Jump to content

Hauser: What HBO Should Do Now


Recommended Posts

What HBO Should Do Now – Part One


By Thomas Hauser (2/20/2011)



Eight years ago, I wrote an article entitled What’s Going on at HBO? In part, that article read, “Boxing at HBO is at a crossroads. There's an axiom in the sweet science that, if a fighter isn't getting better, he's getting worse. And the same might be said of those who televise fights. To a degree, HBO is living off the good will that attaches to the HBO brand. And because HBO sets the standard, if it gets sloppy it will allow everyone else's standards to drop.”


Four years after that, in 2007, I wrote, “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 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.”


Since then, I’ve remained an admirer and also a critic of HBO Sports. Among the points I’ve made are:


(1) HBO Sports should televise better fights.


(2) Rather than pre-select “stars,” HBO Sports should let stars emerge from exciting competitive match-ups.


(3) HBO Sports has been bidding against itself and overpaying for fights.


(4) HBO Sports should stop tilting the playing field in favor of certain promoters and managers. In recent years, that tilt has been toward Golden Boy and Al Haymon.


(5) HBO Sports should reserve the HBO-PPV label for special events and give pay-per-view buyers better undercard fights.


(6) The HBO Sports announcing teams (which are crucial to branding its boxing program) should be revamped.


(7) HBO Sports needs to eliminate the arrogant condescending attitude that several of its key executives manifest toward the boxing community.


(8) The decision-makers at HBO Sports have to immerse themselves in the boxing community and become better informed with regard to boxing matters.


These things didn’t happen. As a result, HBO Sports let its subscribers, Time Warner’s shareholders, and boxing down.


Recent events have been extremely discouraging to the many people who have worked so hard over the years to build HBO Sports. The announcement that Manny Pacquiao is leaving the network to fight Shane Mosley on Showtime Pay-Per-View has led to serious soul-searching at the highest levels of HBO. But Pacquiao-Mosley is only the tip of the iceberg. There’s a growing understanding, as evidenced by years of declining ratings, that the problems at HBO Sports go far beyond one fight.


The key players at HBO Sports are Ross Greenburg (president), Kery Davis (senior vice president for sports programming), Mark Taffet (senior vice president for sports operations and pay-per-view), and Rick Bernstein (senior vice president / executive producer).


Their future and the future of HBO Sports will be determined by three men.


Bill Nelson is HBO’s chairman and CEO. Richard Plepler is HBO’s co-president. Michael Lombardo is president of HBO programming.


Greenburg reports to Lombardo. Above that, the chain of command runs through Plepler to Nelson. Sources say that Ross did not inform Nelson, Plepler, or Lombardo that HBO was in danger of losing Manny Pacquiao until it was too late for HBO to marshall its resources and make a proposal that would be competitive with Showtime and CBS.


Other sources say that Nelson, Plepler, and Lombardo have decided that HBO will remain involved with boxing on a longterm basis and that they are committed to restoring excellence to HBO’s boxing brand.


In furtherance of that goal, Plepler and Lombardo have embarked upon a fact-finding mission. When it’s complete, Plepler (with significant input from Lombardo and subject to Nelson’s approval) will decide who is best qualified to run HBO Sports in the future. All other HBO Sports personnel decisions will flow from that choice.


No final decision has been made yet with regard to Greenburg’s future. But a number of leaders in the boxing community have said privately that, if Plepler and Lombardo ask for their opinion, they will tell them that both Greenburg and Davis are better suited for positions other than the ones they currently hold.


“The handwriting is on the wall,” says one person with knowledge of the situation. “It’s more than handwriting; it’s graffiti. Ross and Kery are on a very small island and the water is rising. I’d be very surprised if either one of them is with HBO Sports six months from now.”


Commenting on another person’s job performance is a serious matter. But it’s a responsibility that resides with the media at appropriate times. Time Magazine and CNN (which, like HBO, are components of the Time Warner empire) critique the performance of government officials and corporate executives on a regular basis. HBO Sports grades the performance of fighters and others in the boxing industry all the time; often harshly.


Certainly, a journalist has the right to critique the leaders of HBO Sports.


For far too long, the people running HBO Sports have been like trust fund babies with a constant flow of budget money from above who aren’t in touch with the financial realities of the boxing industry. There has been a collective failure to identify, acknowledge, and take responsibility for problems. As one industry veteran notes, “They’re like guys at a very exclusive country club. They sit around enjoying the good life, telling each other what a wonderful job they’re doing, and nothing that goes wrong is their fault.”


When Roger Goodell was interviewing for the job of commissioner of the National Football League, he gave the owners this piece of advice: “Change before you’re forced to change.”


The leaders of HBO Sports have been slow to change. Indeed, because HBO Sports was so successful during the last two decades of the twentieth century, they’ve resisted change in the new millennium. And they’ve seemed oblivious to the decline of HBO’s boxing franchise. The problem isn’t that HBO lost Pacquiao-Mosley. The problem is everything that led to the loss of Pacquiao-Mosley.


Ross Greenburg took over the helm of HBO Sports ten years ago. During his tenure, HBO has turned a deaf ear to large segments of the boxing community. In July 2008, when Bob Arum was raising some of the same issues he has raised during the past year, HBO issued a statement that read, “We've grown weary of Bob Arum’s tirades against HBO Sports. They are foolish, unproductive and marginal in accuracy.”


In recent weeks, Arum has been cast as Moses leading boxing out of bondage into the promised land with Greenburg playing the role of Pharoah. It’s not that simple. Arum is far from perfect and Greenburg has redeeming qualities. But Arum is able to see beyond his own personal preferences, and Greenburg seems to have difficulty doing that.


“Ross personalizes everything,” says a former HBO employee. “He doesn’t understand that what appeals to him doesn’t necessarily appeal to HBO’s subscriber base. Ross likes baseball, so he thinks that everybody likes baseball and he won’t run boxing against the baseball playoffs. There are run-of-the-mill college football games that do better ratings than the baseball playoffs.”


Also, there are times when Greenburg allows his personal feelings to override sound business judgment.


“Ross has stopped speaking to me altogether,” Arum said in 2008. “He won’t take telephone calls from me anymore because he’s mad that I’ve criticized him. I’ve called him five or six times in the past few weeks, and he won’t return my calls. That’s not how a responsible television executive behaves. It’s worse than unprofessional. It’s fucking moronic. I’m supplying Manny Pacquiao, Kelly Pavlik, Miguel Cotto, Antonio Margarito. None of them are tied to HBO, which means they can bolt at any time. Ross might despise me. But doesn’t he have an obligation as the head of HBO Sports to talk with me? Don King and I were mortal enemies at times, but we always talked. [Former HBO Sports president] Seth Abraham was pissed off at me more times than I can count, but we always talked. Even when Seth and I were fighting, he’d pick up the phone and call to say ‘congratulations’ after a great fight.”


“Ross made it personal with Bob,” says someone who knows both men well. “His approach was, ‘Hey; let’s dump all over the promoter who has the best, most marketable fighter in boxing because he has nowhere else to go.’ That’s not a very good strategy.”


“You can like Bob Arum or not like Bob Arum,” says another industry insider. “But Bob has one of the longest-running relationships that exists between a supplier and HBO. Not just HBO Sports; all of HBO. Bob has supplied HBO with more fights than any other promoter. If you add up the revenue from pay-per-fights-over the years, HBO has made more money with Bob than with any other promoter. And look what Ross has done to that relationship.”


Greenburg’s first response to the loss of Manny Pacquiao should have been to sit back and reflect on the question, “What did we do wrong?” But people who’ve worked closely with him say that he has difficulty admitting to having made a mistake. Being stubborn in the face of a contrary reality is rarely a virtue. The Bourbon Kings (who were known for their stubbornness) ruled France from the late-sixteenth century until the French Revolution. Talleyrand said of them, “They have learned nothing, and they have forgotten nothing.”


For the past decade, like its Emmy-award-winning Sports of the 20th Century series , HBO Sports has often seemed to be rooted in the past.


More significantly, Greenburg and the business of boxing are a poor fit.


Lou DiBella (who was the point person for HBO’s boxing program during the glory years) observes, “Other networks have been heavily into boxing in the past, and other networks will be heavily into boxing in the future. But their sports departments haven’t been built on boxing. Boxing is the core of HBO Sports. Not documentaries; not Real Sports. Boxing.”


Eight years ago, I wrote, “Seth Abraham was a forceful advocate for boxing within Time Warner. Greenburg is a great producer. But Greenburg doesn't know the sport of boxing, the business of boxing, or the players in boxing the way Abraham did. Nor is he expected to be as strong an internal advocate for the sweet science. Boxing might well be just another sport to him; something to be thrown into the mix.”


“You need a boxing guy to run boxing at HBO,” Bob Arum said in 2008. “Not a bunch of TV guys who think they know boxing. The biggest problem with Ross, far worse than his personal animosity toward me and one or two other promoters, is his lack of knowledge and lack of interest in boxing. Ross was a good producer, but that doesn’t qualify him to be the head of a major department at a major premium network. I’m sorry to say it, but Ross is ill-equipped for the job and he’s certainly ill-equipped to run HBO’s boxing program. If someone has no understanding of boxing and no love for the sport, he gets hooked on names he’s heard of, even if those names belong to fighters who are way past their prime or could never fight to begin with. That’s why you see so many horrible fights and so many of the same tired old faces on HBO. Make up a quiz about boxing and give it to all the executives who’ve been involved in buying fights for the television networks over the past ten years. I guarantee you; Ross would come in last.”


Years ago, Seth Abraham reflected on the first professional fight he ever saw. At the time, he was a young man working as a special assistant to Bowie Kuhn (then the commissioner of Major League Baseball).


“There was nothing remarkable about the fight, but I found it thrilling,” Abraham recalled. “I'd seen countless fights before on television. But sitting at this one, I was struck by the realization that every other sport has some type of time frame; either a clock or a given number of innings or whatever. And a fight can end at any moment. I suppose that's obvious, but it was an epiphany for me and the excitement of that night stayed with me. A year later, I went to HBO, believing that boxing had all the elements of great drama and great television.”


But that drama often seems lost on Greenburg, who has made delay telecasts an integral part of his programming philosophy. Here, Arum observes, “The whole idea that it doesn’t matter if people watch a fight live because we’re showing it on tape and we count the cumulative total from all of the telecasts and re-telecasts is nuts. The whole point of watching a fight is that you can’t take a break like you do if you’re watching the first quarter of a football game. Because if you do, when you come back, the fight might be over. To watch a fight when you already know the result takes most of the excitement and drama out of it. Can you imagine someone saying, ‘I’m not watching the Super Bowl live. I’ll watch it on tape a week later.’ You can’t have a major sport like that.”


Greenburg’s critics also point to numerous missteps which were avoidable.


For example, in 2008, I wrote, “HBO is on the verge of signing a longterm output deal with Golden Boy. The proposed deal is, by definition, for fights and fighters unknown. It would undercut HBO’s leverage in future negotiations with Golden Boy because the promoter would already have certain dates, which in and of itself is a major negotiating point.”


In the same article, Seth Abraham was quoted as follows: “It’s hard to believe that HBO would commit to buying a specified number of fights from Golden Boy for a specified number of dollars over a [longterm] period. Teddy Brenner once said, ‘Fights make fights.’ How could you know what fights and fighters you’re buying?”


Greenburg finalized the output deal with Golden Boy. It’s now widely acknowledged (even within HBO) that it was a huge mistake.


Prior to that, in 2006, Greenburg vetoed a deal that would have had HBO, in effect, partnering with Versus and using the cable network (which is part of the Comcast empire) as a development ground for HBO fighters. An opportunity for synergy with a network that’s seen in tens of millions of homes was lost.


In 2009, Ross nixed a proposal that HBO bring boxing’s leading promoters together for a “summit” to discuss the sport’s problems.


And over the years, Greenburg has evinced a sense of entitlement that has soured a number of people in the boxing and entertainment industries.


A case in point –


Last year, Jim Lampley proposed that HBO work with his production company on an unscripted documentary-reality series about trainer Freddie Roach. Greenburg turned the project down. The following recitation of what happened thereafter has been pieced together from multiple sources.


Ted Chervin is the head of worldwide television at ICM (one of the largest and most influential talent agencies in the world). He’s also Lampley’s agent. Chervin was instrumental in eliciting an offer for the Freddie Roach project from AMC. In May 2010, Greenburg was given one last chance to pick up the project and declined. Thereafter, the deal with AMC was finalized.


In October 2010, Manny Pacquiao arrived at the Wild Card Gym in Los Angeles to begin training with Roach for his November 13th fight against Antonio Margarito. HBO’s 24/7 production team was there. At that point, HBO executive producer Rick Bernstein called Nick Khan (who works for Chervin and is Roach’s agent) and told him, “Our camera crew says there’s an AMC crew there. They have to leave.”


Khan said that the AMC crew had every right to be there.


Five minutes later, Greenburg called Khan, demanding, “How dare you do a show like this? You’re shutting that AMC project down now [expletives deleted].”


Khan told Chervin about the conversation, including the fact that Greenburg had referred to the two of them as “morons.”


Ted Chervin is a former assistant United States attorney, who made his name in legal circles by prosecuting organized crime figures (including members of Colombia’s Cali drug cartel). He didn’t like being called a moron.


Chervin instructed Khan to have the 24/7 crew thrown out of the gym.


Soon after, Arum and Top Rank president Todd DuBoef called Khan and told him, “This puts us in a difficult spot. We have a contract with 24/7. We’d take it as a personal favor if you let them back in the gym.”


Khan called Bernstein and said that, as a courtesy to Top Rank, the 24/7 crew would be allowed in the gym when Pacquiao was there. He also telephoned Greenburg and told him that, if Ross didn’t apologize to Chervin, Ted would complain about the incident to Richard Plepler.


Greenburg called Chervin, apologized, and asked, “Is it all square between us now?”


Maybe it is; maybe it isn’t.


Ross’s righthand man on boxing matters is Kery Davis. Like Greenburg, he declined to be interviewed for this article.


Davis had a hard act to follow. As I wrote in 2003, “Lou DiBella essentially ran HBO Boxing for Seth Abraham on a day-to-day basis. He was proactive when it came to the sport. He loved the fight world. He understood, cared about, and subordinated his life to boxing. He also operated in a very personal way with everyone from the media to the fighters themselves. DiBella constantly bounced ideas off people and solicited their advice. He fought to change HBO from a network that showcased its stars in mismatches in order to groom them for pay-per-view events to a network that put fighters in tough and stood by them when they lost as long as they lost with honor. He championed the lighter-weight fighters; a commitment that's paying dividends now in the form of Naseem Hamed, Erik Morales, and Marco Antonio Barrera. And he was up-front with his feelings about corruption in the sport. To a degree, his passion for cleaning up the sweet science inoculated HBO against some of boxing's broader scandals.”


DiBella had his flaws (as all of us do). “He ruffled feathers in-house,” I wrote. “There were times when he upstaged some of his compatriots and neutered others. Because boxing at HBO was enormously successful under his watch, the powers-that-be gave him wide latitude. But now that DiBella is gone, there appears to be a new attitude at HBO. Kery Davis is the new ‘boxing guy’ at HBO. Davis comes out of the music business and appears to lack DiBella's passion for and knowledge of the sport. Whenever there was a [pay-per-view] fight in Las Vegas on a Saturday, DiBella was likely to be in attendance at the ESPN2 card the night before. Kery is more likely to be enjoying a leisurely dinner. Davis may well grow into his role. But right now, he doesn't have the personal rapport with fighters, managers, and the media that DiBella enjoyed.”


“Part of Seth’s genius,” says a longtime HBO employee, “was that he let Lou be Lou. Part of Ross’s problem is that he lets Kery be Kery.”


Davis has voiced anger that I’ve questioned the practice of HBO Sports executives not staying at the host hotel for certain fights and, instead, staying at more luxurious accommodations away from the action. My own view is that corporate employees are entitled to travel in comfort. But when HBO Sports pays for one of its executives to be on-site for a fight, the purpose of the trip is not eat expensive dinners, play golf, and hang out at the best hotel in town with friends.


I might add that Time Magazine, CNN, and other Time Warner subsidiaries appropriately criticize the extravagant perks given to management at Wall Street brokerage houses and other corporate executives.


Also, Davis is enormously engaging and charming when he chooses to be. But a lot of people in the boxing industry feel that he acts disrespectfully toward them. A small example: there was a time when Kery was said to have a policy of not returning telephone calls from Internet writers because of their lowly position. If Dana White had adhered to that policy, UFC might not exist today.


More important, a promoter who does business regularly with HBO says, “A lot of us don’t feel that we can rely on what Kery tells us. Sometimes that’s because he’s telling the truth as he sees it and then Ross undermines him. And sometimes it’s because – let’s put it this way – Kery equivocates.”


But the heart of the matter is that, in recent years, HBO has televised too many mediocre fights. “Kery is in a job where he has to know boxing,” the same promoter notes. “And he doesn’t. He doesn’t know what will make for a good fight and he certainly doesn’t know which fighters have the potential to become stars. Kery knows music; he has passion for music; he respects music people. But he doesn’t get it when it comes to boxing. Kery should be in the music business, not in boxing.”


Bob Arum sounded a similar theme last year, when he opined, “Kery isn’t a boxing guy. To do that job, you have to love boxing and be part of boxing and get boxing. Kery has no feel for the sport. He would dispute that, but I’ve been in boxing for a long time and I know what I’m talking about.”


It’s time for a change in leadership at HBO Sports. That isn’t something I write lightly. As noted earlier, commenting on someone else’s job performance is serious commentary. I’m mindful that people’s livelihoods are at stake; just as they’re at stake every time that HBO Sports makes a decision regarding which fights to buy and how much to pay for them.


Ross Greenberg and Kery Davis make decisions every day that affect the trajectory of people’s careers.


Last year, HBO Sports dismissed Lennox Lewis as a commentator on Boxing After Dark. The decision wasn’t motivated by personal ill will. Rightly or wrongly, there was a judgment that Lennox wasn’t performing up to par. Very few jobs come with lifetime tenure.


“The solution is simple,” says one observer of the unfolding drama. “It's fixable, but not by the incumbents. HBO Sports reminds me of an overfunded incompetently-run sports franchise. Omar Minaya with the Mets and Isiah Thomas with the Knicks are examples of executives who were continually outmaneuvered by guys who had much smaller budgets but knew what they were doing. Just as in other sports, you hire a new general manager and a new coach and get to work.”


“If you’ve gone from being the unquestioned leader in boxing to a floundering giant, you’ve fucked up,” says a promoter who has done business regularly with HBO. “They’ve taken the premier franchise in boxing and turned it into an ordinary product. It’s like when the New York Yankees went from the greatest dynasty in baseball history to just another team. The Yankees came back, but it took new leadership.”


There are people who think that Ross Greenburg and Kery Davis have done a good job. Their opinions should be given the same careful consideration as those voiced above.


As for the other leaders of HBO Sports; Mark Taffet is respected in the boxing industry. He’s comfortable communing with the powers that be. And when HBO has a big pay-per-view fight, he spends as much time in the media center as many of the writers. He’s studying, exchanging ideas, and learning because he views it as part of his job.


“Taffet is a politician,” Bob Arum said two years ago. “But at least he’s a bright politician.”


Rick Bernstein’s tenure as executive producer has been more problematic.


The HBO Sports production team has many advantages, including the platform and money to do virtually anything it wants as it relates to boxing. It has better access to the athletes it covers than the producers of almost any other network sports department. It also has the services of some enormously talented people like director Marc Payton and creative young producers (who haven’t been given the opportunity to fully show what they can do). There is a technical support staff comprised of people who are as good, if not better than, any of their industry counterparts.


But in recent years, HBO Sports programming has lost its edge. It has become formulaic. It’s far less innovative and daring now than the documentaries produced by Sheila Nevins (president of HBO Documentary Films), not to mention such offerings as Boardwalk Empire. It has become tired and less appealing to young viewers, who will make up the next generation of premium-cable subscribers.


That’s also true of HBO’s boxing telecasts, which have gotten stale. Last year’s fights at Cowboys Stadium and Yankee Stadium saw some interesting innvovations; particularly with regard to lighting. But those were largely the work of the promoter.


Rick Bernstein’s defenders say that he hasn’t been allowed to deviate from certain templates that Ross Greenburg has set in stone. One assumes that Richard Plepler and Michael Lombardo will explore the matter.


All of this prompts the question of, “Who will lead HBO Sports and its boxing program into the future if Ross Greenburg and Kery Davis are replaced?”


The role of HBO Sports president will be more complex in the future than in the past because HBO’s boxing program will face competition from multiple networks and alternative media platforms; not just Showtime.


The next president of HBO Sports has to appreciate the fact that boxing has been the anchor of HBO Sports for decades. If he intends to continue on that course, he must clearly communicate this fact, both internally and externally.


Because of boxing’s primacy, he should be grounded in boxing, not just sports, and understand the strength of the brand of boxing.


He must be a visionary leader with the ability to plan for the future.


Once the blueprint for the future is fashioned, he must have the ability and credibility to sell the new HBO Sports to the boxing community, hotel-casinos, other potential sites, sponsors, and the media.


He must understand that ratings (which are a measure of subscriber satisfaction) are more important than Emmys.


He must be a good administrator who knows how (and to whom) to delegate authority.


He must put his own personal comfort aside and get on a plane to close a deal when necessary.


He has to listen to people carefully enough to understand their point of view and accept the fact that his own personal preferences for programming might be different from those of HBO’s subscribers.


His conduct must be such that he restores morale and a sense of pride where it has been lost.


He must realize that he is not the star. He is occupying a position of power in a fiduciary role to benefit others; not just himself.


The new president of HBO Sports will be chosen before the point person on boxing is selected. A National Football League team doesn’t hire a new head coach and tell him who his offensive coordinator will be.


The number-two slot (HBO’s “boxing guy”) isn’t just a matchmaking job. The person who fills it needs a passion for boxing and an understanding of what makes an entertaining fight. It’s imperative that he (or she) have respect for fighters and all of the other “boxing people” he comes in contact with in the performance of his duties. He also has to be able to transition back and forth between the boxing world and the corporate environment of HBO and understand the profit-and-loss end of the business. He needs negotiating skills and an understanding of the legal environment that he’s operating within. People can like him or not like him, but they have to be able to trust his word. He can’t play favorites.


No one can learn the boxing business in six months or a year. It takes at least five years of close study. Even then, a person needs an aptitude for it. Given the current crisis at HBO, both positions have to be filled by people who can hit the ground running.


Ideally, HBO will have a new team in place and be ready to act decisively in the market place by May 8th (the day after Mosley-Pacquiao). Given the realities of today’s world and the detailed nature of the study that Richard Plepler and Michael Lombardo are undertaking, that might not be possible.



Link to comment
Share on other sites

Hauser: What HBO Should Do Now – Part Two


What HBO Should Do Now – Part Two


By Thomas Hauser (2/21/2011)



2011 began poorly for HBO. On January 29th, the network televised Timothy Bradley vs. Devon Alexander.


The bout was billed as “The Super Fight.” At the December 8, 2010, kick-off press conference in New York, co-promoter Gary Shaw told the media, “Other than Pacquiao-Mayweather, there’s no bigger event in boxing than Bradley-Alexander.” Ross Greenburg declared, “This is a star power fight.”


Greenburg also championed the fight internally. At one of his weekly HBO Sports staff meetings, he expressed the view that Bradley-Alexander would be “one of the best HBO fights in years.”


HBO did its best to prop up the promotion with an expensive marketing campaign. Then reality intervened.


Greenburg had agreed to pay a $2,750,000 license fee for Bradley-Alexander. As part of the deal, win or lose, each fighter was guaranteed a seven-figure payday for his next bout. As I wrote on January 23rd, “In a vacuum, it’s an intriguing fight. Bradley and Alexander are good young fighters. But HBO is spending close to $4,000,000 on the license fee, marketing, and production costs for a fight that most likely will draw a poor rating because only hard-core boxing fans are interested in it. Also, styles make fights and this could turn out to be a boring styles match-up. Worse, HBO has mortgaged its future to make Bradley-Alexander. 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, [Amir] Khan, and [Victor] Ortiz aren’t Leonard, Hearns, Duran, and Hagler.”


In the end, HBO couldn’t make the public care about the fight or the fighters.


The Silverdome in Pontiac, Michigan (where the bout was held) seats 80,000 people. The announced attendance was 6,247. That number was an exaggeration and the promoters acknowleged that many of those in attendance were admitted for free.


As the bout progressed, it was clear that no amount of hype could cover up the fact that it was an ordinary fight. One of the elements of a compelling match-up in boxing is the feeling that a viewer can’t turn away because, at any moment, something exciting might happen. With Bradley-Alexander, viewers had the sense that they could turn away at any time and not miss a thing.


Bradley made the fight such as it was. Alexander fought in safety-first fashion, secure in the knowledge that, regardless of the outcome, he had another seven-figure payday ahead. Had that guarantee not been in place, perhaps he would have fought harder.


The bout ended in the tenth round after an accidental head-butt. Bradley was declared the winner on points. Regarding the possibility of a rematch, Larry Merchant told HBO’s viewers, “There’s no reason that we have to see this fight again.” Bradley said of his opponent, “If that’s the best in the world, that’s weak.”


The media were not kind in their appraisal of the fight.


Dan Rafael: “Talk about a disappointment. Bradley-Alexander was supposed to launch the winner, and maybe even the loser, to stardom. Instead, it was a giant dud. All the hype and all the hope went up in smoke.”


Michael Woods: “It was billed as The Super Fight, and let us not mince words. It was not.”


Michael Rosenthal: “I won’t dismiss it as a disaster because I enjoy a good tactical fight. But it served up precious few moments that got the heart racing. It certainly wasn’t the kind of scrap that brings fans to boxing.”


David Greisman: “Most of the fight was clinching or wrestling or missed punches. HBO paid money for a fight that might have had casual viewers changing the channel halfway through. It invested millions of dollars in boxers who are now less marketable than they were before they fought each other.”


Sports Illustrated fired a double salvo. First, Bryan Graham called Bradley-Alexander “a crummy fight and a crummier ending.”


Then Chris Mannix weighed in. “They wanted to believe they could create a superstar,” Mannix wrote. “They wanted to believe that, with a lot of hype, a fight between Timothy Bradley and Devon Alexander would produce boxing's next big thing. What they forgot is that true greatness is measured by more than spotless records. It's measured by an ability to deliver a resonating performance. And in their shining moment, Bradley and Alexander could not. For a fight billed as all action, this one had precious little.”


Insiders say that Greenburg was hoping for a 4.0 rating for Bradley-Alexander. The final number was 2.3 (with a 2.6 peak). That’s one of the lowest rating-points-per-dollar numbers in the history of HBO Sports.


Worse, there was a sentiment among some viewers that, if HBO really thinks that Bradley-Alexander is “boxing at its best,” then there’s no reason for boxing fans to subscribe to HBO.


In the aftermath of Bradley-Alexander, HBO Sports found itself in an uncomfortable position. It was public knowledge that Pacquiao-Mosley was going to Showtime. And HBO’s plans for the first half of 2011 were unsettled.


Richard Plepler is said to have instructed Greenburg that there was to be no retaliation against Bob Arum for taking Pacquiao to another network. “Be remedial, not punitive,” was the gist of the HBO president’s message. Thus, Top Rank shows scheduled for Boxing After Dark on February 19th and March 26th were kept in place. A March 5th Boxing After Dark date for Golden Boy was also on the schedule. The rest of HBO’s dance card for the first half of 2011 had to be filled.


The first piece in the puzzle to be put in place was a March 12th date for middleweight champion Sergio Martinez, who earned “fighter of the year” honors in 2010 with a decision-victory over Kelly Pavlik and a thrilling one-punch knockout of Paul Williams. Greenburg and Kery Davis told the Martinez camp that the only available opponent they would accept for Sergio was Sergei Dzinziruk. There’s a school of thought that Ross promised Gary Shaw two fights for Dzinziruk as part of HBO’s package deal for Bradley-Alexander.


Martinez-Dzinziruk figures to be a competitive fight. Whether it’s entertaining is another matter. Kevin Iole called it “exactly the kind of match that fans will ignore” and added, “Dzinziruk is completely unknown in the U.S., even to the boxing media, and has a defensive jab-oriented style. There is almost no way to imagine it turns into a compelling fight.”


Bob Arum was more direct, saying, “HBO has an emerging superstar [in Martinez] and they’ve compromised his future by putting him in a fight that it’s virtually impossible for him to look good in and no one will care about. And for what? To make a deal with Gary Shaw for a fight between Bradley and Alexander in an empty barn.”


HBO’s first pay-per-view card of the year is slated for April 9th. The main event is an embarrassment. Marcos Maidana is a good television fighter. His defense is flawed. He punches hard. And he has heart, as evidenced by the way he scraped himself off the canvas against Amir Khan in the manner of Arturo Gatti against Micky Ward.


Unfortunately, Maidana will be fighting the no-longer-great Erik Morales.


Morales retired in 2007 after losing four fights in a row. He came back last year and has done nothing since then to indicate that he can fight at an elite level. His glory days topped out at 130 pounds. Maidana-Morales is slated for 140. Morales will be knocked out in a fight that will tarnish the HBO-PPV brand.


April 16th has been set aside for a delay-telecast of Amir Khan vs. Paul McCloskey and a proposed bout between Andre Berto and Victor Ortiz. Khan-McCloskey is widely perceived as a mismatch. Berto-Ortiz is an intriguing fight.


Greenburg hopes to showcase Paul Williams in a comeback bout on April 30th. It would be nice if he insisted upon a competitive opponent.


As for Bradley and Alexander; Ross is counting on matching Timothy against Amir Khan this summer. Bradley and promoter Gary Shaw are locked into the fight for $1,500,000 to be divided between them. But Khan is said to be questioning the $1,500,000 (to be shared with Golden Boy) that has been allocated by HBO for his side of the ledger.


In that regard, last week, Greenburg offered Khan a new three-fight package that would require HBO to pay a $3,000,000 license fee for Amir’s first fight after Khan-Bradley (whether Amir won or lost). Another twist in the negotiations is that Golden Boy’s contract with Khan expires after Khan-McCloskey. The HBO offer would give Golden Boy a two-fight extension with Amir.


As for Devon Alexander; the previous assumption was that he would fight Maidana with the two sides sharing a (vastly inflated) $3,000,000 license fee. Now Maidana is slated to face Morales, and HBO might look for a less expensive dance partner for Alexander.


Greenburg is also said to covet a heavyweight fight between Tomasz Adamek and Vitali or Wladimir Klitschko. Adamek against David Haye, Alexander Povetkin, or one of many other heavyweights would be a compelling match-up. Adamek against either Klitschko is a mismatch.


The most disturbing news to come out of HBO in the past month is the report that the network is contemplating multi-fight contracts with the trio of Bernard Hopkins, Chad Dawson, and Jean Pascal. Contract signings have not been announced as of this writing. But multiple sources say that Greenberg has offered $3,700,000 for a May 21st doubleheader featuring a rematch between Hopkins and Pascal (who fought each other on Showtime last December) coupled with Chad Dawson vs. either Librado Andrade or Adrian Diaconu. If Dawson wins, he would fight the winner of Pascal-Hopkins. Depending on the outcome of various fights, the deal could lock in as many as three fights on HBO for Hopkins and two for Pascal and Dawson.


Hopkins is 46 years old. Dawson has drawn consistently poor ratings. Indeed, Greenburg’s decision to spend $3,200,000 plus production and marketing costs for the 2009 rematch between Dawson and Antonio Tarver (their first fight drew 911 paying customers) has become one of the symbols of his reign. As for Pascal; hall-of-fame matchmaker and promoter Russell Peltz opines, “Jean Pascal is an ordinary fighter who’s lucky he lives in Canada.”


There’s value to HBO in going to Canada, where the proposed May 21st doubleheader would be held. The enthusiastic hometown crowd would provide a good backdrop for television. But if HBO wants to go Canadian, unbeaten middleweight David Lemieux (25-0, 24 KOs) has a far greater upside than Jean Pascal in terms of entertainment value. And he’s available now at a fraction of the cost.


Lemieux is fighting Marco Antonio Rubio on ESPN2 on April 8th for a license fee said to be between $50,000 and $60,000. If you’re running boxing at a television network, do you want Lemieux-Rubio for $60,000 or Pascal-Hopkins for roughly fifty times that amount?


“What are they building?” asks Kathy Duva (one of boxing’s savvier promoters). “What are they doing? I don’t understand the thought processes there. How do you attract young people to the sport with Bernard Hopkins?”


“It’s one catastrophe after another,” says another promoter. “If this is some sort of twelve-step program to rehabilitate boxing at HBO, I’d skip what they’re doing now and go to the next step.”


The contracts that Greenburg negotiated with regard to Bradley and Alexander coupled with the proposed deals involving Hopkins, Dawson, and Pascal have the potential to eat up forty percent of HBO’s license-fee budget for an entire year.


So why is Greenburg doing it?


“Ross thinks he’s punishing Showtime by buying the Pascal-Hopkins rematch,” says an industry veteran who negotiates regularly with HBO. “He’s furious at Showtime because of Pacquiao-Mosley. So he’s taking the rematch of one of their fights and using it to counter-program Showtime’s super-middleweight tournament [the semi-finals are scheduled to conclude on May 21st with Carl Froch vs. Glen Johnson]. But what he’s really doing is cutting off his nose to spite his face. In attacking Showtime, he’s directing his energies toward someone else’s business rather than his own.”


Counter-programming Showtime’s boxing offerings seems to have become a key component of HBO’s programming strategy. Greenburg won’t televise boxing opposite the Major League Baseball playoffs. But he has counter-programmed four of Showtime’s last five super-middleweight championship tournament telecasts.


CBS and Fox are rivals. But they don’t counter-program each other with the Jets and Giants. When those two teams play on the same day (as they often do), it’s in different time slots. That’s because, when it comes to the National Football League, intelligent grown-ups are running the show.


Counter-programming Showtime hurts HBO’s ratings too. Here, the thoughts of Pat English (the attorney for Main Events) are instructive.


"If you want the highest possible ratings,” English observes, “you don't counter-program. Sometimes counter-programming is unavoidable. But where it’s avoidable, then the intent is anti-competitive. That doesn’t seem like a wise use of money since you decrease your own viewership.”


There’s increasing concern among people loyal to HBO that Greenburg is now making deals that will encumber his successor (if he’s replaced) and make it more difficult to raise ratings in the year ahead.


“All Ross is doing now,” says one observer, “is spinning his wheels and digging HBO further into a snowdrift.”


Recent events have made people wonder if some form of oversight or interim leadership might be in the best interests of HBO Sports.


Meanwhile, morale is low at HBO Sports and a gallows humor pervades the scene: “They gave Ross and Kery lemonade, and they made lemons out of it . . . Is Ross a lame duck? I’m not the guy who makes that decision. But when I saw him this morning, he was limping and going ‘quack quack’ . . . Who leaves first: Ross or Hosni Mubarak?”


You can’t put out a fire with a hammer.


So let’s get constructive. What should be done to restore HBO Sports to greatness?


There’s no quick fix. HBO has to work to regain the trust of the boxing industry and its subscribers.


The first step is to televise better fights.


Ross Greenburg has said again and again that the biggest problem he faces is that promoters aren’t building stars like they used to.


No! The biggest problem is that HBO is trying to tell the public who the stars will be.


“A television network cannot anoint stars,” Lennox Lewis said years ago. “You have to earn it in the ring.”


Four years ago, I wrote, “Boxing fans might want to see ‘stars,’ but they want to see them in competitive fights. HBO is in the entertainment business. In boxing, great fights are entertainment. 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.”


As Cassius (Shakespeare’s, not Louisville’s) said to his companion in Act 1, Scene 2, of Julius Caesar, "The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves.”


The focus at HBO Sports should shift from who’s an HBO-level fighter to what is an HBO-level fight. Don’t buy bad fights to get to good ones. Buy good fights to get to great ones. And understand that there’s a difference between an A-list fighter and an A-list attraction.


Over the years, promoter Dan Goossen has been a stalwart defender of HBO. “The key now,” Goossen says, “is not what happened in the past. It doesn’t serve any constructive purpose to grade HBO on what it did and didn’t do until now. It’s where HBO goes from here that counts. A change in philosophy and direction is more important than assigning blame for the past.”


Then Goossen puts his finger on the heart of the matter and says, “HBO has gotten away from the things we applauded over the years; good exciting competitive fights. It’s right in front of our face with The Fighter [the recently-released feature film about Micky Ward]. Ward and Gatti weren’t great fighters, but fans knew they were going to get what they wanted when they watched them fight. Lots of action from two guys with do-or-die attitudes; no one looking for an easy way out. HBO has to go back to basics. Put two evenly-matched guys who want to fight in the ring against each other and you have excitement. Those are the fights we should be seeing on HBO. That’s what we had for years and, somehow, HBO got away from it. The guys there got complacent and what happened happened.”


Lou DiBella is in accord, saying, “If you’re boring and you fight going backwards, I don’t care what your pound-for-pound ranking is; you shouldn’t be on HBO. It’s not about appealing to 250,000 hardcore boxing fans. You have to appeal to a wider audience.”


Gary Shaw states, “Fans don’t want to see easy fights. That’s not what it’s about. It’s about the best fighting the best.”


And Russell Peltz adds, “They’re not paying attention at HBO. After all these years, they still don’t get it. The solution is simple. Make fights that people want to see. If only a thousand people buy tickets for a fight, that tells you right there that people don’t want to see it. And stop playing favorites.”


HBO’s subscribers don’t care if Ross Greenburg is angry at Bob Arum and Showtime. They don’t care if a particular promoter or manager knows how to stroke someone’s ego. They want to see good fights.


However, the problems at HBO Sports today won’t be solved by simply making better fights. Bad fights started the decline, but other factors (including the fact that the economic model that sustained HBO’s boxing program for years became obsolete) contributed to it.


Significant changes on many levels are necessary.


Boxing is HBO‘s signature sport. Everything else that HBO Sports offers to its subscribers is available elsewhere. The network should acknowledge that primacy.


Next; HBO Sports acts like it’s the only game in town when it comes to boxing. But to be successful in the future, it will have to grow the brand of boxing; not just boxing on HBO.


HBO should utilize 24/7 and other programming as part of an overall campaign to keep boxing relevant among its subscribers and the larger population of sports fans; not just as a marketing tool to engender buys for one pay-per-view show at a time.


One of the best things about boxing coverage on ESPN2 and ESPN.com is that ESPN acknowledges fights that are telecast on other networks. That’s common sense if a network is trying to appeal to boxing fans. During the college football season, dozens of networks televise college football. They report scores and show video highlights of games on competing networks. That’s how a sport is grown for the benefit of everyone involved.


HBO should tell its subscribers what’s happening in boxing; not just in boxing on HBO. It should take viewers behind the scenes with a low-budget magazine show that probes, investigates, and addresses serious issues in the sport. In that regard, Jim Lampley is the network’s most under-utilized asset. He should be used in production; not just as a blow-by-blow commentator.


There’s no debate in boxing over who the “champions” are. That’s because there are so many of them that the public no longer cares. But boxing fans will care about who’s #1 in key weight divisions if the issue is presented to them in a credible way.


To repeat what I’ve written before, “Forget about champions. The world sanctioning organizations have made a mockery of the term. HBO should identify the most credible rankings possible. That might mean convening its own panel of experts. Then it can tell viewers, ‘This fight is between #1 and #2. This fight is between #3 and #5.’ When feasible, it should match the #1 fighter in a given weight class against the top-ranked available challenger. ‘WHO’S #1’ works for college football and college basketball. It works for tennis and golf. It can work for boxing.”


There's enormous waste in the HBO Sports budget today. As a first step, HBO has to bring the license fees that it pays for fights in line with an intelligent economic model and address unnecessary overhead costs. On a lesser scale, there are expense account abuses in the sports department that are a running industry joke.


HBO should consider licensing the HBO Sports logo for T-shirts, jackets, caps, and other apparel that would be available for sale to the public. The income from this venture would be relatively small. But every piece of clothing that a person wears would turn that person into a walking billboard for HBO Sports.


Earlier this year, HBO announced that it was bringing Roy Jones back as an expert analyst on Boxing After Dark. Overtures should also be made to George Foreman and Sugar Ray Leonard, who are viewer-friendly links to the glory days of HBO Sports. They would be enormously effective on pre-fight panels or participating in some other capacity in conjunction with major pay-per-view shows.


If HBO wants another compelling personality on the air, it should find a way to expose boxing fans to Chris Arreola outside the ring.


One can make the case that Arreola is the equivalent of a Hispanic John Madden. He has a larger-than-life personality. One is compelled to look when his face is on-camera. Instead of marketing Chris as a great fighter (which he isn’t, although he is fun to watch in a competitive fight), HBO should market him as a great personality.


Don’t give subscribers a slickly-packaged segment about Arreola. Hand him a microphone and let him rip. How can you not love a guy who acknowledges the need for improved defense with the observation, ““I’m ugly, and I don’t want to get any more uglier.”


Arreola has a fighter’s back-story: “My parents divorced when I was twelve, and I was living with my mother. But what happened was, my father was cleaning an automatic grinder and his sleeve got caught in the belt and it ground up his arm. From that point on, his arm was useless, so I had to move in with him to help out. Then I got out of high school and I had to cut off a lot of my friends. They were into drugs and worse; things that made me nervous.”


“I’m not big-headed,” Arreola says. “I’m one of the guys, a regular Joe Schmo. But it makes me angry when people think I’m dumb, when they talk down to me, when they think I’m a meathead because I’m a fighter.”


Some other “Arreolaisms”: “The best thing about being a fighter is fighting. It’s two guys in the ring who hardly know each other and they beat the crap out of each other. And when it’s over, they shake hands and hug each other. Go figure . . . You’re so caught up in the moment that you don’t feel the punches. The crowd oohs and aahs, and I want to get my oohs and aahs in.”


And let’s not forget Arreola in the ring after his loss to Tomasz Adamek on HBO: “He beat my ass. I look like f*cking Shrek right now.”


And last; as I wrote two years ago, “Instead of pretending that nothing has changed, HBO should relaunch its boxing program. It should tell the boxing community, the boxing media, and boxing fans (most notably, its subscribers) that this isn’t just a paint job or new graphics over the same old product. It should declare loud and clear, ‘We’ve listened to you and, like a good fighter, we’ve made adjustments.’”


One of the issues that the leadership of HBO and HBO Sports will face in the months ahead is how to approach the possibility of the proposed mega-fight between Manny Pacquiao and Floyd Mayweather Jr.


If Mayweather wants it, the fight will happen. Then question then will be, “Does it go to HBO or another network?”


HBO should think big and be creative from a business point of view. It shouldn’t offer TBS or TNT as a promotional partner for Pacquiao-Mayweather. It should offer TBS and TNT as promotional partners (plural). Perhaps, during the pre-fight promotional build-up, TBS could be “the network of Manny Pacquiao; TNT could feature Mayweather; and HBO could give equal time to both fighters.


Would TBS and TNT do it? I assume that Bill Nelson and Richard Plepler will explore some permutation of the idea with David Levy (president of Turner Sports).


Most likely, involving Turner Sports and other components of the Time Warner empire (such as Sports Illustrated) in the marketing of Pacquiao-Mayweather will also require the intervention of Time Warner CEO Jeff Bewkes. But let’s not forget; Bewkes was once the CEO of HBO.


That said; HBO should remember that one fight won’t save boxing, and one fight won’t save boxing at HBO Sports. Bob Arum promoted 39 of Oscar De La Hoya's first 42 pro fights and 35 of Mayweather's first 37. But when Oscar and Floyd met in the ring in the largest-grossing fight of all time, Arum was on the sidelines.


“Are we saddened because we're not promoting it?,” Arum said at the time. “Sure; we'd have loved to promote the fight, but you can't have everything."


Since then, Arum has rebounded quite nicely. So will boxing at HBO.


The problems that HBO Sports faces won’t be resolved overnight. They’ve been a long time in the making, and finding solutions will take time. It will take a while for HBO Sports to regain the trust of the boxing community and the trust of its own subscribers.


Also, HBO is no longer the only game in town. Showtime and CBS can compete with HBO on a level playing field for any fight they want. And if events unfold a certain way, more networks will enter the fray as big-fight alternatives to HBO. That means HBO can no longer prevail based on money muscle alone. It will have to think more creatively in the future.


When there’s competition, the consumer wins. It’s likely that this competition will result in HBO Sports raising its performance to a higher level.


As noted in Part One of this article, this is a crucial time. Every month that goes by is a month that HBO risks falling further behind in the race for the future. There’s a need to chart that future sooner rather than later. And there’s a growing feeling, both within HBO and throughout the boxing community, that it’s time for a change in leadership at HBO Sports.


Meanwhile, HBO should understand that boxing needs what Bob Arum is doing now. Arum’s move to Showtime and CBS is sparking new corporate interest in the sweet science. It’s a first step toward bringing boxing back into the mainstream. If there’s a National Football League or National Basketball Association work stoppage later this year (both of which are possible), boxing could be called upon to partially fill the programming void.


If the leadership at HBO Sports acts with foresight and imagination, it can ride the coattails of Pacquiao-Mosley and use recent events to their advantage.


HBO Sports has the HBO brand, which despite its recent devaluation, is still the best brand in boxing.



Link to comment
Share on other sites

wow... not that its new information, but hauser and arum seem to really have it in for ross greenberg and kery davis.


some good stuff, though i feel hauser is putting a bit too much of the blame on HBO for not having large crowds at dawson, berto, and bradley-alexander fights. yes they shouldnt be overpaying for these fights, but its the promoters job to fill the seats, and HBO is NOT a promoter... which was the common thing for promoters to whine about in the past.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Join the conversation

You can post now and register later. If you have an account, sign in now to post with your account.

Reply to this topic...

×   Pasted as rich text.   Paste as plain text instead

  Only 75 emoji are allowed.

×   Your link has been automatically embedded.   Display as a link instead

×   Your previous content has been restored.   Clear editor

×   You cannot paste images directly. Upload or insert images from URL.


  • Create New...