Published Wednesday, Jan. 14, 2015 | 10:57 a.m.
Updated Wednesday, Jan. 14, 2015 | 3:41 p.m.
NEW YORK — Usually this is how big-time sports television works: The network pays for the right to air an event.
The new "Premier Boxing Champions" series on NBC flips the model. The latest attempt to reverse the sport's declines requires some major creativity — and a major investment.
Al Haymon's management company, Haymon Boxing, is paying for PBC, betting on NBC's promotional might and the reach of old-fashioned prime-time network television. Five of this year's broadcasts will air on Saturday nights on NBC.
"We want the opportunities for the fighters in this sport to be parallel to the opportunities for athletes in other sports," Lamont Jones, the vice president of operations for Haymon Boxing, said Wednesday.
The first card will feature Keith Thurman against Robert Guerrero and Adrien Broner vs. John Molina Jr. on March 7. All the fighters are managed by Haymon.
These will be the first prime-time bouts on NBC in nearly 30 years. The sport's shift to pay-per-view has been wildly lucrative for the biggest stars. Not so much for other top boxers.
Sugar Ray Leonard will work as a PBC analyst, still a household name because he fought in an era when boxers were some of the world's biggest celebrities.
"You are relevant," he said, recalling how that name recognition made for endorsement opportunities, not just payouts for bouts.
"A lot of these guys are very good fighters," he added, "but nobody knows who they are."
So for boxers such as the four taking part in March's inaugural event, this new venture is a chance to attract a wider following that translates into future profits.
Jones predicts the PBC telecasts, which will air from 9-11 p.m. on the East Coast, will introduce them to a sports fan who "hasn't yet had a reason to fall in love with a particular boxer, because she or he hasn't wanted to spend 70 bucks to watch a pay-per-view show when the main event starts at midnight."
And that fan will see some trademark NBC features. Every Olympics, some gymnast or figure skater or swimmer goes from nobody to celebrity in a matter of days — with more than a little nudge from the network's promotional engine.
Haymon seeks the same for boxing, and NBC plans to oblige. Al Michaels will host its prime-time telecasts, and the network has tabbed prolific Hollywood composer Hans Zimmer to score music to set the tone.
"We have to build the story lines and make people care about something they may not have cared about the day before," NBC Sports Group Chair Mark Lazarus said of the network's Olympic philosophy.
For the boxers, he added, "we have to do that about educating about who these gentlemen are, and why they're so skilled at what they do, and whey they're among the best in the world, and why the battle will matter."
For NBC, there's little financial risk. There's also some precedent: The network didn't pay a rights fee in its first deal with the NHL after the lockout that wiped out the 2004-05 season, but that changed when the sport's fortunes rebounded.
The NBC prime-time telecasts will take place during quieter times of year for sports. The network would typically be showing a repeat of a program that aired during the week in those slots. And live sports have proved increasingly valuable in recent years because viewers are much less likely to DVR them — which means they're more likely to sit through the ads.
NBC will be able to promote the series when it airs the Super Bowl next month. There will also be six Saturday afternoon broadcasts on NBC and nine Saturday prime-time shows on cable channel NBCSN in 2015.
In the second NBC prime-time fight, undefeated Danny Garcia will take on Lamont Peterson on April 11 in a long-anticipated matchup at 140 pounds.
"The boxing people will tell you those three matchups are six real fighters: It's not one good guy, one bad guy," Lazarus said. "And that's what (Haymon) has committed to us."