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With Premier Boxing Champions, Spike tries to give boxing what it gave to mixed martial arts

Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images

After a largely successful debut last week on NBC, Premier Boxing Champions (PBC) brings its product to Spike TV on Friday night for the very first time. The question isn't so much why given Spike's well-documented success in attracting the precise demographics where boxing lags, but rather, can the gambit actually work?

"We have not done boxing on Spike TV before," Spike TV President Kevin Kay admits when speaking to MMA Fighting. "We're trying to bring younger men to the table. That's what we do. I believe we have done a really good job getting out there and promoting and talking about this card. I thought the shoulder programming was strong. I think we'll do well, but I don't have a huge expectation yet."

Kay's prudence is probably wise. As aforementioned, Spike may be the home of combat sports, but it's a home that's never housed boxing until now. In addition, boxing and MMA might be closely related sporting cousins, but as cultures and in terms of populations they appeal to, are far apart.

That's why of all the places where PBC is shipping its product, Spike's eventual success or failure in this space might be the most important to note. While PBC drew strong ratings for its debut on NBC, pulling in an average of 3.4 million viewers in prime time, Spike is materially different than NBC or CBS. This is cable, not network television, after all. More to the point, there's a bleeding edge where Spike often treads that affects its programming, something network television usually refrains from or doesn't have the creative license to do.

That differentiation, Kay argues, will be key to the PBC on Spike presentation.

"We have actually been encouraged by Al [Haymon, head of PBC] and his team to 'Spike it'," Kay says. "We go after different audiences. CBS is going to be weekend day times. They do things their way. NBC is prime time is almost quarterly - they haven't fully released their schedule yet - those prime time events. And they'll be doing some weekend day time as well. We have exclusively Friday nights once a month."

"I think that's a very different kind of team," Kay remarks when discussing the broadcasters Spike's assembled for PBC events. "We've encouraged them to go out there and tell it like it is like we do on Bellator broadcasts. It's OK to talk about whether fights are good or fights are lagging or why they are, what they are. You're going to see a broadcast that's going to be edgy and Spike-like. That is what Al has encouraged us to do. He loves what we've done in mixed martial arts. He feels like we know how to build stars and tell stories. Honestly, all they said to us is 'Do what you do because you guys do it really well.'"

There are many factors that go into what Kay describes as trying to 'Spike' the broadcast, and the creation of the broadcast team is something he notes as central to those efforts.

"I wanted young faces and I wanted fresh faces," Kay notes. "I have this thing and I've said it before. When I watch boxing, I sometimes turn it on and it looks like it could still be 1975 and [Tommy] Hearns and [Marvin] Hagler could be in there for all I know. I want to do a different presentation."

To "innovate the space" as Spike claims it wants to do, it has retained the services of Bellator color commentator Jimmy Smith, added boxer and former Showtime commentator Antonio Tarver as well as Dana Jacobson, a female voice, and a relative rarity in boxing broadcasts.

"I want to see if we can bring young guys back to boxing and reinvigorate them or get them to know the product. Maybe they don't even know the product. Get them excited about it and I think Jimmy is one of those guys whose got that ability to crossover. He's known by the Bellator audience, he's known by the mixed martial arts audience. I think he can bring that excitement and some of those fans with him. If we can get young guys to watch boxing, I think that's the future of the sport."

Tarver insists this is an important way to treat the sport and if it worked for MMA, it can do the same for boxing.

"The thing about boxing that hurt boxing to a certain extent was that we just didn't have enough visibility," Tarver says. "We wait once a month to see HBO or Showtime, or if we're lucky we get a really good pay-per-view card, but everything else seemed like it was lights out around the country. You had a bunch of club shows and things wasn't getting televised, wasn't getting any notoriety. We kind of stalemated for a minute, but I think this is the answer.

"When you look back at the glory years of boxing, you had two things: a dominant American heavyweight champion or network TV," he notes. "This is going to be the shot in the arm that really gives boxing the boost that we need to make this sport mainstream again.

"It worked for MMA and I think it's going to work for us," he argues.

Kay further notes it's essential to have the kind of production that delivers on audience expectations about timeliness. He points to lessons learned in Bellator broadcast as a best practice that carries over.

"I think people tune into fights to see people fight," Kay says, almost tautologically. "One of the things we do with Bellator is, within 10 minutes, you're fighting on Bellator. Sometimes within two minutes, you're fighting on Bellator." Kay says PBC won't have boxers in the ring within two minutes, but that viewers can expect a similar kind of pacing.

Even if Spike gives PBC an edgier treatment, though, and gives boxing the kind of renovation necessary to get a second look, there's still an unsettled issue of who, precisely, Spike is asking to watch PBC: the existing Spike audience, MMA fans or matriculating boxing fans? More importantly, can these audiences coexist into something harmonious and consistent?

According to Kay, the traffic will cut both ways and provide something new both to boxing as well as Spike.

"You go back to when we put the WWE as the lead in to The Ultimate Fighter (TUF). Everybody said, 'Wrestling fans will never watch mixed martial arts.' My thing was like, there's 6 million people watching the WWE at the time. If I only get 20 percent of them, I'll be a happy guy. I think we did better than that," Kay contends.

"I don't know that's there's a tremendous crossover. Boxing tends to be older. It has been older for a long time. Mixed martial arts tends to be younger. I think we have the potential to draw new fans to each sport and I hope that we can do that. I think when you look at boxing and you see those numbers they put up on NBC, there's a hugely strong boxing audience out there. If I can bring that to Spike - and particularly among the Latino community, among the African-American community - those would be so additive to the audience we already have, it would make me very happy. I think that would expand our audience base."

Still, boxing carries a different pace and set of sensibilities. Like MMA, boxing is not universally appealing even to hardcore "fight fans." Kay thinks one remedy to could be a keen focus on matchmaking with an attentiveness to how selected action fighters work within an exciting, fast-moving broadcast.

"We want competitive fights. I'm not interested in guys fighting cans. That's what boxing has been for way too long and it's not interesting to me," Kay says.

Kay argues fighters on Spike's broadcast, like Josesito Lopez and Andre Berto, can reasonably be classified as action fighters, but also those in can't-lose positions. Both fighters enter Friday's bout against one another as winners of their previous fights, but need career boosts after either loses to high-profile talent or disappointing performances.

"[Spike's PBC audience] should be excited about what's to come," Tarver suggests, echoing Kay's contentions. "The fights are going to take care of themselves as long as they continue to put on competitive fights, we're going to get the fans and everybody's going to fall back in love with boxing."

Kay isn't talking metrics yet, noting he'd ideally like Spike to draw in the "ballpark" of what NBC pulled, but having never covered this territory previously, isn't going in with many assumptions. He also is adamant pointing to MMA ratings as a benchmark could be valuable long term, but is hasty in the short run.

"I don't think you can compare PBC's broadcast ratings to UFC's broadcast ratings," Kay says, speaking of NBC's numbers for PBC's debut broadcast. "That story will be told over time. Nobody's going to get that out of the first broadcast, right? And nobody's going to get that out of the first broadcast on Spike."

What they might get, though, is a taste of the Friday night-branded programming Spike is calling 'Fight Night Lights Out'. With GLORY kickboxing, Bellator MMA and now PBC (including a host of shoulder programming related to all three properties), Spike is trying to turn Friday nights from 9 p.m. to 11 p.m. into destination viewing for the combat sports fan, such as there is one. The bet is that by going all in with combat sports, they not only brand themselves as a destination, but pull together they disparate audiences that make up this group.

Kay notes it could all get confusing for the average viewer, but argues more options with more diverse content is a win for viewer and network. There's something for everyone, Kay believes, and viewers might also discover something else to watch beyond what they already tune in to see.

"There's more available for the fan than there ever has been before. The downside of that is that sometimes it's hard to figure out where and when and if can keep up with it all," he observes, noting that eventually fans figure it all out.

"If you're a mixed martial arts fan or a combat sports fan, I think it's great to be able to get all this content where you can for free. You get to choose. That's the best thing I think we can offer the fans. It's live and free on Spike TV. Come on, watch as much of it as you want.

"Available content," Kay contends,"is what we should be about."

Author's disclosure: I occasionally appear on GLORY broadcasts, which air on Spike TV. I was also part of Spike TV's 'MMA Uncensored Live' from June to December 2012.

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