Sports is in a subsidiary position at HBO. No one leans on Michael Lombardo (the president of HBO programming) to give Chris Arreola a cameo appearance on Boardwalk Empire
. But the sports department gets leaned on from time to time.
By way of example; when HBO televises a 24/7
series that relates to a fight, the promoter foots the bill. Top Rank paid US$1,300,000 for Pacquiao-Cotto 24/7
and is paying a comparable amount for Pacquiao-Margarito 24/7
. Golden Boy has incurred similar costs for 24/7
shows that involved its fights.
However Jimmie Johnson 24/7: Race to Daytona
was subject to a different set of rules. Creative Artists Agency (one of Hollywood’s top talent agencies) represents the likes of Brad Pitt, George Clooney, Tom Cruise, Will Smith, Tom Hanks, Robert De Niro, Julia Roberts, Oprah Winfrey, Steven Spielberg, and James Cameron. Jimmie Johnson is one of its clients.
Sources say that, at the request of CAA, Lombardo asked HBO Sports to produce the Jimmie Johnson show. Greenburg, these sources say, was lukewarm to the idea. But he reports to Lombardo and a deal was struck. HBO paid the production costs for Jimmie Johnson 24/7
and also a license fee to Johnson. As part of the horse-trading, Lombardo agreed that the money wouldn’t come out of the sports department budget.
Al Haymon is a very powerful concert promoter. Among his many ventures, he promoted Beyonce’s I Am … Tour
Beyonce, like other Haymon clients in the musical world, has appeared on HBO.
“If I had Beyonce,” Kathy Duva says, “I could get dates on HBO too.”
Kery Davis rejects the notion that Haymon leverages his non-sports relationships to gain favor from HBO Sports. “No person at HBO outside of sports has ever spoken to me about Al Haymon,” Davis says. “And the music business is different from the boxing business. In the music business, Al is a promoter, not a manager. And in the music business, the person who would sell a concert to HBO is the artist’s agent or manager, not the promoter.”
But in the music business, an artist’s promoter often works closely with the artist’s agent or manager.
Haymon isn’t Mother Teresa for long-suffering fighters. He likes the power he wields within the boxing industry and also the money he makes from his share of numerous pies. He’s also believed to have made millions of dollars by reselling tickets for big fights; most notably on De La Hoya vs. Mayweather and Mayweather vs. Ricky Hatton (where Alan Haymon Development Inc. had the right to purchase US$3,100,000 worth of tickets at face value).
A look at HBO’s dealings with Andre Berto (one of Haymon’s fighters) is instructive. Berto is a talented boxer, who is currently the WBC 147-pound belt holder.
Fans don’t buy many tickets for Berto’s fights. As noted earlier, his last championship bout (against Carlos Quintana on April 10th of this year) drew 972 paying customers. And the ratings indicate that HBO’s subscribers aren’t particularly interested in Andre, which raises the question of why the network paid a US$2,150,000 license fee that night.
No one knows how good Berto might be (including Andre) because HBO keeps paying him large amounts of money to appear against ordinary opponents.
Berto will be fighting Freddie Hernandez as part of an HBO triple-header on November 27th. HBO is paying a license fee of US$1,200,000 for Berto-Hernandez.
Hernandez is an ESPN-level fighter. Recently, Dan Rafael of ESPN.com wrote, “Berto-Hernandez is a dog. Al Haymon, Berto’s adviser, has manipulated, leveraged, and bamboozled HBO into overpaying and coddling Berto for years, and it continues here. HBO is paying $1.2 million for trash.”
Berto-Hernandez will be Andre’s tenth fight on HBO over a four-year period. His first nine opponents were:
Miguel Figueroa (December 9, 2006), who took the bout for one last paycheck before retiring.
Norberto Bravo (February 17, 2007); a hopelessly outclassed opponent, who has now lost seven of his last twelve fights.
David Estrada (September 29, 2007); a credible opponent, but one who was beginning a downward slide that has seen him lose in three of his last six outings.
Michel Trabant (February 9, 2008) – In his first fight after being knocked out by Berto, Trabant lost a unanimous decision to Roman Seliverstov (a fighter with a 7-and-7 record, who had lost seven of his previous nine bouts). That gave Trabant a five-fight run of one win, two losses, a draw, and one no-contest (relating to a positive test for steroids).
Miguel Rodriguez (June 21, 2008) – This one was for the WBC welterweight belt. Rodriguez, as of this writing, hasn’t won a fight since September 2007.
Stevie Forbes (September 27, 2008), who was known as “Little Stevie Forbes”. And that’s when he was fighting at 135 pounds. Forbes had no business fighting Berto at 147. He has lost five of seven fights since February 2006.
Luis Collazo (January 17, 2009). This was a good fight. But Collazo had lifestyle issues when he fought Berto and has continued to have them since then. He has fought only once during the past twenty-one months (against a club fighter with a 9-and-16 record, whose nine wins came against fighters with a total of five victories to their credit).
Juan Urango (May 30, 2009) – Urango is another smaller guy who came up in weight to fight Berto. He lost a decision to Andre and got knocked out by Devon Alexander at 140 pounds in his next fight.
Berto was scheduled to fight Shane Mosley in January 2010, but pulled out of the bout because of concern for his family in the aftermath of the earthquake in Haiti. That was understandable. But then, rather than proceed with Mosley-Berto at a later date, HBO paid Andre the equivalent of step aside money in the form of an inflated license fee for Berto-Quintana so the network could proceed with Mayweather-Mosley on May 1st.
Then Berto fought Quintana. Carlos is well past his prime and has won only two fights during the past thirty-three months. Those victories came against Joshua Onyango (4-17-1 in his past twenty-two bouts) and Jesse Feliciano (who hasn’t won in forty-four months and is 0-and-5 during that time).
Has Al Haymon done a good job for Andre Berto? Absolutely.
Has HBO fulfilled its responsibility to its subscribers by televising the Andre Berto fights referenced above? Absolutely not.
There are also complaints that HBO has empowered Haymon to act as an unlicensed promoter.
Because of his relationship with HBO, Haymon is in a position whereby he rarely has to give a promoter long term contractual rights to one of his fighters. Often, the promoter has little more than a handshake and Haymon’s word that, where this particular fighter is concerned, the promoter is Al’s guy. That gives Haymon enormous leverage over the promoter in terms of how income generated from each fight is split. Promoters put up with the arrangement because, over the years, HBO has been remarkably generous when giving out dates and paying license fees for fights involving Haymon’s fighters.
Haymon works with five primary promoters: Dan Goossen, Lou DiBella, Richard Schaefer, Gary Shaw, and Brian Young. Despite their involvement, he acts in many respects as the de facto promoter for the fighters that he manages. Often, he deals directly with Ross Greenburg and Kery Davis during fight negotiations, while the promoter of record is minimally involved and reduced to doing the nuts-and-bolts work on the conduct of the fight.
“Al Haymon functions in large measure as a promoter,” says Bob Arum. “Part of a promoter’s job is to speak directly with the television networks and put fights together, and that’s what he does. States should require him to be licensed as a promoter, but they don’t.”
Promoters with Al Haymon fighters are more afraid to talk about Haymon on the record than they are to talk about HBO. But several of them have complained that they’re often bypassed by Kery Davis, who talks directly with Haymon regarding the details of match-ups for fighters that Al manages and they promote.
Davis disputes that point, saying, “If a fighter has a licensed promoter, I deal with the promoter; not Al Haymon. It presents itself on a case by case basis. When we were hoping to buy Paul Williams against Sergio Martinez [which HBO will televise on November 20th], Dan [Goossen] didn’t have an agreement with Paul until late in the negotiations, so I negotiated with Lou [DiBella] on behalf of Martinez and with Al on behalf of Paul.”
“Almost everyone who promotes an Al Haymon fighter has been neutered by HBO,” says another promoter. “The things that they do for him are absurd. He’s difficult to work with and he squeezes me hard. But I have to say; I think he’s good for the fighters he manages.”
As for the HBO World Championship Boxing
and Boxing After Dark
schedule over the next three months; Martinez-Williams shapes up as an exciting competitive fight between two elite fighters. It’s also a model in many respects for how HBO should do business in the future. The network demanded that each fighter go in tough, offered a US$3,000,000 license fee, held firm during negotiations, and got what it wanted. The fighters were free to go elsewhere, but no one else was offering them nearly as much money for any fight. For once, HBO didn’t bid against itself.
Amir Khan vs. Marcos Maidana on December 11th is an interesting fight. The assumption is that Khan will outbox Maidana for two minutes and fifty-five seconds of every round. The question is, “What happens in those other five seconds?”
At the other end of the spectrum, HBO’s November 27th offering leaves much to be desired. Juan Manuel Marquez vs. Michael Katsidis is little more than an entertaining mismatch unless Marquez gets old overnight. Berto-Hernandez has already been discussed. Celestino Caballero against Jason Litzau is what Lou DiBella would call a “death match” if Caballero wasn’t his fighter.
The other fights on HBO World Championship Boxing
and Boxing After Dark
before the end of the year tie into HBO’s obligations to Golden Boy, which will be discussed later in this article.
Looking ahead to 2011, Greenburg anticipates nine or ten World Championship Boxing
cards; eight or nine Boxing After Dark
shows; and three or four pay-per-view events. He says that there won’t be a firm cap on license fees, but that he expects a downward “market correction.”
Since HBO is the market, he can make that happen. HBO should hold firm on quality and price. If promoters and fighters balk and HBO boxing goes dark for a few months (as Major League Baseball and the National Basketball Association have done in the past), the world won’t end. Eventually, elite fighters will return in competitive fights for reasonable license fees because there’s nowhere else for them to go.
“We’re going to go back to basics next year,” Greenburg promises. “The best fighters and the best fights.”
That sounds good. But one has to remember:
Ross Greenburg (2007): “We intend to dig our feet in a little more on mismatches and not give in to promoters, managers, and fighters who don’t want to take a risk.”
Ross Greenburg (2008): “This year, if a fighter wants to be on HBO, we’ll expect him to go in tough.”
Ross Greenburg (2009): “This year, we intend to televise the best fighters in meaningful competitive fights.”
Ideally, Greenburg means it when he says, “We have to look at the things we did to make the rematch between Martinez and Williams and learn from that experience.”
Much of HBO’s focus in 2011 will be on the 140-pound division. Depending on the results of Zab Judah vs. Lucas Matthysse on November 6th, Victor Ortiz vs. Lamont Peterson on December 11th, and Khan-Maidana on the same date, the network plans to pick and choose among Timothy Bradley, Devon Alexander, and the just-mentioned 140-pounders with a few more fighters thrown into the mix.
HBO’s first fight in 2011 is slated to be Bradley vs. Alexander on January 29th. The network stumbled in setting up the fight. First, it put Alexander in soft against Juan Urango. Alexander looked good. Then it put Bradley in soft against Carlos Abregu at 147 pounds and Timothy looked lackluster. After that, it put Alexander in what was thought to be a relatively easy fight against Andreas Kotelnik. Devon looked ordinary and almost lost. Thereafter, Bart Barry wrote, “Alexander needs to eschew the greatness track and get back on the Andre Berto track, blasting former champions from smaller weight divisions and outpointing predictable South Americans for good money.”
Bradley-Abregu and Alexander-Kotelnik took the edge off Bradley-Alexander. But it’s still an intriguing fight. HBO is paying a US$2,750,000 license fee for the bout. Timothy is on track to become a promotional free agent on May 8, 2011. Devon becomes a promotional free agent on June 23rd. Gary Shaw and Don King (their respective promoters) wanted contract extensions. There was a compromise whereby, win or lose, each fighter will fight one more fight with his current promoter on HBO. The network can require a rematch of Bradley-Alexander if it so chooses. Otherwise, Bradley and Alexander will be in separate fights against different opponents chosen by mutual agreement between each fighter’s camp and HBO. The license fee for each of these fights will be US$3,000,000.
HBO hopes that its 140-pound festival will evoke memories of the glory years when Sugar Ray Leonard, Thomas Hearns, Roberto Duran, and Marvelous Marvin Hagler fought each other. Unfortunately, Bradley, Alexander, Khan, and Ortiz aren’t Leonard, Hearns, Duran, and Hagler.
But whatever happens in the 140-pound division, one thing that HBO should avoid in 2011 is allowing Pacquiao-Mayweather (or the absence thereof) to overshadow the entire year.
There were times in 2010 when HBO Sports looked like a kidnap victim tied to some railroad tracks, hoping that Manny and Floyd would come to the rescue. Ask a fight fan today, “What fights do you want to see?” and chances are that, after Pacquiao-Mayweather, the answer will be, “I don’t know.”
There’s danger when talk of one fight, even if it happens, sucks the air out of everything else. Pacquiao-Mayweather, if it takes place, will make a lot of money for two fighters and a handful of corporate entities. But that money won’t trickle down to others in the boxing world any more than the money from De La Hoya-Mayweather did. If boxing and boxing on HBO are to become healthy again (as opposed to a single fight generating one big score), it won’t be on a pay-per-view basis. Fans need a more satisfying product across the board.
Another reason for the drop in ratings experienced by HBO’s boxing programming is that its presentation of fights has gotten stale. The network has a great deal of creative talent. It should use it more.
On the marketing side, HBO should find a way (if it’s not too late) to tie Martinez-Williams in Atlantic City into its critically acclaimed Boardwalk Empire
Has anybody thought of asking James Gandolfini to host a pre-fight show on an HBO-PPV card? Or creating a pre-fight panel with some combination of Sylvester Stallone, Robert De Niro, Jack Nicholson, and Denzel Washington (all knowledgeable fight fans)? Throw Mike Tyson into the mix. That would get some ink and attract viewers. I’d move heaven and hell to have J. K. Rowling talking on camera at a big HBO fight. Ditto for Oprah Winfrey. That would broaden the viewer demographic.24/7
has proven to be an important tool in building the audience for pay-per-view fights. Why not use it to build the brand of boxing? Take four good young evenly-matched fighters in the same weight division. One each promoted by Golden Boy, Top Rank, Main Events, Lou DiBella, Dan Goossen, and Gary Shaw.
That’s six promoters, you say; not four.
Right. You’d have the promoters competing against each other and offering their best product so as not to get left out. Set the promoters loose on one another and put the four chosen fighters in an elimination tournament. If you think that watching Roger Mayweather shop for a Thanksgiving turkey on 24/7
is fun, how about that battle royale?Boxing After Dark
was originally conceived as a platform for exciting young fighters to showcase their talents in competitive fights, while a date on HBO World Championship Boxing
meant that a fighter had made it to the big time. Now viewers see some match-ups with aging fighters on BAD
and some very ordinary events on WCB. At times, the programming is indistinguishable. So drop the BAD
label. All it does is connote lesser fights. The announcing teams are the primary difference between the two franchises, and even that distinction has been blurred.
That leads to another problem. HBO will have televised twenty-two shows by the end of this year; five pay-per-view, eight World Championship Boxing
, and nine Boxing After Dark
telecasts. Max Kellerman will have been on the air for fifteen of these shows; Jim Lampley thirteen; Bob Papa nine; and Larry Merchant six. If I’m running a boxing program for a major television network, I want Jim Lampley to be my go-to branding guy; not Max (who, by the way, will also have more “face time” on HBO this year than Lampley).
Next point. HBO has to think outside the box. One way it can do so (and I suggested this last year) is to focus its choice of fights and the marketing of these fights on the issue of “WHO’S #1?’”
Championship fights used to excite fans. Not anymore. The absurd proliferation of title belts has destroyed the idea of lineal succession. As Patrick Kehoe wrote, “The nature of a championship as a marketing tool for gaining network television money has become a championship’s primary function, divorcing it from the historic concept of symbolic superiority. Champions have become fighters with belts who are no longer required to defeat the very best within their division. Essentially, titleholders need to defend titles against network-sanctioned opponents and make a yearly mandatory defense; politics not merit, determining that status.”
Last year, Eric Raskin analyzed some statistical data and observed, “In the spring of 1998, there were twenty-one American-born fighters who wore IBF, WBA or WBC belts. In the spring of 2008, that number was down to fourteen. Right now, in the spring of 2009, the total is seven.”
By my calculations, including the WBO (which Raskin left off his list), the present total is six.
Stop the nonsense! HBO should identify the most credible rankings possible. That might mean convening its own independent panel of experts. I’ve offered suggestions in the past as to how that might be done. Then, as the network moves through the 140-pound division, it can tell viewers, “This fight is between #1 and #2. This fight is between #3 and #5.”
“WHO’S #1” works in other sports. It can work in boxing. But the key to it all is the fights themselves, not how they’re packaged. Every fight that HBO televises should have two fighters that the public wants to see; not one. Instead of telling its subscribers, “We’re giving you great fights,” HBO should give its subscribers great fights. “HBO and the State of Boxing – Part Two” by Thomas Hauser
.“HBO and the State of Boxing – Part Three” by Thomas Hauser
can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. His most recent book (Waiting For Carver Boyd
) was published by JR Books and can be purchased at http://www.amazon.co.uk/ or http://www.abebooks.com. Hauser says that Waiting for Carver Boyd
is “the best pure boxing writing I’ve ever done.”