Manny Pacquiao's July return in Australia appears to finally have a television home in the United States, one which will kick off a new direction for promoter Top Rank.
Pacquiao's welterweight title defense against unheralded Jeff Horn on July 2 in Brisbane (July 1 in the U.S.) will air on ESPN, according to a RingTV.com report citing multiple sources. In an announcement expected next week, the card will kick off a partnership between Top Rank and ESPN/ABC featuring seven shows this year and a minimum of 18 more in 2018.
Unlike ESPN's current series with Golden Boy, which largely broadcasts young prospects in showcase bouts, the Top Rank deal would feature highly competitive title fights typically seen on the promotion's longtime premium cable partner, HBO.
In addition to Pacquiao-Horn, ESPN is expected to broadcast a highly anticipated junior lightweight title rematch between pound-for-pound star Vasyl Lomachenko and veteran brawler Orlando Salido, who handed the two-time Olympic gold medalist his lone pro defeat. A third show in August is expected to feature unbeaten Terence Crawford in a junior welterweight title unification bout against Julius Indongo.
It's unknown whether Top Rank is completely severing ties with HBO after 35 years, but the development is a major blow for the outlet just the same. With HBO facing budget issues for the second straight year, and with few dates available to promoters outside of pay-per-view fights, Top Rank and 85-year-old chairman Bob Arum have been forced to get creative.
"Boxing, on a global basis, is one of the biggest sports in the world," Arum told RingTV.com last month. "Unfortunately, we haven't seen that in the United States because everything is either on pay-per-view or on two premium networks [HBO and Showtime], which have a limited audience.
"For example, they did a survey at HBO. Of the 30 million subscribers, less than five percent really wanted to watch boxing. That's a million and a half households. A lot of those households will have other appointments when a fight is aired. So you're dealing with a f---ing small audience."
While the network television experiment attempted by Premier Boxing Champions over the past two years hasn't succeeded to the level mastermind Al Haymon had likely hoped, the model proved at the very least that well-matched fights can still draw big ratings.
For example, the welterweight title unification bout in March between unbeaten Keith Thurman and Danny Garcia peaked at 5.1 million viewers on CBS. Thurman's previous bout against Shawn Porter, also on CBS, peaked at 3.94 million viewers. PBC also televised fights on ESPN, including a 2015 Leo Santa Cruz-Abner Mares featherweight bout that peaked at 1.6 million viewers.
By comparison, only four premium cable fights which aired on either HBO or Showtime averaged more than 1 million viewers in 2016.
Top Rank is also expected to unveil an over-the-top network similar to what WWE and UFC have done in recent years, complete with digital access to the company's 50-year fight library. ESPN will reportedly share its own massive library on the unnamed network. In addition, Top Rank will air live cards featuring up-and-coming fighters.
Sources told RingTV.com that HBO offered an undisclosed license for the rights to broadcast Pacquaio-Horn, which Top Rank turned down. Now, with HBO rival Showtime having taken the lead as the premier network in boxing over the past year-plus, the landscape of televised boxing continues to change.