Boxing is about to put on its richest fight ever.
Floyd Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao can attract hundreds of millions of dollars, but the superlatives of their planned May bout don't reflect the state of a sport that has drifted toward a pay-per-view business model.
"It certainly wasn't a big mistake to the promoters and people that made a lot of money off of it and still do, so in that regard they came out fine. The top fighters came out fine. But nobody knew who any of the other guys were," Al Michaels said on a conference call this week. "It was very difficult for a guy to be an up-and-coming guy and to get some notice. I think to that degree, on balance, it was not good for the sport."
On Saturday, Michaels will host the debut of a series of fights designed to showcase the other guys. Keith Thurman, Robert Guerrero, Adrien Broner and John Molina Jr. -- the four fighters to appear in prime time on NBC -- are hardly up-and-comers. But they're the sort of boxers for whom success doesn't guarantee becoming a household name.
And these days, that means pretty much everyone other than Floyd and Manny.
So top manager Al Haymon's company created "Premier Boxing Champions," making a major investment to get the sport back on traditional network TV. There will be five Saturday night broadcasts on NBC. Both NBC and CBS will also show fights on Saturday afternoons.
PBC marks the first prime-time bouts on NBC in nearly three decades and the first regular live boxing series on CBS in 15 years, as the sport migrated to premium channels HBO and Showtime along with pay-per-view.
"It was great for us," said Stephen Espinoza, head of Showtime Sports. "But in some ways, it stunted the growth of the sport."
Showtime may miss out on some appealing fights because of PBC. But it can promote its own bouts to a broader audience during the telecasts on partner CBS. And like many others in the industry, Espinoza hopes PBC can grow the sport, ultimately benefiting everyone who broadcasts fights.
So he and plenty of colleagues across networks are crossing their fingers for strong ratings Saturday on NBC, he said.
Meanwhile, the timing of the Mayweather-Pacquiao matchup can't hurt. Espinoza recalled that the 2013 bout between Mayweather and Canelo Alvarez produced a "halo effect" that boosting ratings for all of Showtime's boxing programming.
The trend in recent years is for major sports to migrate from traditional network TV to cable. Now boxing is doing the opposite, finding itself in a state that a broader audience trumps the short-term revenue gains of pay TV. Live sports are particularly valuable to broadcasters these days because they're DVR-proof, meaning viewers are more likely to watch the ads.
Suddenly everything old is new again -- in a search for fresh, affordable sports programing, the networks are rediscovering boxing.
"We see this as an opportunity to get what was stable American television viewing back into the spotlight," NBC executive producer Sam Flood said. "As great a job as Showtime and HBO has done, they're limited to the number of households. We're now going into every house that has a television with the fights on a Saturday night, giving the opportunity for millions and millions more people to watch."
And for now, Haymon's funding makes PBC a "no-lose situation" for the networks, Espinoza said.
The announcers Saturday will at least be household names, underscoring NBC's commitment to the series. Along with Michaels as host, Marv Albert and Sugar Ray Leonard will call the fights.
But all the production values, all the storytelling don't matter if the boxers and the bouts don't entertain.
"They've got to put up or shut up," Leonard said. "This time, this moment here is a great opportunity. It's priceless what could happen if these fighters continue to be successful."