Thursday, March 15, 2018

Oscar Valdez vs. the Paywall 

by Eddie Goldman

Even if you are a pretty dyed-in-the-wool boxing fan, you would be forgiven if you had not been particular familiar with Oscar Valdez until about a year ago. The 27-year-old Valdez, from Nogales, Sonora, Mexico, and promoted by Top Rank, won the then-vacant WBO featherweight belt in July 2016, but was almost exclusively seen in the U.S. at that time as a lead-in to the main events on Top Rank's pay-per-views. In other words, Valdez was being virtually hidden behind a pay-per-view paywall.

Currently with a record of 24-0 and 19 KOs, he had a nice five-fight knockout streak in 2015 and 2016, but was overshadowed in the featherweight division by fighters like Leo Santa Cruz, Carl Frampton, Gary Russell Jr., and Abner Mares. Valdez had not yet defeated an elite opponent and was thus not considered to be in the very top tier of that weight class.

But as I've been saying, boxing is primarily a TV sport, and the change in Top Rank's TV strategy last year supercharged the popularity of Oscar Valdez, as well as increased the level of his opposition.

Last year, as you probably recall -- unlike the politicians and crooks who routinely claim "I do not recall" -- Top Rank pulled their fighters from the declining HBO boxing program and their own series of pay-per-views which had small audiences, and signed a major multiyear deal to put their fights on ESPN, for free as part of the basic cable packages, we were told. All of a sudden the potential audience to see these fights grew about threefold, with no fee barring those who might want to sample the product, and also available fairly easily online and through the ESPN app and en español on ESPN Deportes.

Valdez's first fight on ESPN was on a Friday night show on September 22, 2017. His opponent was a then-unbeaten regional champion, Genesis Servania. But the ESPN telecast got off to a bad start. The show was scheduled for 10:30 PM EDT on ESPN, but only started on ESPN News as ESPN had a baseball game on. Then after an hour, it switched to ESPN2. And then after about 15 minutes or so, it finally landed on ESPN. It only arrived on ESPN midway through the Zurdo Ramirez-Jesse Hart title fight, which had ended up being switched between three channels.

At this point it was clear that Valdez wasn't coming on until way after midnight, so few would know who he and Ramirez were. Finally, at 12:28 AM EDT, the Valdez-Servania fight started.

And as it turned out, it was a sensational, action-packed, back-and-forth fight.

Servania dropped Valdez and hurt him in round four, although the impact was diluted as Teddy Atlas, then still calling these fights, was still talking over the knockdown. In the fifth round, Valdez came back and dropped Servania hard with a left hook. The fight continued with Valdez taking a unanimous decision by scores of 116-110, 115-111, and 117-109.

When the TV ratings came in, they were not as bad as they might have been, given that the ESPN part of the telecast didn't start until 11:42 PM EDT. That segment, which was 100 minutes long, averaged 706,000 viewers, according to the Nielsen ratings. For that time period, it was not a great number, but not a disaster, either. And Oscar Valdez had taken a big step towards becoming a star.

Next for Oscar Valdez was a matchup on March 10, 2018, with British former world titleholder Scott Quigg. And this would be Valdez's first go as the leading man on a Top Rank-ESPN show.

Quigg was another step up for Valdez, since Top Rank's matchmakers like to ratchet up slowly the level of opposition for their fighters, trying to make more or less competitive fights for their top boxers, but avoiding real risks until there is real, big money for a fight, usually through the odious means of pay-per-view. They achieved this in matching up Valdez with Quigg, who went into this fight with a record of 34-1-2, with 25 KOs.

After stopping Kiko Martinez in just two rounds in July 2015, Quigg tried to defend his title against then-unbeaten Carl Frampton of Belfast, Northern Ireland, in February 2016. In the early going, Frampton was outclassing and outboxing Quigg, and in the fourth round he broke Quigg's jaw. But the injured Quigg mounted a late comeback with big rounds 10 and 11. However, it just was too late to catch up on points, as Frampton escaped with a split decision victory.

After winning a few subsequent fights, and his international reputation still intact, Quigg got a chance to regain a title against Valdez. But this setting was quite different from the Manchester Arena where Quigg had faced Frampton. This fight was held in the outdoors StubHub Center in Carson, California, under a canopy as an area where rainfall was supposed to be rare was drenched with thunderstorms. Some die-hard fans actually did stay to see the fight, but again, the vast bulk of those who witnessed it did so in front of presumably dry screens of one type of another.

Ah, beyond the raindrops, there was yet another and greater obstacle to Top Rank's star-making plans for Oscar Valdez. At about the same time as their ESPN show, Showtime had scheduled an appealing doubleheader featuring an existing star and top pound-for-pound fighter, Mikey Garcia, in a quest to win a title belt in a fourth weight class. Garcia's fight with then-IBF 140-pound champ Sergey Lipinets had been postponed because of a hand injury to Lipinets and was rescheduled for March 10, directly opposite the Top Rank-ESPN card.

While there were many ways to watch both fights simultaneously on different screens, or to watch one live and the other later, the fact remained that the viewers basically had to make a choice as to which one they would pay closest attention. That such planned conflicts of scheduling hurt the profiles of the fighters, who only fight a couple of times a year, far more than the suits who make such decisions, and hurt the business of boxing overall, has never seemed to count for much with these suits, who long have had Wild West business practices, minus the gunfights, usually anyway.

I decided to concentrate on the Valdez-Quigg fight on TV, although I also had Garcia-Lipinets on my computer. Part of that was knowing that Showtime would air their whole card the following morning, and that Garcia was a much greater favorite in his fight than Valdez was in his. It wasn't as if there was a right or wrong choice to make for the viewers, but one of preference.

Once again, Oscar Valdez put on a must-see performance in his battle with Scott Quigg. The whole fight was prefigured by the fact that Quigg had come in almost three pounds heavier than the featherweight limit, meaning that he could not win Valdez's belt, a bauble for which he apparently cared little. The extra size, intentional or not, worked to give the slower Quigg a power advantage, and as the fight wore on, that became evident.

As the fight progressed, Valdez unleashed an almost non-stop barrage of punches of every variety. He effectively worked Quigg's body in the early rounds. But as the bout wore on, and Quigg continued to stand and move forward, despite eating an enormous amount of punches, it was Quigg who was beating up Valdez, even as he was outboxed and outworked by Valdez.

The battle went the distance, and busted up face and all, it was Oscar Valdez who earned a unanimous decision victory by scores of 117-111 twice and 118-110, thus retaining his WBO featherweight belt.

Soon after the fight some of the key details of the beating the victorious Valdez had taken came out. Valdez had a broken jaw and probably a broken nose, and had lost a tooth. On the Monday after the fight, he had to have his jaw wired shut. Reportedly he will not need surgery, but the jaw is supposed to stay wired shut for five or six weeks.

Valdez will thus be unable to shout for joy for a while about the news of the ratings for this fight. While we do not have a breakdown of the fight-by-fight ratings for this ESPN card, overall it averaged 1,082,000 viewers. This made this show roughly tied for first for the most-watched boxing show in the U.S. for 2018, virtually tying with the Deontay Wilder-Luis Ortiz fight the week before on March 3 on Showtime, which averaged
1,055,000 viewers.

More importantly, the Top Rank-ESPN card drew more viewers than the competing Showtime card. While Mikey Garcia fights are almost guaranteed to be worth viewing, as this one certainly was, his unanimous decision victory over Sergey Lipinets only averaged 618,000 viewers. While Showtime has far fewer subscribers than ESPN, that is the point -- exposure on ESPN means a bigger audience than on premium networks.

So now Oscar Valdez has become one of the highest-profiled fighters in the world. What he lacks in power and defense is often compensated for by workrate, accuracy, technique, guts, and heart. And future matchups against other top featherweights seem on the table, if boxing's byzantine politics don't interfere.

But don't think that this little tale necessarily has a happy ending. Don't forget that its topics include boxing and Top Rank.

On Wednesday, March 14, the new president of ESPN, Jimmy Pitaro, spoke before ESPN staff in their headquarters in Bristol, Connecticut, and included in his remarks an announcement. ESPN, he said, has amended its U.S. deal with Top Rank to include "exclusive access" to stream 12 cards on the new ESPN+ app. Those fights will include the upcoming Terence Crawford-Jeff Horn fight, which was originally scheduled for April 14, but has been postponed, probably to May or June.

This new ESPN+ app, due to be launched this spring, will cost $4.99 a month, each and every month. Although the app will include a wide variety of sports programming, most of it seems to be niche programming without major audiences, plus, of course, the Top Rank boxing.

So now we have a new paywall for Top Rank's top fights. Less than a year after jumping ship from HBO, the paywall returns, and the whole Top Rank-ESPN deal smells a lot like bait-and-switch.

We don't know if this makes Oscar Valdez want to scream now that he may be headed back behind a paywall, and frustrated even more that his wired shut jaw prevents him from screaming. But it may mean that his time of wide exposure to the public is coming to an end.

This ESPN+ paywall also gives a perfect opportunity for rivals of Top Rank and ESPN to put on boxing shows at the same time as those on the app, and either for free or on existing premium networks. This ratings battle will be instructive to watch, if we can even get accurate number from ESPN+.

ESPN and Top Rank have already pushed other events to the side for the sake of their deal. For years, the NCAA Div. I Wrestling Championship finals have been live on ESPN. But since that takes place Saturday, March 17, the same time as a Top Rank-ESPN card headlined by Jose Ramirez vs. Amir Imam, the wrestling has been relegated to the less-watched ESPN2. Last year, the wrestling finals averaged 735,000 viewers, so we shall see if the Top Rank boxing can match or beat that.

But I'm not worried about seeing Crawford vs. Horn. I'm not paying for this app, just as I am missing the new Star Trek on the CBS All Access paid service. This fragmentation and trying to nickel and dime viewers will only lead to people turning elsewhere for entertainment, legally or otherwise.

If I can't see Crawford-Horn later on YouTube or ESPN tape-delay, so be it. It's pretty clear that Crawford is a big favorite in this fight anyway.

In any case, spring is soon upon us in the northern hemisphere, and for entertainment and sports on TV, I for one will be heeding the advice that Edward Meeker gave us 110 years ago, in 1908:

(Photo of Oscar Valdez by Mikey Williams/Top Rank.)

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