Seth Abraham: Then and Now
Thomas HauserMay 25, 2009by Paul Upham
Seth Abraham: photo by Holger Keifel
By Thomas Hauser
HBO is the dominant player in boxing today. It wasn’t always that way. In the mid-1980s, the broadcast television networks (ABC, CBS, and NBC) ruled the ring. The man most responsible for upending that hierarchy was Seth Abraham, the architect of HBO’s boxing program.
Abraham was born on August 20, 1947. Conspiracy theorists might note that he has the same birthday as Don King (although King was born sixteen years earlier). Seth was also born in the same hospital as Bob Arum.
Abraham’s parents were lawyers, who met when they were students at Brooklyn Law School. Freida Braun Abraham was the school’s first woman graduate and had the second highest grade-point average in the Class of 1931. Irving Abraham had to settle for a grade-point average in the top ten.
In 1951, when Seth was four, his mother died of cancer. “I remember a darkness descending on our home,” he says. “They didn’t know how to treat cancer in those days. My mother spent a lot of time at home in bed, which was where she died [in November 1951]. I have only isolated memories of her, but I remember the day she died vividly.”
“The one bright spot that summer,” Seth reminisces, “was that we lived around the corner from Ebbetts Field and my father started taking me to baseball games. I remember my first game very well. It was a Saturday afternoon. The Dodgers won; my father let me have a sip of his Schaefer beer; and the entire experience was spectacular. That afternoon, I fell in love with baseball completely.”
Abraham attended Midwood High School in Brooklyn, where, in his words, he “straddled the worlds of jockdom and make-believe intellectualism.” He was sports editor and then editor-in-chief of The Midwood Argus (the school newspaper) and had “middle-of-the-road” grades.
“I wouldn’t say that I was a juvenile delinquent,” Seth recalls. “I was never in trouble with the law, but I was in trouble in school all the time. In junior high school, once, I brought in a book called World’s Most Famous Nudes and passed it around the class. Anyone who opened it up got an electric shock. I wound up in the dean’s office for that one. I invented headaches and toothaches to stay home when I was young and cut class in high school a lot.”
He was also a good enough baseball player (a left-handed hitter, who played first base and centerfield) to receive a baseball scholarship to the University of Toledo.
And good enough to have tryouts with both the Philadelphia Phillies and St. Louis Cardinals.
“But I did very poorly at the tryouts,” Seth acknowledges. “I was a good college ballplayer, but there’s a world of difference between a college fastball and a major league fastball and a greater difference between a college curveball and a major league curveball.”
Abraham graduated from Toledo in 1968 and enrolled at Boston University, where he received a masters degree in journalism in 1969. While in graduate school, he worked as a stringer for the Boston bureau of the New York Times. Then he took a job as a writer covering education and the United States Supreme Court for Facts On File (a news reference magazine based in New York). From there, he went to Hill & Knowlton (a public relations agency), where his primary responsibilities involved publicizing Gillette’s involvement with Major League Baseball on behalf of Gillette.
In 1975, Bowie Kuhn (the commissioner of Major League Baseball) offered Abraham a public relations job, but it was a lateral move and he turned it down. Several months later, a more desirable position opened up; this one as a special assistant to the president of Major League Baseball Promotions. The job involved interacting with companies (such as Gillette) that had ongoing relationships with Major League Baseball. It was a step up the corporate ladder and reunited Seth with a childhood love.
While at Major League Baseball, he also found love of a different kind; marrying Lynn Rubenstein in 1977 after a five-year courtship.
“Lynn is really smart,” Seth says. “Book smart; common sense smart; IQ smart. She’s my best friend and the person I trust most. It would be an understatement to say that she’s the reason for a lot of the success I’ve had in my life.”
In 1978, David Meister (who had been director of radio and television for Major League Baseball) left the national pastime to become head of the sports group for a small cable company called Home Box Office. Meister asked Abraham to join him. “But I had pipe-dreams that someday I might be commissioner of Major League Baseball,” Seth recalls, “so I turned him down.”
Then Michael Fuchs (HBO’s vice president for original programming) recruited Abraham more aggressively. Seth succumbed and, the day after Labor Day 1978, began working at HBO. His first assignment involved handling negotiations with on-air sports talent, which at the time included Curt Gowdy, Merle Harmon, Len Dawson, Marty Glickman, Don Dunphy, and Larry Merchant.
“I had the ignominious distinction of firing Don Dunphy,” Seth says. “I replaced him with Spencer Ross and added Ray Leonard to the telecasts. That was the first broadcast team I put together.”
Then Abraham started making deals for fights, although he admits, “I had no boxing experience and didn’t know what I was doing. One of the first fights I bought was a fight from Bob Arum that didn’t exist. Once Bob had a guarantee from me, he went out and tried to make the fight and couldn’t.”
In 1982, NBC tried to lure Abraham away from HBO with an offer to become head of programming for NBC Sports.
“HBO was still a small company,” Seth remembers. “And the NBC offer came with a much higher salary than I was making at HBO. I discussed it with Michael [Fuchs], and he told me, ‘I can’t match the money. But I promise you, if you stay at HBO, as my career goes up, yours will go up too.’”
Abraham stayed, and Fuchs made good on his promise. Eventually, Michael became chairman of HBO and Seth was named president of HBO Sports. Following a 1989 corporate merger, his title was changed to president of Time Warner Sports.
“I’ve been fortunate,” Seth says, “in that, for most of my professional life, I’ve had great bosses. They were fabulous mentors. I was at HBO for twenty-four years; seventeen of them working for Michael. Unquestionably, he had the greatest impact on my life of anyone I’ve ever worked with.”
Under Abraham’s guidance, HBO became THE star-maker in boxing. A nine-page profile by Richard Hoffer that ran in the January 15, 1990, issue of Sports Illustrated declared, “Abraham quietly guides boxing’s most important division and he negotiates the Tyson fights you will see on TV for some time to come. He helps decide who will be the next Sugar Ray Leonard and, for that matter, when and whom the old one will fight. He controls, to a large degree, the colorful business of boxing.”
Fuchs goes further, saying, “Seth was one of the pioneers who built the modern HBO. He embraced the idea that HBO had to be different from what the broadcast networks were doing. He made boxing an anchor for HBO Sports, and everything else we did in sports spread from that. His signature, more than anyone else’s, exists on HBO Sports to this day.”
Meanwhile, Abraham loved what he was doing. “I like responsibility,” he says. “I always wanted to be the man at bat with the bases loaded in the bottom of the ninth inning and the game on the line. I’ve always enjoyed showmanship. It factors into everything I do. That’s why I wear a boutonniere [a flower in the buttonhole of his lapel]. And I loved the game, negotiating with people like Don King and Bob Arum. It was like playing chess. Sometimes I won and sometimes I lost, but I always enjoyed it.”
Abraham became known internally at HBO for a management style that brought a wide range of people into the decision-making process.
“Leadership is about consensus,” he says. “If you’re the boss, everybody knows that you’re in charge and that you have the final vote. But you don’t effectively manage an organization by fiat or by ignoring the opinions of the people you’ve chosen to work with you.”
And he was a champion of editorial integrity, insisting that the network’s commentators be allowed to speak honestly without fear or favor with regard to the events that they covered.
When Mike Tyson’s contract with HBO came up for renewal, Abraham had a choice: dump boxing analyst Larry Merchant to placate Tyson and Don King (who were aggravated by on-air criticism from Merchant) or lose Tyson (the greatest draw in the history of HBO). Seth stood by his commentator, losing Tyson but preserving his network’s editorial integrity.
Looking back on that time, Merchant says, “Seth is the kind of executive that I’d want to be if I wanted to be an executive. He was ambitious but not bloodless. He was a visionary and a good administrator. He had an appreciation for talent, whether it was the guys behind the microphones or the suits behind the desks, and he let them do their job.”
“And unlike some executives,” Merchant continues, “Seth was able to separate the personal from the professional. He understood that, in the end, it’s what comes over the television screen that matters, and he was always willing to put aside personal differences in the interest of improving the end product. There was a real family feeling at HBO Sports in those days, and Seth was responsible for a lot of that.”
In autumn 2000, Abraham left Time Warner Sports for a new challenge as executive vice president and chief operating officer of Madison Square Garden.
The first six months went well. Seth reported directly to MSG president and CEO Dave Checketts, who he’d enjoyed working with on HBO-MSG matters in the past. The middleweight championship tournament (won by Bernard Hopkins) was put into place. Other initiatives were planned. Then Checketts was fired by James Dolan (president and CEO of Cablevision, the Garden’s parent company). In addition to his other titles, Dolan became president and CEO of Madison Square Garden.
Dolan is an impulsive man. That put him at odds with Abraham’s modus operandi. Seth recalls, “No matter how difficult negotiating with Don King and Bob Arum might have been, there was always some floor of civility and logic. You could expect that, ultimately, facts and rational thought would carry the day. And none of that was in play at the Garden with Jim. It wasn’t about facts; it wasn’t about logic or being thoughtful. It was always about what Jim wanted.”
“Jim is a zealot when it comes to the Knicks, Rangers, Radio City Music Hall, and the Rockettes,” Abraham continues. “They aren’t toys for him. He takes his responsibilities very seriously. But zealotry can lead to very difficult emotions, and sometimes his passion is out of control. Jim’s two favorite words are ‘I want.’ And I struggled with that. Every day, I rode a rollercoaster based on his emotions. I couldn’t predict what might happen. I couldn’t protect against it. Every day was suspenseful because I didn’t know what to expect from my boss.”
“It ended peacefully,” Seth recounts. “In April 2003, I went to Jim and said, ‘You don’t need an executive like me. You need somebody who will be an administrator for you and implement what you want.’ Jim asked me to think about it. For a few months, things got better. But then the problems started up again. In September, I told Jim that I wanted to proceed with the divorce. The papers were signed in January 2004, and I left in February.”
In 2005, Abraham formed Starship SA; a one-man consulting company through which he addresses issues that involve sports marketing, promotion, and communication on a global basis.
“I’ll think of a concept,” Seth explains. “Then I sit down with a yellow pad and work on the idea. It could take a day, a week, a month. When I’m confident that I have it right, I ask myself, ‘Which company would be interested in this idea?’ and I go to my Rolodex. Having been in the sports and entertainment business since 1972, I have access to an extraordinary group of men and women. My Rolodex is my greatest asset. I arrange for a meeting to present my idea. No one has ever turned me down for a meeting. Then the idea rises or falls on its own merits. On occasion, clients approach me. But as often as not, I initiate the contact.”
Comcast was Abraham’s first client. He went to them and said, “You should be licensing sports libraries for video-on-demand. These are the libraries. Here’s how you can program them. I can set up meetings with the copyright-holders.” That led to a deal between Comcast and Top Rank, and later to a relationship whereby Seth represented Top Rank and Main Events jointly with regard to their libraries.
Abraham has also done consulting work for Anshutz Entertainment Group (owners of the Staples Center and 02 Dome). The New York Jets retained him for advice regarding their television programming and ways to monetize their new stadium. He has advised several start-up companies and worked with New York City deputy mayor Dan Doctoroff on a pro bono basis in an effort to bring the 2012 Olympics to New York.
“I don’t bill on an hourly basis,” Seth says, outlining the parameters of his work. “The way I set up each deal is, I’m hired for three months at an agreed-upon fee. At the end of three months, we can renew or not renew for another three-month cycle. I work an average of twenty hours a week and generally have several clients at any given time. The business is structured in a way that gives me maximum flexibility and freedom to travel and do whatever else I want to do. Having worked in corporations for more than thirty years, there’s something giddy for me in being able to come and go as I choose.”
Coming and going as he chooses means more time for hobbies.
Abraham is a collector. He collects antique fountain pens (“I have about a hundred”) and wrist-watches (“fifty to seventy-five”).
He also has a huge collection of sports memorabilia that includes World Series rings from 1974 through 1978 and approximately 150 autographed baseballs signed by the likes of Babe Ruth, Hank Aaron, Ted Williams, Willie Mays, and Mickey Mantle (not to mention Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, Gerald Ford, Henry Kissinger, Ted Kennedy, and Al Gore).
Where boxing memorabilia is concerned, Seth enumerates, “Sugar Ray Leonard gave me the robe he wore in the first fight I did with him at HBO. Shane Mosley gave me the shoes he wore when he beat Oscar De La Hoya at the Staples Center in my next-to-last HBO fight. I have one signed glove worn by each fighter in Hagler-Hearns and lot of Mike Tyson stuff.”
But the collection that’s dearest to Abraham’s heart is a group of letters from Abraham Lincoln and six Civil War generals: Ulysses S. Grant, William Tecumseh Sherman, Abner Doubleday, A. P. Hill, Robert Rodes, and Stonewall Jackson.
“The Jackson letter is the prize of my collection,” Seth says. “He died early in the war and wrote very few letters.”
The most notable general absent from the collection is Robert E. Lee. ““He’s very expensive,” Seth explains. “And it’s a seller’s market. A note in his hand can easily cost US$75,000. Maybe someday . . .”
Abraham now spends a lot of time reading. There are three thousand books in his home library, including four hundred volumes on the Civil War.
“I walk home from work every day and sit in a chair and read from three to six in the afternoon,” he says. “I read a book a week; mostly history, biography, and politics; not much fiction.”
He plays in two full-court basketball games each week; one on Saturday at the McBurney YMCA that starts at 7:30 AM and runs until ten o’clock; the other at Dalton High School on Monday evening. “I’m the second-oldest player in each game,” he says. “And I take them very seriously.”
Also, for the past two spring semesters, Abraham has taught a once-a-week course in sports administration and management issues at Washington University in St. Louis (his daughter’s alma mater).
“I love what I’m doing,” Seth says, reflecting on his life today. “It would be very difficult for me to return to a fulltime corporate environment. After more than thirty years, I have time for friendships that I let atrophy for the sake of my career. I can pursue my interests and do what I want to do with my family when I want to do it. I’m very content.”
“You know; I have breakfast with [New York City mayor] Michael Bloomberg several times a year,” Abraham says in closing. “At one of those breakfasts about a year ago, Michael said to me, ‘You’re wasting yourself; you could have another career.’ But I see things differently. I don’t consider what I’m doing now to be wasting myself. I’m not wasting time; I’m enjoying it.”
Thomas Hauser can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. His most recent book (“The Boxing Scene”) has been published by Temple University Press.