Showtime's fight plan against HBO in the high-stakes game of pay-per-view boxing is simple: 1) Put Floyd Mayweather in a ring. 2) Have him fight a boxer with a super-loyal, global following. 3) Watch the pay-per-view numbers climb.
It worked once. Now the premium TV unit of CBS hopes it works again.
In September, Showtime's pay-per-view of Mayweather vs. Saul "Canelo" Alvarez, a Mexican redhead with a cult-like following in the U.S. as well as Mexico, became the highest-grossing pay-per-view of all time, hauling in $150 million. In terms of number of buys, it ranked second all-time at 2.2 million.
Showtime Sports General Manager Stephen Espinoza hopes Mayweather will turn in more big pay-per-view (PPV) results in May, this time against Amir Khan, a British speedster with a rabid following in the U.S., U.K., and the Asian subcontinent.
"There's no doubt that Amir has quite literally a worldwide fan base and a very demographically diverse fan base," Espinoza told CNBC, adding that among active boxers, Khan ranks second in total Twitter followers (after Mayweather). "That doesn't happen by accident," he said.
The boxing business last year saw a major shakeup when Mayweather—whose bouts had previously been carried by Time Warner's HBO—signed a multiple-fight contract with Showtime. PPV is a sports segment whose revenue varies from year to year, but which can easily exceed $300 million.
Even a very successful PPV doesn't usually result in a huge amount of direct revenue to the premium network that carries it. Every deal is structured differently, but cable operators or satellite providers regularly take half of a PPV's revenue. After promoters and boxers get their share, HBO or Showtime may be left with as little as 5-10 percent of the total. But that doesn't mean the money isn't relevant for the channels or their parent companies.
"Usually, if there's a large boxing event, it will be sufficient to be mentioned on a quarterly conference call and be sufficient to add a noticeable incremental earnings amount," said James Goss, vice president and senior investment analyst at Barrington Research. "It can have an impact that way."
Just as significantly, successful PPVs draw fans and their subscription dollars to a premium channel's boxing brand and lure the best fighters to sign with one channel or the other.
For Showtime's Mayweather strategy to work next time as well as it did in September, Khan has to hold up his end of the deal and draw fans. Mayweather's other Showtime PPV of 2013, against the lesser-known Robert Guerrero, was a disappointment.
Khan said he expects to deliver plenty of fans, both to the live event and the PPV.
"You know the English love to travel for a fight, to watch a big fight," Khan told CNBC. "It's a great position I'm in, and I think it's great to have the following I have. If Floyd wants to be a superstar, he needs to face guys who have a big following, especially elsewhere in the world."
For its part, HBO isn't conceding an inch to Showtime. Mark Taffet, the HBO senior vice president who pioneered PPV boxing, told CNBC that the channel will deliver four to six PPV boxing events this year, up from two in 2013.
"We also expect our fights in 2014 to deliver multiples of the 875,000 buys that we delivered in 2013," he said.
HBO gave subscribers newer, up-and-coming fighters in its premium television events in 2013, and its viewership numbers increased "substantially" as the year went on, Taffet said. Perhaps more significantly for a sport that now competes with mixed martial arts, the viewership also began to skew younger demographically over the course of the year.
HBO's younger fighters, such as Ruslan Provodnikov, Mikey Garcia and Sergey Kovalev, are largely knockout artists who draw enthusiastic reviews from both hardcore and newer fans.
"You'll see these fighters in bigger and bigger fights," Taffet said.
—By Senior News Editor Ted Kemp. CNBC's Adam Molon contributed to this report.