By Jake Donovan
It was a bit poetic for HBO’s final broadcast of the 2013 boxing season to offer both a bang and a whimper. The December 7 tripleheader helped encapsulate the year that was for a network that, after more than two decades of serving as the undisputed industry leader, was forced to not only sweat out the competition, but spending all year shouting its insistence of still being the best game in town.
There still exist significant elements of truth to that claim, though no longer the undeniable fact it once was.
It’s a point that’s easier to argue when… say, James Kirkland rides out the storm of a high-volume first round from unbeaten Glen Tapia, to beat the crap out of the rising prospect in what was easily the most entertaining bout of a loaded boxing weekend. The super welterweight slugfest served as HBO’s televised co-feature, wedged right in the middle of a tripleheader live from Atlantic City.
The evening’s main event, however, left a lot to be desired. Guillermo Rigondeaux settled for a 12-round shutout over a disinterested Joseph Agbeko, rather than going for just a little bit more for the sake of entertainment.
Rigondeaux’ boxing masterpiece was appreciated by the sport’s most hardcore purists, but for the most part vilified as the type of live boxing that – while highly skilled – doesn’t necessarily mandate showcase appearances on the premium cable circuit.
Saturday’s show capped a remarkable stretch of six straight weekends in which HBO or its PPV arm offered live boxing. Going back a little further, HBO ended its year with boxing on 10 out of 11 weekends. Both marks are unprecedented by the self-proclaimed Network of Champions, along with producing live boxing content on roughly half of the Saturdays over the course of the calendar year.
The shows kept coming despite spending most of the year without the two biggest stars in the sport. Manny Pacquiao sat out for most of 2013 before his long awaited ring return in late November, coming 50 weeks after his 6th round knockout loss to Juan Manuel Marquez in their fourth fight last December.
For HBO, that single appearance marked one more bout than the number of times it was able to showcase Floyd Mayweather Jr.
Losing the sport’s best fighter and box-office king was a mighty blow to the network, even worse than when Pacquiao was taken to Showtime for a one-off deal. Pacquiao’s trip – entirely forced by impulsive Hall of Fame promoter Bob Arum – led to a major power shakeup at HBO, including the resignation of Ross Greenburg.
Should Ken Hershman, who replaced Greenburg as HBO Sports president, consider updating his rèsumè, given past history? Not necessarily.
Whereas Greenburg allowed a once untouchable product to grow stale, HBO’s current brass managed for the most part to make lemonade. How much did the network quench the thirst of its subscribing audience?
Let’s take a look:
WHAT WENT RIGHT
The Ratings Game
A common phrase to be heard more often in boxing than in most other sports, is that there are three sides to every story. You can dissect the numbers any way you want, but there still exists the undeniable fact that HBO continues to consistently draw the highest ratings in the sport.
Prior to Saturday’s tripleheader (which went head-to-head with a Showtime televised quadrupleheader barely two hours away in Brooklyn, New York), HBO boasted 21 of the top 25 live boxing telecasts on cable television, including nine of the top 10 fights in 2013 and a clean sweep of the top five spots.
A very favorable trend saw ratings rise with each appearance for Adonis Stevenson (three), Gennady Golovkin (three) and Sergey Kovalev (twice), suggesting increased interest in three future stars.
As boxing interest threatened to wane in the United States, greater awareness was raised by the sport’s truest fans of its worldwide existence. After years of cherry picking its moments to travel beyond American borders, HBO finally gave in and literally expanded its horizons.
Live boxing was offered from four separate continents (North America, South America, Europe, Asia). HBO cameras aired live from Argentina for the first in its 40 years in the sport, a night that saw lineal middleweight king Sergio Martinez pushed to the brink in barely retaining his crown over Martin Murray.
Between HBO2 and HBO PPV, three separate shows aired from Macau. Pacquiao’s ring return was aired live from Macau on pay-per-view, with the card taking place on Sunday morning local time to accommodate the stateside viewing audience, as if it were just another Saturday night. Its first trip to Macau introduced the emergence of a darkhorse Fighter of the Year contender, when Juan Estrada upset Brian Viloria in a unified flyweight title fight.
Rebuilding Boxing After Dark
The birth of the series in 1996 meant a constant stream of Fight of the Year candidates, shining a light on lower weight class fighters who weren’t normally mentioned in mainstream circles. The series’ inception led to the development of stars such as Mayweather, Marco Antonio Barrera, Arturo Gatti, and Erik Morales among many, many others.
Somewhere along the way, the series turned into a rehab outlet and showcase showdown, becoming the equivalent of HBO’s minor-league circuit. Those days appear to be gone, as plenty of star power was to be found in the series’ 18th season.
The likes of Adonis Stevenson, Gennady Golovkin, Ruslan Provodnikov and Sergey Kovalev fought on the series – and HBO – for the first time, all of whom became returning customers. Mikey Garcia won two major titles on the series, while Mike Alvarado endured the best and worst of times in a pair of thrillers on the series. Terence Crawford appeared twice on the series and three times overall on HBO this year, all of which have built towards his becoming a top lightweight contender.
All in all, the upgraded roster of talent meant an 18% increase in viewership for the series compared to last year.
Plenty of Memories
If compiling a list of the best ten fights and the best 10 fighters, more than half of each list will include HBO-funded entries.
Adonis Stevenson enjoyed a breakout campaign, capturing the light heavyweight crown in his first of three consecutive appearances on HBO. Sergey Kovalev followed suit, destroying Nathan Clevery and Ismayl Sillakh on HBO’s airwaves, emerging as Stevenson’s greatest threat at light heavyweight.
The division also saw history made on this very network, when Bernard Hopkins – at age 48 – broke his own record in becoming the oldest fighter in history to capture a major title. The 25-year ring veteran turned the trick with a virtuoso performance over then-unbeaten Tavoris Cloud.
Other fighters who figure to have a say in the Fighter of the Year race all enjoyed repeat performances on HBO in 2013 – Gennady Golovkin (three of four bouts in 2013), Mikey Garcia (three appearances in as many fights), Tim Bradley (two appearances) and Guillermo Rigondeaux (two appearances).
HBO offered the year's first true candidate for Fight of the Year, when Tim Bradley overcame a rough start and disastrous finish to barely escape with a 12-round win over Ruslan Provodnikov in March. Two weeks later saw Mike Alvarado avenge his lone career loss, returning the favor to then-unbeaten Brandon Rios over 12 thrilling rounds.
Provodnikov and Alvarado returned to the Fight of the Year mix, this time versus each other. Provodnikov prevailed, overcoming a slight deficit through six to pummel and stop Alvarado in 10 rounds.
Alvarado's aforementioned win over Rios wasn't the only Fight of the Year entrant fueled by revenge. Carl Froch reversed the first of his two career losses, scoring a well-earned unanimous decision over Mikkel Kessler in their action-packed rematch in May.
Some of the year’s best rounds were also to be found on HBO, including: Round 6 of Darren Barker’s title win over Daniel Geale; Rounds 1 and 12 of Bradley’s narrow victory over Provodnikov; Round 2 and 3 of Kirkland’s vicious 6th round stoppage of Tapia last weekend (also the latest Fight of the Year candidate); and any given round over the first half of the March rematch between Mike Alvarado and Brandon Rios.
Legendary Nights and Legends Galore
Even if the documentary centered around the trilogy between Arturo Gatti and Micky Ward serves as the last entry ever offered in the “Legendary Nights” series (and there may or may not be future episodes), then it can be argued that proper closure was offered. The 75-minute feature chronicling 11 years – from their first fight in 2002, to Gatti’s posthumous induction into the International Boxing Hall of Fame this past June – was arguably the best piece of boxing television offered in 2013.
Fittingly, the segment came on a night when a potential Fight of the Year candidate going in, instead became confirmation of a breakout star, when Provodnikov overcame an early deficit to pummel Mike Alvarado into submission on the road just outside of Denver, Colorado.
HBO also presented first viewings of “Mike Tyson: Undisputed Truth” and “Muhammad Ali’s Greatest Fight”, both of which received critical acclaim.
On the live boxing front, HBO’s roster still remains something to be admired. The past 12 months saw most of the sport’s biggest attractions on the side of the globe appear on HBO, including the ring returns of Pacquiao, Andre Ward, Miguel Cotto, Juan Manuel Marquez and – for better or for worse – Julio Cesar Chavez Jr. The comebacks of Cotto and Chavez Jr. (appearing in back-to-back weekends, in reverse order) accounted for the highest two rated televised bouts of 2013.
Open For Business
While Top Rank remains the network’s most preferred promoter, there has been plenty to go around for other outfits as well.
HBO dates were presented by GYM Promotions, Matchroom Sport and Sauerland Event (co-promotion for Carl Froch-Mikkel Kessler rematch), K2 Promotions, DiBella Entertainment, Gary Shaw Productions, Banner Promotions and Goossen Tutor Promotions. Main Events, Star Boxing, Don King and 50 Cent had their hands in HBO telecasts at one point or another over the course of the year.
WHAT WENT WRONG
Losing Mayweather and the PPV Market
It’s the story HBO doesn’t want to be told as the biggest headline of 2013, but there it is.
For the second time in three years, HBO managed to lose a major draw to its rival network. Pacquiao’s forced defection by Top Rank was temporary, just long enough for Arum to get in the network brass’ collective ears. Mayweather’s six-fight deal with Showtime pretty much means his May ’12 pay-per-view headlined win over Miguel Cotto will serve as the last fight with the network that raised him as a pup and was along for the ride for 14 years of his career.
For HBO to get Mayweather back post-Showtime would mean signing a near 40-year old free agent.
Meanwhile, the loss of Mayweather also meant HBO losing its grip in the pay-per-view market. (More on that in a few paragraphs)
Shunning Golden Boy
Things first went south when Hershman was quoted by media as deciding – for the moment – to close the book on HBO doing business with Golden Boy Promotions.
The move was the final transition from the days when Golden Boy enjoyed a long-term output deal with the network. It also sparked immediate and ongoing damage control efforts from the midtown New York office.
The last two appearances by Golden Boy fighters were big ratings winners and moments for HBO – Adrien Broner’s 5th round stoppage of Gavin Rees was the 5th highest rated cable-televised fight of the 2013, while Hopkins’ win over Cloud marked the second time the Philly legend made geriatric history on the network, but also the last time (to date) any Golden Boy fighter has plied their trade on HBO.
Severing ties meant losing superstars and rising stars such as Mayweather, Broner, Saul ‘Canelo’ Alvarez, Danny Garcia and Amir Khan, among others.
The Numbers Game
The best ratings don’t always mean the best product being offered. Case in point, Miley Cyrus is “Googled” more than any other celebrity in the world today.
HBO spent a lot of time boasting the highest ratings in the sport, but going back to there being more than one side to the story, comes another look: their overall ratings are on the decline. It’s not a massive drop, but enough to where its highest rated fight each year is lower than its predecessor.
While HBO World Championship Boxing and Boxing After Dark are the highest two rated boxing series on any network, lost in the numbers are the fact that HBO was slaughtered in the pay-per-view market. Forget Mayweather-Canelo Alvarez generating more revenue than any other event in boxing history; Mayweather’s perceived pay-per-view ‘flop’ – a 12-round win over Robert Guerrero drawing somewhere in the vicinity (though seemingly south) of 1 million units sold – was still far more than the combined total of Pacquiao’s win over Rios (roughly 475,000 units) and Bradley’s 12-round win over Marquez in October (reported at 375,000 buys).
Worse, is when you compare it to the trend at Showtime, whose ratings are up a massive 62% over the past two years, amidst a record-breaking 2013 campaign.
Speaking of comparisons…
HBO On The Defensive In Rivalry With Showtime
For decades, the running joke for the rivalry between the Yankees and the Red Sox is that the other side needs to win every once in a while in order for it to become a rivalry. The 2004 American League Championships literally became a game changer.
So, too, have the past couple of years in the biggest network rivalry stateside boxing has to offer.
The worst thing you can do in a growing rivalry is acknowledge the presence of your competitor. To a degree, Showtime has succeeded, while HBO found itself splitting time between securing quality content and performing damage control. Showtime’s gains were minimized by HBO’s boasting bigger numbers, rather than allowing its product to stand on its own merit.
Showcases Over Showdowns
HBO can always be relied upon for its healthy offering of Fight of the Year candidates. Its stretch run of boxing content over the past 11 weeks has also been greatly received by the boxing public.
However, few of the best moments of 2013 came over the course of that stretch.
The last six main events offered by HBO saw the B-Side win fewer than five rounds combined. Going back to its last 10 headliners, only two bouts featured odds of closer than 5-1 for the betting favorite.
Bradley-Marquez was widely viewed as a pick-‘em and played out as such, with Bradley taking a close but well-deserved win (despite what Marquez and Nacho Beristain had to say about it afterward). One week later, Alvarado was viewed as a slight favorite to beat Provodnikov, providing the only true upset offered by the network since returning in late September.
The only other main event from late September to last weekend to provide nail-biting moments was Julio Cesar Chavez Jr. eating his way out of another weight class and underachieving in a close and disputed 10-round points win over Bryan Vera.
Miguel Cotto and Manny Pacquiao were both 5-1 betting favorites over Delvin Rodriguez and Brandon Rios, respectively. Both fights turned out to be blowouts, not a positive sign considering the hefty price tags associated with each – HBO reportedly invested $4 million in the Oct. 5 card headlined by Cotto, which also included Terence Crawford in a stinker and Wladimir Klitschko’s win over Alexander Povetkin in a heavyweight championship bout most prefer to forget; meanwhile, fans were asked to fork over $60 for Pacquiao’s 12-round, $18 million sparring session with Rios, who reportedly earned $4 million for the beating he took in a bout that was preceded by an atrocious undercard.
Other showcased fighters over the final quarter of HBO’s 2013 season: Gennady Golovkin, as a 12-1 favorite in his 8th round stoppage of Curtis Stevens; Mikey Garcia a 5-1 betting favorite even in moving up in weight to tear through Rocky Martinez; Andre Ward as high as a 14-1 favorite in a 12-round virtual shutout of Edwin Rodriguez in a telecast which carried a $3 million price tag; Adonis Stevenson beating Tony Bellew in the manner in which a 15-2 betting favorite would conduct himself (with Kovalev rightfully a 10-1 favorite heading into his 2nd round knockout of Ismayl Sillakh); and Rigondeaux opening as a 12-1 favorite, capping out at around 24-1 in a fight in which Agbeko didn’t even give himself a million-to-one shot of even being competitive.
The Fight Game
… has lost its fight, and its bite.
What began as a (seemingly) well-intended and informative seasonal news broadcast has since become agenda-riddled and creating storylines for the sake of… once again… downplaying the success enjoyed by its chief rival.
Little if anything in the way of informative news has come of the show in any given telecast in 2013, a sad state of affairs considering it at least had something to say during its inaugural run in 2012.
In a vacuum and free of comparisons or higher standards, it was a favorable year overall for HBO. Even when held to comparisons and expectations, the network deserves credit for maintaining viewership interest considering how much star power and developing talent had crossed the street.
On these pages alone, there stands a good chance that the winning entries or a significant number of runner-ups for Best Fighter, Best Fight, Best Round and Best Knockout will have come from HBO once the book is closed on the 2013 season. That’s a damn good year, no matter how you slice it.
The fact that more fans are tuning in for repeat customers than was the case for their previous bout is a positive trend. Furthermore, it speaks to the network’s understanding of what its public has grown to appreciate and want more of.
But as former HBO color commentator Larry Merchant once put it when describing Mayweather and his lack of understanding any criticism surrounding him, you can’t sell yourself as a five-star restaurant and then expect to be compared to Burger King.
As long as HBO has the deepest pockets in the industry and the longest active televised relationship with boxing (having celebrated its 40th year between the ropes), fans will tune in expecting the highest quality the sport has to offer. As long as numbers are on the rise for other networks, drawing attention away from its own ratings dip isn’t going to fly.
As long as the biggest star in the sport is fighting elsewhere – now and for at least the next two years or four fights, whichever comes first – the question is going to remain what HBO can do to prove it’s still the biggest game in town, since it can no longer claim to be the only one that matters.
Jake Donovan is the Managing Editor of Boxingscene.com, as well as a member of Transnational Boxing Ratings Board, Yahoo Boxing Ratings Panel and the Boxing Writers Association of America. Twitter: @JakeNDaBox