HBO Boxing: The Challenge

Hatton v Castillo is in HBO's 07 plans
Hatton v Castillo is in HBO's 07 plans
By Thomas Hauser
Boxing is struggling, and 2007 will bring new challenges for the sport. Showtime has publicly announced its intention to televise mixed martial arts. Meanwhile, HBO is committed to televising three UFC shows during the coming year with an option for three more. HBO's current plan is to air the shows at midnight on dates still to be determined. No matter how these telecasts are packaged, ultimately they will compete with boxing.

Within the boxing community, HBO warrants closer scrutiny than Showtime because it's the standard-bearer for the sport. Sources at HBO say that Ross Greenburg (president of HBO Sports) opposed the UFC deal as vigorously as possible. He did everything in his power not to televise mixed martial arts. But in the end, he had no choice.

Ari Emanuel (a Hollywood agent on whom the character played by Jeremy Piven in Entourage is believed to be based) represents UFC. He pitched UFC to HBO chairman Chris Albrecht, who (in pursuit of a younger viewing demographic) insisted on the telecasts. That represented a marked shift in HBO's corporate culture. In the past, an HBO chief executive officer would not have ordered sports programming over the objection of the sports department.

During an interview last week, Greenburg declined to comment on the matter beyond acknowledging, "I wouldn't say that I'm a big fan of UFC. But when I started at HBO, I wasn't a big fan of boxing either. I recognize the fact that UFC appeals to a fan base and demographic that boxing doesn't have right now."

But Seth Abraham (Greenburg's predecessor) is less reticent, declaring, "I think it's ridiculous for HBO to televise UFC. When I was at HBO, we had discussions once or twice a year about professional wrestling. We all agreed that it would get good ratings and we also agreed that it would tarnish our boxing franchise. I feel the same way about UFC. Boxing has a storied history. When HBO attaches itself to boxing, it attaches itself to Joe Louis, Sugar Ray Robinson, and Muhammad Ali. It attaches itself to history, achievement, and glory. UFC has none of those things, and it will tarnish HBO's boxing franchise. Will UFC get good ratings? Probably. But so would naked boxing."

Be that as it may; this is a watershed moment for HBO Sports. And it comes at a time when HBO can no longer take its favored position with boxing fans for granted. Until recently, there was a presumption that, if a fight was on HBO, it was worth watching. That's no longer always the case.

The network's boxing program as a whole is getting flat. When Greenburg was executive producer of HBO Sports, he earned acclaim as an innovator in live-boxing television production. But not much new has happened since he left that position. The production values (which were once cutting edge) are growing stale. The advertising and marketing for HBO's fights are less imaginative than they should be. And replacing one or more on-screen commentators with younger "talent" won't solve the problem. To the contrary, that change most likely will only diminish HBO's aura of class.

The powers that be at HBO have to sit down with a blank piece of paper and ask themselves, "What do we want HBO Sports to look like five years from now?" And when they do, they should examine the underlying philosophy that drives their boxing program.

During Seth Abraham's tenure as president of Time Warner Sports, the network was guided by what were known internally as "the five pillars of HBO Boxing." More specifically, Abraham felt that HBO should strive to have under contract (1) the consensus pound-for-pound champion; (2) the heavyweight champion; (3) the most exciting fighter in the world; and (4) the best young fighter in the world. He also wanted (5) the fight of the year to have been televised on HBO.

Things didn't always go smoothly. "The [longterm] Roy Jones contract was a mistake," Abraham acknowledges. "I misread Roy. I thought that pride and his wanting to go down in history as one of the greatest fighters of the modern era would lead him to want more competitive fights; and obviously, he was satisfied with lesser opponents." But overall, HBO was successful in anointing stars, building them up in the public mind, and making its boxing telecasts a magnet for subscribers.

Boxing was the unquestioned centerpiece of HBO Sports during Abraham's reign. Ross Greenburg puts a premium on boxing but is more into diversification. Within the sports department today, Greenburg is the ultimate decision-maker. Mark Taffet (senior vice president, sports operations and pay-per view) is the pay-per-view and marketing guru. Kery Davis (senior vice president, programming) negotiates match-ups and license fees with promoters. Proposals for HBO World Championship Boxing usually come in through Davis. Luis Barragan (director of programming) reports to Kery and is the point of entry for most proposals relating to Boxing after Dark. Barbara Thomas is the chief financial officer. Peter Mozarsky drafts contracts and interfaces with lawyers for promoters.

One thing that's missing from the equation is a forceful advocate for fans.

Lou DiBella was a senior vice president under Abraham. "There was sometimes tension between Lou and me," Seth recalls. "But Lou also had more influence with me than the other members of the team. Lou's philosophy was that HBO should make the best fights possible and that all the rest was nonsense. He and I disagreed on many things. But one of the good things that Lou did was that he was always pushing me, aggressively pushing me, to make HBO Boxing better. And Ross doesn't have anyone doing that."

Also, Greenburg is operating in a radically different financial environment from the one that Abraham enjoyed. During Abraham's tenure, HBO's chief executive officers (Michael Fuchs and, later, Jeff Bewkes) were big boxing fans. The annual budget for boxing was close to $80,000,000, and Seth could get additional funds when needed. The peak years were 1999 and 2000, when the boxing budget surpassed $120,000,000.

Greenburg reports to [HBO chairman] Chris Albrecht and [president] Bill Nelson, neither of whom is partial to the sweet science. The annual budget for license fees is now less than half of what it was seven years ago. And there's another fly in the ointment; pay-per-view.

Pay-per-view is here to stay. In 2006, HBO engendered 3,700,000 pay-per view buys with $177,000,000 in gross sales. The only year with more buys than that was 1999, when the total was 4,000,000.

But 1999 was very different than 2006. 1999 was the year of De La Hoya-Trinidad (1,400,000 buys), Holyfield-Lewis I (1,200,000), Holyfield-Lewis II (850,000), and De La Hoya-Quartey (570,000). By contrast, the only pay-per-view mega fight in 2006 was De La Hoya-Mayorga (925,000 buys). Rahman-Maskaev was a bust with under 50,000. The other eight PPV cards last year were all in the 325,000-to 450,000 range. Pay-per-view fights in that range almost always generate more money for the promoter and fighters than HBO is willing to pay for an HBO World Championship Boxing license fee.

Greenburg calls the expansion of pay-per-view "the biggest economic issue in boxing" and says, "I can't tell you that pay-per-view helps the sport because it doesn't. It hurts the sport because it narrows our audience, but it's a fact of life. Every time we try to make an HBO World Championship Boxing fight, we're up against mythical pay-per-view numbers. HBO doesn't make a lot of money from pay-per-view. There's usually a cap on what we can make. But the promoters and fighters insist on pay-per-view because that's where their greatest profits lie."

"It's a big problem," Greenburg continues. "It's getting harder and harder to put fighters like Manny Pacquiao on HBO World Championship Boxing. If Floyd Mayweather beats Oscar, he might never fight on HBO World Championship Boxing again. But if HBO stopped doing pay-per-view, the promoters would simply do it on their own [like Bob Arum did with Cotto-Malignaggi in June 2006] or find someone else who will do it for them."

Seth Abraham concurs, saying, "I think, if Lou and I were still at HBO, we'd be in the same pickle as far as the exodus of fights to pay-per-view is concerned."

Pay-per-view, of course, will be the vehicle for the May 5th super-fight between Oscar De La Hoya and Floyd Mayweather Jr. That bout will put boxing back in the media spotlight. Newspapers that haven't staffed a fight since Lennox Lewis versus Mike Tyson in 2002 will be there. But one fight won't lift boxing from its doldrums. Lewis-Tyson didn't do it, and Oscar versus Floyd won't either. As big an event as De La Hoya versus Mayweather might be, it will be over on May 6th and it will have little impact on the overall business of boxing.

It would be an interesting exercise if the numbers-crunchers at HBO added up all the license fees that they've paid for Floyd Mayweather fights and Floyd Mayweather marketing over the years and factored in the good will lost in televising non-competitive bouts like Mayweather-Bruseles and Mayweather-Mitchell, and then asked themselves if it was worth it.

That question, in turn, leads to two more issues. Is HBO's "star" philosophy outdated? And if it's still viable, is it being properly implemented?

HBO wants stars. It focusses its efforts on building stars. It gives a handful of fighters exposure; gets them some wins; hopes they'll look good; and then puts them on pay-per-view. "Creating and nurturing stars," says Greenburg, "has been a key component of our philosophy for thirty years."

One can argue that building stars is what a promoter and manager (not a television network) are supposed to do. But beyond that, how many stars has HBO built in the past seven years? The truth is, apart from Oscar De La Hoya, there are no stars now in boxing. Manny Pacquiao is popular in the Philippines. Miguel Cotto has a loyal following in Puerto Rico. But most of the world (and many sports fans) have no idea who they are.

A look at HBO's 2006 schedule is instructive In evaluating the philosophy that drives the network's boxing program.

Bad pay-per-view match-ups shouldn't be a problem for fans. They simply don't have to buy them. But mediocre match-ups on HBO World Championship Boxing and Boxing After Dark are a different matter. HBO subscribers pay a monthly subscription fee and are entitled good value for their money.

The fights on HBO World Championship Boxing in 2006 were pretty good, although they could have been better (more on that later). Boxing After Dark is a different matter. The BAD fights were a disappointment.

HBO usually pays a $300,000 license fee for Boxing After Dark shows ($225,000 if the promoter keeps foreign rights). Pursuant to a special contractual arrangement, Golden Boy sometimes gets $600,000. Properly spent, that money could buy wonderful fights. But HBO has consistently made the mistake of giving dates to promoters without specific fights attached.

Golden Boy got dates because HBO killed Boxeo De Oro (its Spanish-language fight telecasts). Bob Arum got dates because HBO used fight footage that belonged to him in a documentary series without a proper license. Lou DiBella got dates because he took a financial hit to make Taylor-Wright. The list goes on and on, And it's coupled with the fact that, philosophically, HBO would rather pit a "star" against a "C-list" opponent than two "B-list" fighters against one another.

HBO televised 42 fights in 2006. That includes 18 fights on HBO World Championship Boxing, 14 on Boxing After Dark, and the featured bout on ten HBO Pay-Per-View shows. The underdog won only five of them. That doesn't say much for the competitive level of HBO's fights.

By contrast, Showtime Championship Boxing televised 20 fights last year and the underdog won eight.

In sum, HBO might have televised better fighters, but Showtime televised better fights (and for a fraction of HBO's budget). The issue crystalized on December 2nd, when Miguel Cotto and Antonio Margarito fought on Showtime in separate bouts that will go a long way toward defining the welterweight division in 2007. That same night, on HBO, Jeff Lacy looked mediocre in squeaking by Vitali Tsypko and Winky Wright beat up on the considerably-smaller Ike Quartey.

Insiders say that HBO paid a $4,000,000 license fee for its December 2nd telecast. Add in $500,000 for marketing and production costs and the total comes to roughly $4,500,000 (more than $1,000,000 per ratings point) for HBO World Championship Boxing's lowest-rated fight of the year. HBO could have doubled the license fees it pays for Boxing After Dark for almost an entire year for what it spent on its December 2nd show. And Jermain Taylor versus Kassim Ouma (on HBO one week later), cost almost as much and didn't do much better in the ratings.

Also, keep in mind that Taylor versus Wright on June 17th was HBO's highest-rated fight of the year. The lesson is simple. Boxing fans might want to see "stars" but they want to see them in competitive fights. Was Taylor-Wright expensive in terms of license fees? Sure. But a rematch wouldn't have cost much more than the license fees for the December 2nd and December 9th telecasts combined (assuming that Winky didn't price himself out of the market to avoid the fight).

So what's the answer?

HBO is in the entertainment business. In boxing, great fights are entertainment. Great performances aren't. One-man-show fights get boring fast.

HBO has to get away from the star-at-any-cost mentality and televise better fights; not just fights as a vehicle for one fighter. Every fight on HBO should be good enough to stand on its own. Boxing After Dark should not be a developmental league for HBO World Championship Boxing. HBO World Championship Boxing shouldn't be a developmental league for HBO Pay-Per-View. Better fights will attract younger viewers in addition to more old ones.

There aren't many great fighters today, but that doesn't mean there can't be great fights. Matchmaking is an art, not a science. Fights don't always turn out the way they look on paper, but HBO is more likely to have great fights if it starts out with match-ups that are great to begin with.

Here, it should be noted that styles make fights. And one doesn't learn styles by looking up records on Micky Ward had 13 losses in 51 fights. Arturo Gatti has been beaten eight times. But they gave HBO wonderful action, and not just against each other. Good fights make more good fights. And great fights create stars.

HBO calls itself "the heart and soul of boxing." It should act like it and tell promoters, "Don't bring us fights that aren't quality fights." It should tell fighters who won't go in tough, "Make your name somewhere else and come to us when you're ready to fight in a competitive fight." Regardless of what happens early in the game, most megafights will wind up with HBO. The network can outbid anyone for what it wants.

Looking ahead to the coming year, Ross Greenburg says, "We're going to focus on getting back to our roots and try to humanize our fighters for our audience. We're planning new image campaigns for our key charismatic fighters. We'd like to do a couple of big fights like Taylor-Wright I on HBO World Championship Boxing. And we'd like to make sense out of the heavyweight division, although I'm not going to tell you there's a good chance of a unification tournament because there isn't."

Then Greenburg adds words that are music to the ears, saying, "We're going to invigorate Boxing After Dark by loosening our commitments to promoters. Our last commitment is in June and, after that, we're going to abandon the practice of giving dates to promoters without specific fights attached. It has cramped our style and it just hasn't worked. We'll also 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."

That's good news if HBO sticks by it. In that vein, it will be interesting to see how HBO showcases Andre Berto. Berto is a talented welterweight prospect with 16 wins and 14 knockouts in 16 fights. On December 9th, he fought Miguel Figueroa on HBO World Championship Boxing. It wasn't even a Boxing-After-Dark-caliber fight. Figueroa had one win in the previous two years and no business being in the ring with Berto. Andre administered an ugly beating that ended in a sixth-round knockout.

Good career guidance dictates that Berto have a number of fights against significantly weaker opponents while he's learning his craft. But those fights shouldn't be on HBO. Andre is slated to be on Boxing After Dark in February and again in May. Let's hope it's in competitive fights. HBO's subscribers are entitled to see good young fighters in competitive action, not learning-experience bouts.

None of this commentary is intended as a personal attack upon anyone at HBO. The network does a superb job of covering boxing in many respects. But we in the boxing media are fans and we're advocates for fans. I'm simply saying that HBO can and should televise better fights. Many at HBO think that assessment is unfair. Let's put our conflicting views to the test.

I'd like to propose a challenge to the powers that be at HBO. Let a fan try his hand at making a fight card for Boxing After Dark. Give me a date with a decent lead-time and a dollar number for the license fee that you're willing to pay. I'll deliver a fight card for your final approval. I won't take any payment. The process will be above-board and open.

Is making good fights on HBO's budget harder than I think it is? Maybe. Is it rocket science? I doubt it. And I guarantee you; I'll deliver fights that are better than most of what was seen last year on Boxing After Dark.

I don't expect HBO to take me up on this challenge. But it should. Fight fans want to see the best fights that they can possibly see on television. HBO should too.

Thomas Hauser can be reached by email at
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