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Boxing shows' breaks

'Champ' and 'Contender' are fighting each other in court, but they're both getting tax deals and disclosure waivers from the state.

August 25, 2004|Scott Collins | Times Staff Writer

Anybody who wants to put on a professional boxing match in California has to navigate 128 pages of regulations, many of them designed to ensure the health and safety of boxers as well as to promote the integrity of the sport.

But when reality TV producers from Hollywood came calling earlier this year, state officials agreed to bend a couple of those rules.

The producers of Fox's "The Next Great Champ" and NBC's "The Contender," bitter rivals in most respects, had one thing in common: Both were so eager to keep their shows' outcomes under wraps prior to broadcast that they sought and received approval from boxing commissioners and the California attorney general's office to circumvent a state law requiring immediate public disclosure of bout results. Both series are counting on the secrecy to help them build dramatic suspense as they seek to find new champions from fields of unknown athletes.

What's more, both the "Champ" and "Contender" producers negotiated lower-than-normal state taxes on the license-fee payments mandated for boxing broadcasts. Representatives of both shows successfully argued that they should pay tax only on the portion of their shows actually devoted to boxing matches -- typically just a few minutes in each episode. Other promoters described this arrangement as highly unusual. In the case of "Champ," the amount and timing of the tax payments was sharply questioned by the then-chairman of the California Athletic Commission, which regulates boxing.

Although state boxing laws have entered into a bitter court fight between the two shows, the special deals given to both shows have remained out of public view until now.

Until recently, Hollywood's great boxing standoff had focused more on accusations of idea theft than on meeting state boxing standards. Executives from DreamWorks, which is producing "Contender" with reality guru Mark Burnett, and from NBC, which will air the show starting in November, have complained for months that "Champ" ripped off their concept.

Then last week, they filed an unfair business practices and fraud lawsuit against Fox Broadcasting in Los Angeles Superior Court, alleging that "Champ" broke state laws in a scramble to get on the air. A hearing on a request by DreamWorks and Burnett for a preliminary injunction against airing "Champ" -- which is slated to debut Sept. 7 -- is set for Friday.

In the brief history of reality shows, concepts have tended to pivot on questions of who gets voted off the island or receives the final rose. But in the case of "Champ" vs. "Contender," the producers have waded into the tough arena of a heavily regulated sport.

In agreeing to soften the public disclosure requirement -- which is designed chiefly to allow boxers to verify a prospective opponent's fight record before a match -- the commission granted the reality-show producers a break seldom if ever extended to other promoters, according to two former commission chairmen and two licensed California promoters contacted for this story.

But the former chairman said that the benefits the TV shows are expected to provide, in terms of state revenue and heightened exposure for boxing, make the trade-off worthwhile.

"This is where Hollywood and boxing cross paths," said Sanford L. Michelman, who served as a commissioner for four years, including a stint as chairman that ended Aug. 1 but included the time period in which the TV waiver deals were struck. "That's the first request [to change the public-records rule] I ever heard of when I was on the commission.... The whole reason is to protect the results of the show."

Commissioner John Frierson referred calls to the commission's general counsel; other commissioners could not be reached.

Michelman, an Encino attorney, said that commissioners agreed to delay the reporting requirements partly because they were concerned that the TV producers might shoot their productions in other states if their conditions were not met. While the delayed disclosure waivers seem unlikely to set off a wave of copycat requests, some say they might embolden boxing promoters to ask for special deals of their own. "It's definitely opening up a door," Michelman said.

University of San Diego law professor Robert Fellmeth, a boxing commissioner from 1976 to 1981, said officials inappropriately carved out a legal exemption for the Hollywood producers.

"This whole state is excessively star-struck," Fellmeth said. The main rationale of the boxing laws is to ensure that "matches are fair and the public is monitoring them, [and] that money does not unduly influence" the sport, he added. "Hollywood stardust does not trump the law."

"Outside of these reality shows, boxing is a great sport and if it begins to look like show business or wrestling, it takes away from boxing," said licensed promoter Ken Thompson.

As for the waivers, "why are they allowing them to do it, and not us as promoters?" said licensed promoter Ed Holmes.

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