Epix to televise heavyweight fight
HBO and Showtime have dominated boxing on premium cable in the United States for decades. Now there is a new player poised to enter the fray.
Epix, a premium network, video-on-demand and online service launched in 2009 that is available in more than 30 million homes, will televise Vitali Klitschko's heavyweight title defense against Odlanier Solis from Cologne, Germany on March 19.
"I think boxing is still an important franchise on the TV landscape," Epix president and CEO Mark Greenberg said after completing the deal Wednesday.
The Epix deal for Klitschko-Solis was brokered by promoter Lou DiBella. Greenberg said he liked the idea of a heavyweight title fight kicking off the network's involvement in the sport.
"There is still something special about a heavyweight championship fight," he said. "Boxing is fun. There's a certain energy level to it. It's a fascinating sport."
Greenberg is quite familiar with boxing and its long-standing relationship with premium cable. He once worked at HBO as a marketing executive and then spent 17 years at Showtime -- including 10 of them overseeing the boxing franchise -- until leaving in early 2006.
When HBO and Showtime made a landmark deal for Lennox Lewis, who was exclusive to HBO, to defend the heavyweight title against Mike Tyson, who was exclusive to Showtime, in 2002 in what was then the richest fight in boxing history, Greenberg led the Showtime negotiating team.
Greenberg said that Epix, a joint venture between Viacom, its Paramount Pictures unit, MGM Studios and Lionsgate, with a massive library of more than 15,000 movies, has not yet committed to a long-term involvement with boxing. But Greenberg made it clear he is very interested in it.
"I don't want to say we have a boxing strategy per se, but I have been involved in one or two fights," he joked. "Obviously, most boxing promoters have been to my office to talk to me along the way. I think the boxing business has had its ups and downs, but it's still an interesting business. We saw this fight as a unique opportunity for us. It's a heavyweight championship fight. We're going to do it and see if it makes sense for us to do more going forward. But it's good for the business to have another place that does boxing."
Klitschko (41-2, 38 KOs), 39, will be making his sixth defense of his third title reign against 2004 Cuban Olympic gold medalist Solis (17-0, 12 KOs), 30, his mandatory challenger.
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"If it does well for them it will be great for boxing," Shelly Finkel, Klitschko's adviser, said. "At one time there was no HBO or ESPN. New things come. Hopefully, Epix builds to something bigger for boxing. That could be a new source of revenue, a new player in the field, which is really good for everyone in the business."
The bulk of the money generated from the fight will come from Klitschko's rich television deal with German network RTL. Epix has signed on for American coverage and, according to multiple sources, is paying in the $150,000 neighborhood for the rights.
Greenberg did not want to discuss the rights fee he was paying. He said he would evaluate how things go with Klitschko-Solis before making a commitment to more fights and, perhaps, larger fees.
"Nothing is on the books going forward. No commitments, no obligations, but there are always lots of discussions," he said. "We'll see what kind of buzz comes out of this. People will evaluate it and then we will have the fight available [live and on replays] on our network and our website [EpixHD.com] and see how it performs. But premium cable can do boxing well. You don't have commercials at the end the rounds. This is an intriguing thing for us to explore and this interesting for us.
"We paid a reasonable license fee for what the show is. This is a good, smart event for us. I think people love a heavyweight championship fight. For us, the money [being spent] was well worth it to be in the heavyweight business on our first foray. The more casual fan tends to jump more into the heavyweights than other divisions, like the middleweights."
HBO and Showtime helped build their subscriber bases by offering top-level fights. Greenberg thinks it can also help Epix.
"I do know what the motivation is for driving subscriptions," he said, although Epix is not carried by DirecTV or Comcast cable systems.
Klitschko-Solis will air live at 6 p.m. ET on Epix, as well as be streamed live on its website, with a network replay at 10 p.m. ET. Replays, he said, will also be available on the website and via the network's on demand platform. He also said that while the live broadcast will only include the main event the replay could also include undercard action.
Greenberg said making the fight available live on its website was part of the network's strive for a younger audience.
"Many younger people prefer to use their laptops to watch content, so we'll do that and make boxing available to a younger audience," Greenberg said. "Anything that regenerates interest in the boxing category is only going to be a positive to the category."
Greenberg said he was in the process of putting together an announcing team for the fight.
Dan Rafael covers boxing for ESPN.com. Follow him on Twitter.
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