Olympic Viewing: Boxing's decline
In an Olympics filled with television success, boxing has been a notable failure.
NBC Sports covered the last two days of the tournament with its two announcers, Bob Papa and Teddy Atlas, not even in London's ExCel Center. International boxing officials asked them to move back from their announcing positions because they were bothering judges; Papa and Atlas decided to leave instead and call the fights off video feeds elsewhere.
Not that anyone probably noticed.
The U.S. men's boxing team was already done, its first Olympics without a medal. The sport that created memorable American heroes with gold medalists Cassius Clay (before he changed his name to Muhammad Ali), Joe Frazier, George Foreman and Sugar Ray Leonard is now virtually invisible as an Olympic event in the U.S.
NBC Sports confines its boxing coverage to CNBC and if you don't actively seek it out, you won't see a punch thrown. The one American boxing hero of London, the country's first woman gold medalist Claressa Shields, merited only one mention on NBC at 11:30 p.m. the night she won. Her picture wasn't shown. The boxing phenomenon of Katie Taylor, a national hero in Ireland, is a complete mystery to U.S. viewers who didn't watch CNBC.
In a year where Olympics ratings were up from four years ago across the board, they were down on CNBC.
The messy tournament has featured one referee expelled, another suspended and 12 protested fights. Papa and Atlas haven't hesitated to describe the messes they see; a New York Daily News columnist said they reacted with passion and power and "deserve a gold medal."
The poor performance of the U.S. team no doubt stifled viewership, and its officials need to take a hard look at how they're doing things, Papa said. Even if there were strong American contenders, the sport is becoming hard to watch.
Papa partly blames decisions to require boxers to wear headgear and score bouts via a computerized count of punches thrown for the sport's downfall. He said it has turned boxing into "fencing with gloves."
"People watch it and they watch it as a boxing match and turn to their friends and say, 'OK, that guy clearly won that round,'" he said. "Then the score goes up and it's 7-4 for the other guy. People don't understand it. I think that people know what the sport is supposed to be about."
In other words, if you land a couple more jabs than your opponent but are rocked by a few damaging punches, did you really win the round?
That, and corrupt officials, has led to miscarriages of justice in the boxing result, he said.
"We just feel for these athletes and their amazing stories on their road to the Olympics," he said. "You have to feel for them, because they're leaving it all out in the ring."
Given what is going on with the sport, Papa said he can't rightly complain about its lower profile as a TV property in the Olympics.
"The sport has got to get itself in order to warrant lobbying to get a better profile," he said. "I think you've got to earn your place based on what you're presenting."
MARATHON MEN: Keen observations by Tim Hutchings, NBC's marathon analyst, on the burst of speed by Uganda's Stephen Kiprotich in the 23rd mile that broke him from the pack and led him to a gold medal in the men's marathon. He saw how Kiprotich suddenly pulled away going into a curve, a move particularly tough for his opponents to combat. "You don't see surges as vicious as that in major marathons," Hutchings said.