Manny Pacquiao-Lucas Matthysse viewership will be a true sign of boxing's popularity

Kevin Iole
Combat columnist
Manny Pacquiao is set to fight Argentine WBA welterweight champion Lucas Matthysse in Malaysia. (AP)

There is usually little good that comes of a faded superstar taking a final fight or two. Boxing isn’t like baseball, where a one-time slugger can no longer catch up to the fastball.

There are serious consequences that come when an over-the-hill boxer gives it one more shot. See Muhammad Ali against Larry Holmes or Joe Louis against Rocky Marciano for prime examples of this.

Manny Pacquiao is no longer the blazingly fast fighter whose hand and foot speed dazzled opponents from Miguel Cotto to Ricky Hatton, from Antonio Margarito to Oscar De La Hoya.

Still, he has enough left in the tank that he should defeat Lucas Matthysse in their bout for a version of the WBA welterweight title Sunday in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, which is Saturday in the U.S. The bout will be streamed live on the ESPN+ streaming service.

Pacquiao’s bout could be the boost the fledgling new service needs to get it moving. His fight with Jeff Horn a year ago was the impetus for the Top Rank-ESPN deal, and did astounding viewership on the ESPN television network.

It not only drew a peak audience of over 4 million, it did extraordinarily well among the highly coveted younger demographic that many believed boxing had lost forever.

It was the most-watched bout on cable since 2006 and averaged 2.8 million viewers, peaking at 4.4 million. A shockingly large portion of that audience was 18-34-year-old males, the demographic that helped put the UFC on the map.

The streaming service is important for boxing fans, because Top Rank has made a long-term commitment to ESPN, and quietly inked an extension to its deal recently. Top Rank is one of the three major promoters in the world and if much of its content is going onto ESPN+, the health of the service should matter to fans. The deal calls for 30 shows a year, 18 on ESPN and 12 on ESPN+, and now extends through 2025.

The question going into the Pacquiao-Matthysse fight is whether the bout can do for the streaming service what the Pacquiao-Horn fight did for boxing on ESPN.

Pacquiao remains a huge figure in the sport, despite his declining though not totally gone skills. There has been controversy swirling around the bout with Matthysse almost from the moment it was conceived, and many believed it would never happen.

There were problems with the financing and deadlines were repeatedly missed that impacted the promotion.

Pacquiao parted ways with longtime trainer Freddie Roach without ever calling Roach to tell him, and his longtime publicist Fred Sternburg, who brilliantly helped build Pacquiao into a global star, is no longer working with him.

But all the controversy in a way helped keep the bout in the news. The reports that a financial deadline was missed led organizers to reach out to reporters to deny it, giving regular attention to the fight. The dismissal of Roach, in the manner it occurred, wasn’t flattering to Pacquiao as a man, but it did keep him and his fight with Matthysse in the news.

Five years ago, a Pacquiao-Matthysse bout would have been an explosive fight that would have excited boxing fans.

Now, it’s a pairing of two guys nearing the end, and Pacquiao seems to have a bit more left.

Manny Pacquiao doesn’t attract the audience he once used to, but the livestream of his fight against Lucas Matthysse on Saturday could surprise in viewership if it gets competitive. (AP Photo/Yam G-Jun)

No one will know how many people see the fight, because ESPN keeps it a closely guarded company secret. An ESPN spokeswoman told Yahoo Sports at the Terence Crawford-Horn fight last month the company had no plans to release the number of subscribers to its streaming service or how many people watch a particular event.

Rest assured of this, however: If the fight is competitive and turns into a slugfest early, the number of viewers will significantly increase.

Top Rank promoted Pacquiao for more than a decade, but is not involved in this promotion other than to have arranged for the broadcast to be available on ESPN+.

Still, the success of the bout has great importance to Top Rank’s future. Its last two cards have drawn lackluster numbers on ESPN. A June 30 show headlined by super middleweight title-holder Gilberto Ramirez averaged 632,000 viewers. Its July 7 show from Fresno, Calif., which lost its main event the day before when Danny O’Connor passed out at the weigh-in, attracted 532,000 viewers.

HUT levels – Households Using Television – are down significantly in the summer, so that is undoubtedly part of it. But the fact remains that Top Rank’s last few shows on ESPN have drawn the kind of numbers that Showtime, which has roughly a third of the audience that ESPN does, gets for its boxing broadcasts.

But the last two shows haven’t featured big names and weren’t heavily promoted. Pacquiao, though, is a massive name and should bring eyeballs to the show.

The bout was originally slated to be on pay-per-view, but because of all the financing issues, there wasn’t enough time to properly promote it. That worked out best for fans, who get the fight for a monthly fee of $4.99 and $50 if they sign up yearly. That yearly fee is less than the cost of a pay-per-view.

ESPN+ is about far more than boxing, but from a boxing standpoint, if Pacquiao delivers, it figures to add subscribers simply who get it for the fights. That can only do good things for Top Rank and what it does going forward in a world in which the streaming service DAZN, headed by ex-ESPN boss John Skipper, is offering huge sums of money to boxers to join its network.

It would hardly be shocking if DAZN were to stream the Anthony Joshua-Deontay Wilder heavyweight title fight, if it ever happens.

Top Rank needs the success to allow it to compete for free-agent fighters. While the company has a large pool of promising prospects, it’s short on main event talent it could use who would draw fans. For instance, all of WBO welterweight champion Terence Crawford’s best opponents are with the rival PBC and generally appear on either Showtime or Fox.

So while the end of Pacquiao’s legendary career is very near, he still could have a big role in Top Rank’s future if he comes through with a big-time performance against Matthysse.

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