IMAGINE TRYING to fill in the Grand Canyon with a shovel and a really humongous pile of dirt.
That was the kind of daunting challenge that faced the hardy souls who were there when ESPN launched on Sept. 7, 1979. To fill all those hours of programming between the live football and basketball games people were most interested in seeing, the start-up version of ESPN gave viewers scads of Australian Rules Football, strongman contests and coverage of almost anything that was reasonably competitive and involved keeping score. Insomniacs loved it.
Over time, of course, the trash events were weeded out and ESPN became the monolithic entity that justifiably calls itself the "Worldwide Leader in Sports." But ESPN's misses, as well as its hits, were recalled last week when the NBC Sports Group rebranded an acquired property, the Versus Channel, as the NBC Sports Network. As was the case with ESPN a little over 31 years ago, NBC Sports officials just have to figure out how to give the public all sports, all the time, while maintaining a level of audience interest that translates into decent ratings and corresponding advertising revenues.
While NBC is better funded these days - thanks to its merger with Comcast, resources include NBC, the NBC Sports Network, 12 regional sports networks (including CSN Philadelphia) and assorted digital outlets - it still makes for another Grand Canyonesque crater to fill in.
"We've got a Herculean effort in front of us with the 24/7 aspect of it," admitted NBC Sports Group programming executive Gary Quinn, who was at the Joe Hand Boxing Gym in Northern Liberties yesterday to officially announce the four-date "Fight Night Boxing Series," on NBC Sports Network. The series will debut with a Jan. 21 card at the Asylum Arena (formerly the New Alhambra) in South Philadelphia headlined by the 10-round heavyweight matchup of Philadelphia-based contender Eddie Chambers (36-2, 18 KOs) and former WBO titlist Sergei Liakhovich (25-4, 16 KOs), of Belarus.
If the other three dates (March 24, June 16 and Dec. 8) at yet-undetermined sites are as attractive as the initial show figures to be, boxing again could find a regular place in NBC Sports Group's lineup.
As Quinn recalled, boxing once was a staple on NBC. In the 1980s and early '90s, such Philly fighters as Frank "The Animal" Fletcher, Curtis Parker and "Joltin' " Jeff Chandler appeared regularly on the network, which televised boxing 20 to 30 times annually with the "Fight Doctor," Ferdie Pacheco, and Marv Albert calling the action.
So why did NBC and boxing part ways? Economics, in large part; HBO sank considerably more money into the sport than NBC was able to, skimming the cream to a point where the over-the-air networks simply threw up their hands in exasperation and walked away.
But 24/7 programming is a hungry monster that must be constantly fed, so the NBC Sports Group is back in the boxing biz, with deeper pockets thanks to its tie-in with Comcast, and a commitment to do things right this time around.
Kathy Duva, president of Main Events, is working with longtime Philadelphia promoter J Russell Peltz, who will serve as the series' matchmaker. Their mission: Give fans fights featuring high-level talent paired in such a manner that the outcome of bouts isn't a foregone conclusion.
"If you don't know who's going to win beforehand, that's the kind of fight we want," said Duva, whose company will not receive preferential treatment when it comes to putting together TV bouts.
For Chambers, the Jan. 21 card represents a homecoming in that the Pittsburgh native, who came to Philly in 2002 to further his ring career, will be making his first local appearance since he stopped Livin Castillo in five rounds on Oct. 3, 2008, the last of his 18 fights at the Blue Horizon.
"I feel like I've been on the road for so long, like a football team that has been playing nothing but away games," said Chambers, who turns 30 on March 29. "I'm finally getting a chance to play before my home crowd again. It's a great feeling."
The cofeatured bout is a 10-round junior middleweight matchup of North Philly's always-entertaining Gabriel Rosado (18-5, 10 KOs) and Mexico's Jesus Soto-Karass (24-6-3, 16 KOs), who is best known for twice going the distance in losing decisions to world-rated Philadelphia welterweight Mike Jones.
"I know the importance of this fight," Rosado said. "I don't just want to win. I want to make a statement. If I dominate Soto-Karass and get a stoppage, which is what I'm looking for, that's going to create a buzz."
Philly salute for Lundy
Dave Wilkes staged the 16th annual "Salute to Philly Boxers" awards banquet Sunday at the New Palladium on West Allegheny Avenue, and the big winners were lightweight contender Hank Lundy (21-1-1, 11 KOs) and Joey Eye
Lundy, who is ranked No. 4 in his weight class by the WBC, was named local Boxer of the Year while Eye scored a hat trick with top honors as a promoter, matchmaker and cutman.
Other honorees include Doc Nowicki (manager), Sloan Harrison (trainer), Steve Smoger (referee), Alan Rubenstein (judge), Ray Robinson (up-and-coming boxer) and Anthony Boyle (blast from the past).
My former Daily News colleague and predecessor on the boxing beat, Elmer Smith, received a special award in recognition of his recent retirement and Jacqui Frazier-Lyde accepted the first Joe Frazier Memorial Spirit Award, which honors her late father, on behalf of the Frazier family.
Kennedy on ESPN2
North Philly junior featherweight contender Teon Kennedy (17-1-1, 7 KOs) is in Friday's ESPN2 main event, a 10-rounder against Chris Martin (23-1-2, 6 KOs) at the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas.
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