SHARP JAB TO THE POCKETBOOK - Sports Illustrated Vault |
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In London last week more than 50,000 fight fans turned out at 2:35 a.m. to watch the closed-circuit theater telecast of the Muhammad Ali-George Foreman fight from Zaire. After paying as much as $50 per seat, the audience settled back to hear announcer Harry Carpenter's commentary. As the picture showed the ring in Kinshasa, the only voice in the crowd heard for a while was not Harry's but that of a reporter trying to reach his home office by overseas telephone. "Guy, do you read me?" the voice beseeched. "Do you read me, Guy? Please come in, Guy!"

Among the more than 50 million people around the world who saw the fight either on home television or in theaters, the most astonished viewer of all had to be John Walker of Harlingen, Texas. Walker was watching M*A*S*H when he idly spun the dial on his cable-equipped TV. Suddenly the fight popped onto his screen, somehow coming in from a station 150 miles away in Monterrey, Mexico.

Electronic oddities and heavyweight title fights always seem to go together, but the events in London, Harlingen and a goodly number of places in between indicated that the Ali-Foreman bout may have won the championship for international ineptitude and, perhaps, for avarice as well. As the English viewers found out, watching the fight was costly and the transmission was far from technically perfect. Conditions were no better in the United States where the rip-off was rampant. Only Walker, and precious few others, had an opportunity to see the fight free, or even for a price that could be described as reasonable. Most Americans were asked to pay so much—in the New York area, for example, the cheapest seat cost $20—that relatively few of them bothered to watch.

It is estimated that 1.9 million seats were available in U.S. theaters for the fight and that nearly two-thirds of them went unoccupied. (By comparison the 1971 Ali-Joe Frazier bout pulled 80% of capacity.) "I was getting bad vibes about this one long before it was postponed because of that cut over Foreman's eye," says one exhibitor who had three outlets showing the match. "I'll probably make about $30,000 out of it, but I think the promoters [Video Techniques] did a terrible job from the start. Maybe one of the reasons so many people stayed away is that they have grown accustomed to waiting a few weeks and then being able to see big fights on home television for nothing. There should be no home television of major fights like this for at least six months. The promoters should protect the people who paid such high prices in the theaters." Those who were smart enough, or patient enough, not to pay those top prices should be able to view the fight on free TV within a month on ABC.

Because of the substantial fees they paid just to acquire the rights to show the bout, and since it failed to bring in the expected crowds, there are a lot of other angry exhibitors. Theaters in low-income areas had very small audiences, for two reasons: 1) Foreman was such an overwhelming favorite that many blacks assumed their favorite, Ali, would be quickly dispatched, and 2) the prices.

Of the 400 exhibitors, none was as displeased as Leon Greenberg, the president of Monticello (N.Y.) Raceway. Greenberg is a very shrewd, iconoclastic promoter. He is also a highly successful one. "Muhammad Ali is not only the greatest fighter I ever saw, he is the greatest promotional genius I ever saw," says Greenberg. "He saved this fight from being a total disaster. If it were not for Ali's genius, Monticello Raceway would have lost a lot of money. The closed-circuit TV showing was the biggest rip-off in boxing history. It was a great fight, but only for the privileged few who could afford the high prices.

"I believe I am in a unique position to comment this way. Monticello Raceway did not lose money on this fight. And we charged the lowest prices in America—$8, $10, $12—so I am not squeezing sour grapes. The promoters of the fight did a terrible disservice to the people of America, the people who are the strongest supporters of the fight game. They picked on Americans to gouge with closed-circuit pay TV. [Several prosperous countries, including West Germany and Japan, had the fight on free home TV.] Millions of Americans who wanted to see this fight were denied the opportunity by the promoters, who set an unrealistic price for the privilege. Unfortunately, the people who were least able to see it, American blacks, are the same people who idolize the heavyweight champion the most."

At most locations the picture came through with fair clarity, but the voices of the announcers were transmitted so poorly that they tended to go in one Zaïre and out the other. Because the quality of the sound was so bad, many fans left their theaters in disgust before Ali's remarkable dressing-room interview. At one stage the cameras were on Ali as he started to drop his trunks, but that was the only time he was caught with his pants even a little way down. Otherwise, his was a triumphant and boisterous valedictory, the likes of which seldom has been witnessed.

Ali has done a grand job of saving boxing from extinction during the past decade, and because he won in the fashion he did last week, he also has probably helped to save theater-TV for at least one more boxing extravaganza. But only if the prices go down as hard as Foreman did.