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19 SEPTEMBER 2014

 

Memorandum for Ross Greenburg: HBO 2009




By Thomas Hauser

Hi. It’s me again.

Yeah; I figured that would make you happy.

Anyway; HBO seems to be struggling with its boxing programming. Your ratings for boxing last year looked like polls tracking the national approval rating for George Bush’s handling of the economy. So I thought I’d pass along a few thoughts.

Prior to 2008, the lowest prime-time HBO World Championship Boxing rating ever for a live telecast was 2.8. You did 2.5 for Mosley-Mayorga and Hatton-Malignaggi, 2.3 for Taylor-Lacy, and 2.0 for Pavlik-Lockett. The numbers for Boxing After Dark in 2008 were even worse, bottoming out at 1.1 for your October 4th telecast. If there were times when it seemed as though all time-low records were set on a monthly basis, it’s because they were.

I doubt that Bill Nelson (HBO’s chief executive officer) likes spending US$10,000,000 in license fees, marketing, and production costs for a 4.0 rating (Oscar De La Hoya vs. Steve Forbes). Some of the people who produce HBO’s specials say that they can deliver an 8.0 rating for the same US$10,000,000.

It would be a shame if HBO pulled the plug on boxing. The sweet science has taken too many hits lately. In October, ESPN2 cancelled Wednesday Night Fights. A month later, Telefutura cancelled Solo Boxeo. Both cancellations were the result of budget tightening. But their implications were miniscule compared to the shockwaves that would radiate if HBO did the same.

Will Rogers was fond of saying, “When you’re in a hole, the first step toward getting out is to stop digging.”

But before you do that, you have to understand that you’re in a hole.

You’re in a hole. HBO’s boxing franchise is melting away because you’ve taken your subscribers for granted and tested their loyalty in ways that are hard to endure. So stop digging and give some thought to the following. I’d hate to see World Championship Boxing and Boxing After Dark go the way of John From Cincinnati.

(1) Televise competitive fights

I don’t know how many times I have to raise this point. Each year, you tell the media, “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 (2007) . . . This year, if a fighter wants to be on HBO, we’ll expect him to go in tough (2008).” Then, year after year, you televise mismatches.

Too often in recent years, the formula for Boxing After Dark has been putting a potential star in a non-competitive fight. For World Championship Boxing, it’s putting a star you’re building for pay-per-view in a non-competitive fight. One denizen of the boxing world said recently that your slogan should be changed to “HBO: Building belt holders one mismatch at a time.”

CBS and Fox don’t determine which teams play each other in the National Football League. ESPN doesn’t make up the schedule for Major League Baseball. But in many instances, HBO determines who fights whom. You’re starting off reasonably well in 2009. Kudos for that. But overall, your matchmaking has been poor and there are fears that you’ll revert to form.

College football is popular; right? Did you notice the way ABC and ESPN programmed their prime-time Saturday night games this past autumn? They chose the MOST COMPETITIVE games available among the elite teams; not Oklahoma against Chattanooga.

HBO’s subscribers want boxing. They just don’t want the mismatches that you keep force-feeding them.

Am I exaggerating? Let’s run some numbers.

Last year, World Championship Boxing (your flagship offering) televised fights with odds like 12-to-1, 15-to-1, and 18-to-1.

In the final quarter of 2008, HBO televised nine fights on World Championship Boxing and Boxing After Dark. Eight of those fights were mismatches going in. And the public knew they were mismatches, as evidenced by the one-sided odds. The favorite won all nine of those fights.

Okay; now we get to the really embarrassing part. In nine fights, do you know how many ROUNDS the underdog won?

Take a guess . . . No; guess again . . . Lower . . .

In nine fights on HBO World Championship Boxing and Boxing After Dark in the final quarter of 2008, the underdog won a total of FIVE ROUNDS.

Five rounds out of sixty-four rounds in nine fights. That’s not boxing. That’s paying to watch guys get beaten up.

I don’t quote Gary Shaw often. But Gary said something worth quoting in November. HBO had just put Brian Vera on World Championship Boxing against James Kirkland (one of Shaw’s former fighters). Vera was happy to be there. He was a club fighter on HBO. Courageous? Yes. Big heart? Yes. But he had zero chance of winning.

“Where are the standards,” Shaw asked, “if we’re putting a Brian Vera on World Championship Boxing?”

HBO is capable of making competitive fights, even under difficult circumstances. One of the best fights you made in 2007 was Kelly Pavlik against Edison Miranda as part of a double-header. It wasn’t easy. Jermain Taylor (promoted by Lou DiBella) fought Cory Spinks (a Don King fighter) in the main event. Pavlik was promoted by Bob Arum; Miranda by Warriors Boxing. But you wanted Pavlik-Miranda; you refused to take an alternative; and you got what you wanted. Not only was Pavlik-Miranda an exciting fight; it lay the groundwork for Kelly’s rise to the undisputed middleweight championship of the world. And because of the way the deal was structured, no one had to engage in the all-too-common grotesque practice of giving a promoter options on someone else’s fighter to get a date on HBO.

It’s not rocket science. Buy competitive fights.

(2) Stop enabling the flow of fights that should be on World Championship Boxing to pay-per-view

You keep speaking out against the exodus of meaningful fights to pay-per-view. “I can’t tell you that pay-per-view helps the sport because it doesn’t,” you said in 2007. “It hurts the sport because it narrows our audience, but it’s a fact of life. The promoters and fighters insist on pay-per-view because that’s where their greatest profits lie.”

In 2008, you told the world, “The sport would benefit from more HBO World Championship Boxing fights and fewer pay-per-view events. But we can’t turn back the clock and shut the cash register off. If we don’t do the pay-per-view shows, someone else will.”

Okay; now it’s time for a quote from me: “The reality is that, by its conduct, HBO has enabled the flight to pay-per-view. If it wanted to, the network could take steps to reverse the trend. It would be very easy for HBO to say to promoters, ‘Pay-per-view undermines the commitment we’ve made to deliver the best content possible to our loyal paying subscribers, so we’re going to cut back on pay-per-view.’ Network executives could also tell promoters, ‘We’re not going to promo your pay-per-view fight on our regular boxing telecasts. There will be no promotional Countdown show. We won’t guarantee a given number of buys in the form of an advance against pay-per-view revenue. And by the way; we can’t guarantee that we won’t counterprogram you.’ Then sit back and watch how quickly mid-level pay-per-view shows return to HBO World Championship Boxing.”

Is there anything in that quote you don’t understand?

Bob Arum has figured it out. Last year, Arum declared, “If I was running HBO, I’d get out of the pay-per-view business. Maybe I’d do two huge per-per-view shows a year. Other than that, I wouldn’t touch it. I wouldn’t produce; I wouldn’t distribute; I wouldn’t have Jim Lampley at ringside for pay-per-view fights. Right now, it’s idiotic.”

Let’s be honest. When a fight is on HBO-PPV, instead of spending money in the form of a license fee, HBO is taking in additional money. You keep saying, “It isn’t as much as you think it is.” But on most pay-per-view fights, HBO gets ten percent of the first three or four million dollars in PPV revenue (after the multi-system cable operators and clearance fees are paid). Then the number drops to 7-1/2 percent (on De La Hoya-Pacquiao, it was 7-1/2 percent from the start).

Also; when a fight is on pay-per-view, more than fifty cents of every dollar in pay-per-view revenue goes to the cable or satellite companies that provide the signal to consumers and the clearing houses through which pay-per-view telecasts are sold to cable and satellite system operators. Time Warner Cable is the second-largest cable operator in the United States with more than 13,000,000 basic video subscribers. Roughly ninety percent of the homes in the United States that are addressable by cable for pay-per-view telecasts are “cleared” by a company called In-Demand. In Demand is owned by Comcast, Cox Communications, and Time Warner. HBO is part of the Time Warner empire.

You have to decide whether HBO Sports is primarily in the subscription television business or the pay-per-view business. It would be better for boxing (and HBO would have more subscribers) if you chose the former.

(3) When HBO-PPV televises a fight card, give your customers quality undercard fights

HBO-PPV shows take place under the HBO banner. Lousy undercard fights make the network look bad, squander the good will you’ve earned in the past, and diminish the HBO brand.

I know you adhere to the view that fans buy pay-per-view fights for the main event; that the undercard isn’t a factor. Have you considered the possibility that the undercard isn’t a factor because fans have come to expect horrific undercard fights on HBO-PPV?

The National Football League doesn’t say, “People are going to watch the Super Bowl anyway, so let’s give them a crappy halftime show.” This year, Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band will be onstage at halftime. Past performers include U2, Stevie Wonder, Diana Ross, Michael Jackson, Paul McCartney, and the Rolling Stones.

Think about that. The NFL gives football fans Mick Jagger for free. HBO-PPV charges US$54.95 and gives boxing fans slop. You put HBO’s brand on the slop. And then you wonder why people don’t watch boxing on HBO.

HBO’s pay-per-view undercards keep getting worse. A lot of people in the industry thought it would be impossible to cobble together a less interesting undercard than the one you presented on your November 8th telecast of Joe Calzaghe vs. Roy Jones Jr. The naysayers were wrong.

The December 6th fight between Oscar De La Hoya and Manny Pacquiao was boxing’s event of the year; a chance for HBO Sports to put its best forward. And you paired it with what might have been the worst undercard in the history of pay-per-view.

By your reckoning, De La Hoya-Pacquiao engendered 1,250,000 buys. That means millions of people got together and paid US$70,000,000 to watch an HBO telecast. It was an opportunity to make new fans. And what did you give them as an undercard? Danny Jacobs against Victor Lares; Juan Manuel Lopez versus Sergio Medina; and Victor Ortiz against Jeffrey Resto.

Do you know how bad that undercard was?

Nod your head, “yes” or shake your head “no.”

If shook your head “no,” you weren’t paying attention to the fights. You were talking on your cell phone with Jorge Posada or something like that.

Everyone with a modicum of knowledge about boxing knew going in that each of the three televised undercard fights was a mismatch. Not one of the fights lasted through the second round. The three designated victims landed a combined total of SIXTEEN punches. They were outlanded 99-to-16 and knocked down seven times.

That left Jim Lampley, Larry Merchant, and Emanuel Steward scrambling to fill air time for two hours. Like you couldn’t have figured out in advance, “Hey; we have three mismatches. Let’s give some thought to a Plan B.”

Not only did you blow an opportunity to win new fans; you lost some old ones.

Dan Rafael of ESPN.com wrote afterward, “We now have an undercard against which all other crappy undercards will be compared. The De La Hoya-Pacquiao undercard totally stunk and is the worst one I have ever seen.”

Bob Raissman of the New York Daily News was similarly disenchanted. Raissman labeled the undercard “garbage.” Then he retracted that characterization on the theory that it was unfair to garbage and opined, “If the HBO brand actually stands for quality, the company should try to present a night of competitive fights.”

What goes through your mind when you read something like that?

I figure the most likely possibilities are: (1) You say to yourself, “Fuck Rafael and Raissman; how many Emmys have they won?” (2) You write a note to make sure that they’re not invited to the next HBO party; or (3) You think about what they wrote, realize that a dozen other writers have written the same thing, and tell your staff, “We’re doing something wrong. Let’s fix the problem.”

Hint: The correct answer is #3.

So let me make a suggestion. At your next staff meeting, if you haven’t already done so, ask for a show of hands in response to the question, “How many of you think that the De La Hoya-Pacquiao pay-per-view undercard was acceptable?”

HBO puts all sorts of clauses in its contracts with promoters. How about a clause requiring them to present a quality undercard when boxing fans are charged US$54.95 to watch a night of boxing on HBO-PPV? In fact, I’ll go you one further. Think outside the box the next time you have a mega-fight. Structure a deal with the promoter that puts US$1,000,000 toward a genuine top-flight co-feature. All you’d need to generate is another 40,000 buys to cover the cost. You’d have a card of historic proportions. And boxing fans might fall in love with HBO all over again.

(4) Stop giving preferential treatment to Golden Boy and Al Haymon

There’s a joke that’s making its way through boxing circles: “Richard Schaefer and Al Haymon aren’t as smart as people think they are. They’ve done a lousy job of running boxing at HBO.”

During Seth Abraham’s tenure as president of Time Warner Sports, HBO was guided by what were known internally as “the five pillars of HBO Boxing.” For example, one “pillar” was that Abraham felt it was important that the “fight of the year” have been televised on HBO.

There’s a widespread belief that, under your administration, the “two pillars of HBO Boxing” are Golden Boy and Al Haymon. As a reference point; out of eleven fights considered by the Boxing Writers Association of America for the 2008 “fight of the year” award, only two (Cotto-Margarito and Pacquiao-Marquez II, both of which were on pay-per-view with Top Rank as the lead promoter) were affiliated with HBO.

I know you like Richard Schaefer. I do too. He’s smart. He’s a gentleman (which separates him from a lot of people in boxing). I have no quarrel with his trying to get as many dates as possible for Golden Boy on HBO. That’s his job as Golden Boy’s CEO.

But it’s hard to shake the belief that HBO is tilting the playing field in Golden Boy’s favor to the detriment of other promoters. One of your underlings explained it to me as follows: “Arum, King, DiBella; all those guys are headaches. Richard is low maintenance. He knows exactly how to stroke Ross. And as long as Ross gives Golden Boy what it wants, Richard makes it easy for Ross to do business with him.”

Unfortunately, one consequence of your being stroked is that fighters are abandoning the promoters who built them and signing with Golden Boy in order to get dates on HBO.

“Part of being a promoter,” Top Rank president Todd DuBoef says, “is to be an entrepreneur. That means taking risks and developing your product. Great promoters are developers and builders, not stealers and poachers.”

Golden Boy now features Golden Oldies that someone else developed (e.g. Oscar De La Hoya, Bernard Hopkins, Ricky Hatton, Shane Mosley, Juan Manuel Marquez, Juan Diaz, and David Haye). They’ve used HBO‘s checkbook to sign them. It’s a little like Pat Boone in the 1950s selling a million copies of the cover version of Ain’t That A Shame and Tutti Frutti after Fats Domino and Little Richard first recorded the songs.

Late last year, HBO Sports presented a marketing plan to several promoters that would have brought their fighters to New York for a promotional shoot designed to support boxing on HBO. The plan was rejected. Why? Because the fighters were to be posed as students in a classroom under the instruction of Oscar De La Hoya.

What message do you think you sent with that?

As for Al Haymon; what is it with you and Al? You seem to bend over backwards for him like Chubby Checker going under a limbo bar.

Al is smart. He can be charming. But the line of mismatches, boring fights, and excessive license fees that you’ve approved for his fighters is as long as the Great Wall of China.

Did HBO really need Paul Williams vs. Verno Phillips paired with Chris Arreola against Travis Walker? Williams and Arreola (Haymon’s fighters) were both favored at better than 10-to-1. The show, televised on November 29th, did a 1.4 rating, so obviously your subscribers didn’t care about the fights.

Nor was that an isolated instance. Andre Berto (represented by Haymon) against Michel Trabant, Miguel Rodriguez, and Steve Forbes might have been interesting if Berto had fought all three guys on the same night. Unfortunately, you televised each fight separately last year. Librado Andrade vs. Robert Steiglitz was another one of Al’s “greatest hits” that aired on HBO in 2008.

And speaking of another Al Haymon fighter; one of the things I don’t understand is why HBO is paying a multi-million-dollar license fee (rumored to be US$3,200,000, but I can’t believe it’s that high) for the March 14, 2009, rematch between Chad Dawson and Antonio Tarver.

I know Tarver is one of Al’s fighters. But did you see the first Dawson-Tarver fight?

Not many people did. It had a 1.5 rating. You don’t strike me as the sort of guy who sits at home on Saturday night watching fights on Showtime, so my guess is that you didn’t see it live. Did you watch a tape before you bought the rematch for HBO? Be honest; because if you say you watched it, someone might quiz you on what you saw. If you did watch it, did you watch the whole thing or fast-forward through the boring rounds? You could have fast-forwarded a lot and not missed much. Do you really want to see that fight again?

Could Dawson-Tarver II turn out to be great viewing? Anything’s possible. But the chances of showing HBO’s subscribers a good fight are better if you start with a fight that looks good on paper. You could have spent your money more wisely.

Most likely, the Dawson-Tarver II telecast will be pretty boring. For creative production values, you’ll start out with the five-year-old tape of Antonio asking, “Got any excuses tonight, Roy?” Somewhere along the line, Max Kellerman will tell us that Chad Dawson reminds him of some all time great (hopefully not Bob Foster). And ratings will tank unless you pair the fight with a good co-feature.

By the way; as of this writing, promoter Gary Shaw has a multi-million-dollar license fee from HBO for Dawson-Tarver II but no site. What does that tell you about the fight? How many tickets do you think Gary will sell? I’ll bet the under on ticket sales. I’ll also bet the under on the Nielsen rating.

(5) Bring license fees into line with economic reality

On May 12th of last year, you said, “There’s no push at all to cut costs [at HBO].” That wasn’t accurate then and it’s not accurate now. But regardless of today’s economy, HBO can deliver quality boxing to its subscribers for less money than you’ve spent in the past.

Do you recall HBO: 2008 (the article that I posted on May 28th of last year)?

I thought so. I’m told you held a staff meeting that day and informed the dozen-or-so people in attendance that you were going to find out who the “moles” were and “destroy” them.

“It was a meltdown,” one person who was there said afterward. “Ross’s eyes were bulging so far out of his head that he looked like Max.”

But I digress.

In HBO: 2008, I referenced HBO’s dealings with Ricky Hatton and wrote, “There’s something very wrong with the economic model at HBO Sports when the network pays a US$2,850,000 license fee for Hatton-Urango and Versus pays roughly five percent of that amount for a doubleheader pairing Hatton-Lazcano with Malignaggi-N’dou. HBO Sports won’t solve its problems with regard to boxing until it learns to allocate its financial resources more intelligently.”

So what happened? HBO is continuing to pay oversized license fees and bid against itself with its primary competition being HBO-PPV.

On December 11, 2008, Versus televised two exciting competitive fights: Steve Cunningham against Tomasz Adamek and Joseph Agbeko vs. William Gonzalez. Those fights cost a small fraction of what HBO pays for lesser offerings.

Look at the schedule for ESPN2 Friday Night Fights for the first few months of 2009. Some of their bouts shape up as being more exciting and more competitive than fights you gave HBO’s subscribers in 2008. And ESPN2 pays as little as US$20,000 for some of its shows.

Here’s another comparison with ESPN2. On June 21, 2008, Boxing After Dark featured Andre Berto in a mismatch against Miguel Angel Rodriguez paired with Chris Arreola vs. Chazz Witherspoon. HBO paid a US$900,000 license fee for the show and got a 1.7 rating. By way of comparison, one year earlier, ESPN2 paid US$60,000 for a more competitive match-up between Berto and Cosme Rivera plus Witherspoon against Talmadge Griffis. And don’t tell me that Chris Arreola was worth the extra US$840,000.

HBO has enormous power when it comes to negotiating license fees for fights. And you keep giving in to people who have little or no clout. It’s not the end of the world if you lose a particular fight or fighter. HBO Sports survived the loss of Mike Tyson to Showtime. You can survive the loss of Oscar De La Hoya or anyone else. But boxing at HBO won’t survive bad fight after bad fight accompanied by ratings that keep going south.

So let me make a suggestion. Construct a chart of all the fights you’ve televised on World Championship Boxing and Boxing After Dark during the past three years. Enter the license fee, production and marketing costs, and the rating for each fight. I’d do it for you, but I don’t have the production and marketing costs and I’m missing a few license fees.

Once the chart is complete, the first thing you’ll realize is that there’s often very little correlation between the amount of money you spend on a fight and the rating you get.

Did a light bulb just go on in your head? That’s right. There should be a rational relationship between those numbers. Ratings reflect which fights your subscribers want to see.

Next, cross-index the chart by promoter and fighter. You might also throw Al Haymon into the mix. In other words, are Golden Boy fights giving you more viewers-per-dollar than fights promoted by Top Rank? When an Al Haymon fighter is on HBO, do you get more or less bang for your buck? Which individual fighters bring you the best ratings in terms of dollars spent?

It’s a good idea, isn’t it?

(6) Forget the heavyweights until a worthwhile fight comes along

One of Seth Abraham’s “five pillars” was that HBO should strive to have the heavyweight champion of the world under contract. I know how much you admire Seth. But for the time being, I’d skip that pillar.

The best heavyweights in the world right now are Wladimir and Vitali Klitschko. There is no “champion.” HBO has telecast Wladimir’s last five fights. The rating for the live telecast of four of those five fights failed to break 2.0 (Klitschko-Austin 1.5; Klitschko-Brewster 1.7; Klitschko-Thompson 1.4; Klitschko-Rahman 1.8).

Wladimir Klitschko vs. Hasim Rahman was HBO’s final boxing telecast in 2008. That left quite a taste in everyone’s mouth. Wladimir was a 9-to-1 favorite. Lest anyone think that Hasim was committed to winning, he weighed in at 253 pounds. During the bout, Jim Lampley said of Rahman, “He’s never been in the fight, not even for a second.” Klitschko outlanded Rock 178 to 30 (40-to-1 over the last two rounds) before the mismatch was stopped.

Stop trying to hammer a square peg into a round hole. Right now, heavyweight boxing isn’t very entertaining. And stop shilling for Chris Arreola (managed by Al Haymon) and David Haye (promoted by Golden Boy) as top-flight opponents for the Klitschkos. Haye is a cruiserweight who was knocked out by Carl Thompson. His lone victory as a heavyweight was against a faded Monte Barrett (who was knocked out in two rounds by Cliff Couser). Arreola is an entertaining overweight club fighter, who might someday develop his potential but has never fought (let alone beaten) a world-class fighter.

Arreola against Haye would be a very good HBO fight. Most likely, either Arreola exposes Haye’s chin early or he gets outboxed and knocked out himself. Neither guy has earned a fight against Vitali or Wladimir Klitschko or proven yet that he belongs in the ring with either one of them.

If for some reason you feel compelled to televise Arreola or Haye against a Klitschko, keep the license fee low. It will be a short fight.

(7) Do more to support American fighters

In recent years, the world sanctioning bodies have outsourced the making of world champions (once American-made) to foreign countries. Now HBO Sports seems to have developed a fascination with things imported.

In 2008, there were 34 fights on HBO World Championship Boxing and Boxing After Dark. That’s 68 slots for fighters. I checked Boxrec.com (which is pretty reliable). Did you know that less than half of those 68 slots were filled by American fighters?

If the price is right, it makes sense to put Ricky Hatton and Joe Calzaghe on HBO. There hasn’t been a more compelling British invasion since the Beatles and Rolling Stones. But did we really need to see guys like Robert Steiglitz and Michel Trabant (each of whom fought on HBO in 2008)?

How bad is Michel Trabant? On July 19th (his first fight after being knocked out by Andre Berto), he lost a unanimous eight-round decision to Roman Seliverstov (a fighter with a 7-and-7 record who had lost seven of his previous nine bouts). Trabant now has one win, two losses, a draw, and one no-contest (he tested positive for steroids) in his last five fights.

If you want to create an environment in the United States in which boxing (and HBO’s ratings) can flourish, you should do more to support American fighters. That doesn’t mean televising mediocre American fighters and lousy fights. But when the opponent is fungible (as guys like Trabant and Steiglitz are for viewing purposes), there’s no reason to not televise an American fighter.

(8) Revamp your announcing teams

Talk with anyone who was a football fan in the 1970s and ‘80s. Ask them what’s the first thing they think of when they think of Monday Night Football. Chances are they’ll answer “Howard Cosell.”

HBO’s “on-air talent” serves as its representative to the boxing community and is essential to branding in the collective mind of subscribers. You’ve got a problem with your announcing teams on World Championship Boxing and Boxing After Dark. And you’re one of the few people at HBO who doesn’t seem to know it.

Deal with it.

(9) Be ever-vigilant to ensure that HBO’s journalistic integrity remains intact

HBO is part of Time Warner, whose component parts have a long record of journalistic integrity. HBO has carved a special niche for itself in sports television with regard to the same.

In the past, viewers knew that they could turn to HBO for the unvarnished truth. Whether it was boxing, Sports of the 20th Century, Costas Now, Inside the NFL, Real Sports, or any of your other offerings, the line between credibility and hype was clear.

Now that line is blurring.

The four-part 24/7 series promoting the pay-per-view telecast of Oscar De La Hoya vs. Manny Pacquiao is an example of what I’m talking about. The bill for De La Hoya-Pacquiao: 24/7 was US$1,500,000. Golden Boy and Top Rank (the fight’s promoters) paid the whole thing. If pay-per-view buys had topped 1,500,000, HBO would have chipped in.

That put HBO in an awkward position. You don’t ask the subjects of Real Sports segments to pay production costs. That would put you in a compromising position, wouldn’t it?

There were a lot of little problems with De La Hoya-Pacquiao: 24/7. I wasn’t impressed when Liev Schreiber solemnly intoned, “Freddie Roach has important business to tend to. He needs a haircut.” No disrespect to Roach or his stylist; but there are things I’d rather watch than Freddie getting his hair washed and cut.

There were also times when 24/7 gave us false “reality.” Steve Kim reported that sound effects were added to the scene showing Manny Pacquiao listening to the heartbeat of his soon-to-be-born daughter because the sonogram didn’t work. Bob Arum observed, “They wanted Oscar and Manny to fly to Las Vegas in a helicopter and land on the roof of Treasure Island; like that’s a realistic look at what a fighter does before a fight.”

But most significantly, De La Hoya-Pacquiao: 24/7, while pretending to be sports journalism, was primarily an effort to engender pay-per-view buys and, secondarily, an exercise in image-building for Oscar coupled with a product placement tool for Ring sportswear. The issue of De La Hoya trying to lure Pacquiao away from Top Rank and signing him with Golden Boy by giving him a briefcase filled with US$300,000 in cash and the ugly recriminations that followed were never discussed. Why not?

And while we’re on the subject of sports journalism; why not do a segment about Al Haymon on Real Sports? Here’s a guy who comes out of the music business. Articulate, smooth, polished, smart. All of a sudden, he’s getting more dates and big paydays on HBO for his fighters than any other manager in the business. That would be great television. And Al would finally get the public recognition he deserves for his accomplishments.

(10) Re-examine your boxing program from top to bottom

“The leadership at HBO Sports today is reactive, not proactive. That’s one of the biggest differences between now and the Seth Abraham era.”

That’s a quote from someone in the industry who, for obvious reasons, would rather not be identified.

HBO Sports has to become proactive again. The best way to start would be to bring someone in from the outside to conduct a full diagnostic study of what needs to be improved with HBO’s boxing program, how to implement the necessary changes, and (particularly important in today’s economy) where you can save money.

The study can’t be conducted from within because those on the inside will simply defend their past decisions.

I’d be glad to conduct the study.

Nah; I didn’t think you’d go for that.

Okay; let me throw two more names into the mix.

Seth Abraham built HBO Sports into a colossus and made its boxing program the best in the business. Seth has a small consulting firm with a roster of elite clients. He could do the job.

And if you don’t want to go to Seth for advice, how about Jay Larkin? Jay ran Showtime’s boxing program for years. He pioneered the network’s “great fights, no rights” policy and did your job, Kery Davis’s job, Mark Taffet’s job, Luis Barragan’s job, and Rick Bernstein’s job all rolled into one.

(11) A few more thoughts

Let me repeat something that an industry veteran said to me recently: “Ross personalizes everything, and it’s not about Ross. It’s about HBO and boxing.”

I mention that because you’ve told people that I’m trying to get you fired. That’s far-fetched, since I gather your employment contract runs until the end of 2011. Also, I doubt that Bill Nelson and HBO co-presidents Eric Kessler, Harold Akselrad, and Richard Plepler make decisions based on articles that appear on Secondsout.com or MaxBoxing.com.

Besides; if my goal was to make life miserable for you, I’d simply give Dan Goossen your home telephone number and suggest he call you five nights a week about putting James Toney on HBO.

The first article I wrote about you was a piece entitled “Ross Greenburg and Sports of the 20th Century.” As I recall, you were pleased with it. I want HBO Sports to be successful. It would be good for boxing, and there are a lot of people I like at HBO.

Where we part ways is in our understanding of what the media is supposed to do. In a free society, its function is to inform. Sometimes that involves praise; sometimes it involves criticism.

In recent years, I’ve written several articles that were critical of the path you’ve followed insofar as it relates to boxing at HBO. In researching those articles, I spoke with reliable sources. I respected requests for confidentiality from people who assumed that, if they spoke on the record, they’d be subjected to retaliation. The articles shed light on important issues. In other words, I did my job as a journalist.

You reacted in a manner befitting Lord Voldemort. Quite a few HBO employees were told that, if they were seen talking with me, they were at risk of being fired. Then rational minds prevailed and that edict was reversed. But you did conduct an office computer search in an effort to determine who my sources were.

You might not be aware of it, but morale among some of your troops is low. One person told me recently, “Ross has the unfortunate habit of spreading responsibility when there’s blame and focusing responsibility when there’s credit.” Search and seizure missions don’t help.

Corporate executives have a legitimate interest in keeping confidential information secure. You have every right to tell employees that they shouldn’t discuss confidential HBO information with me. But a corporation doesn’t have a legitimate interest in regulating the personal lives of its employees unless the personal life embarrasses the corporation (e.g. Chris Albrecht beating up a woman in the parking lot at the MGM Grand). You don’t have the right to tell your employees that they’re forbidden to socialize with me or punish them if they do.

And the irony is that the most significant quote in any of my articles about HBO didn’t come from a confidential source. It was taken from the pages of USA Today at a time when you were planning to replace Larry Merchant with Max Kellerman.

“Larry is still throwing a 95-mph fastball and hitting the corners,” the speaker said. “We’d never give him a reduced role.”

You remember that quote, don’t you? Larry’s role has since been reduced (as was contemplated at the time). The speaker was you.

What you should have done after I wrote “Larry Merchant and HBO” was apologize to Larry and Max for putting them in the situation you’d put them in. Then, if you were concerned about “leaks,” you could have called a staff meeting and said something along the lines of, “Obviously, I’m doing something wrong because a lot of you feel more comfortable talking with Tom Hauser about problems at HBO that you do talking with me. So let’s start fresh. My door is open. If any of you have concerns about the way things are being done, I’m here to listen. We’re a team. Let’s get the job done right.”

Instead, you acted like Mike Tyson on a bad day. As one of your underlings said at the time, “All that’s missing is the Maori tattoo.”

I’m not always right. I’m one of the guys who thought that Oscar De La Hoya would be too big for Manny Pacquiao. But ask yourself whether the issues I’ve raised with regard to boxing at HBO are completely without merit; or on reflection, do some of the problems I’ve referenced actually exist? If you disagree with ninety percent of what I’m writing, implement the ten percent that you agree with. Then reconsider the rest.

I’m not your biggest critic and I’m far from the most important. The critics who matter are HBO’s subscribers, who’ve stopped watching fights on HBO and are driving ratings to record lows. The problem isn’t what I’m writing. The problem is what I’m writing about.


Thomas Hauser can be reached by e-mail at thauser@rcn.com. His most recent book (“The Boxing Scene”) has just been published by Temple University Press.


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