular fans.

15 years into the promotional game, GBP is positioned for a surge if the right moves are made. It almost seems like a chance for a reset, but with more experience under their belt this time.

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