By Michael Swann
I must confess that in the past couple of years I have been quite outspoken in my criticism of HBO boxing programming. The Network represents excellence in all forms of entertainment provided by the network but boxing has at times appeared to fall short of the HBO standard on occasion making them an easy target for a media attack.
But the reality is that as HBO goes, so goes boxing. In the final analysis you can’t make HBO the scapegoat for all the problems in the sport. In fact at this point in time you could make a strong case that without HBO, boxing would wither and die.
In 2009 HBO has lit up our TV screens with prime quality cards, both on HBO World Championship Boxing and Boxing After Dark. Last Saturday, for example, we were treated to a Juan Manuel Marquez-Juan Diaz instant classic that might have been a pay per view event in previous years. The co-feature with Chris John and Rocky Juarez also sizzled.
Tonight’s BAD card is headlined by a compelling James Kirkland-Joel Julio matchup that promises to be an all out action bout. Along with Robert Guerrero from nearby Gilroy and Victor Ortiz in other quality matches this promises to be a solid tripleheader from San Jose, California, 10 p.m. ET/PT.
The message seems clear that HBO does not intend to be accused of serving free lunches now or in the future.
We spoke to HBO Sports president Ross Greenburg this week to get his insight into the network’s apparent reversal of fortune.
Greenburg is unquestionably a genius as an executive producer. He is the man behind such ground-breaking sports series as Inside the NFL, Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel, and Costas Now, as well as numerous sports documentaries. Greenburg has also produced highly acclaimed profiles of icons such as Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle, Johnny Unitas, Bill Russell, and many, many more.
Greenburg is also the mastermind behind the acclaimed 24/7 shows that have changed the way that upcoming mega fights are marketed.
He is simply the best at what he does. For his work he has received several dozen awards, including sports Emmys, Cable ACEs, Peabody awards, Golden Eagle awards, and others.
Born in 1955, by 1979 Greenburg was a producer for HBO. In September 2000 he was named President of HBO Sports.
For starters we asked Mr. Greenburg if he was ever hurt by the onslaught of media criticism that he has received in recent years.
“When it gets personal it has to hurt because you’re a human being and you’re just trying to do your job,” he said. “When people start to ask for your head, it affects your family and your life.”
Then with tongue in cheek he adds, “We’re happy with 2009 and we look ahead. We have to forget about Rick Frazier [a soft touch for Roy Jones Jr.] and Bruce Finch [a cream puff served to Sugar Ray Leonard].”
It was a subtle reminder that HBO received criticism for mismatches long before his watch.
“I’ve learned lessons over 30 years involved in the business,” he continued. “I’ve been negotiating boxing since the mid-eighties. I don’t understand why I’ve never been given any credit for the eighties and nineties.”
Greenburg said that it has always been his goal to get the best fights on the air, but ironically it is the sagging economy that actually helped bring out the best in HBO boxing this year.
“The fringe pay per view event that generates 150,000 to 300,000 buys is now a viable HBO live fight, witness Mosley-Margarito and Marquez-Diaz,” he explained. “So we were able to put these on the network because the promoters strategically and smartly thought it was too much of a risk for pay per view.
“Also in the last couple of years there’s been a meeting of the minds with the promoters and they understand that they have to fight the best available opponent in order to survive. We’re no longer taking soft opponents for main fighters. It has to be two “A” sides to a fight, no longer an “A” and a “B.”
Greenburg said that there was “no real change” to the HBO budget and added, “It’s not the wand, it’s the magician. We’re on all cylinders.”
On the impressive BAD cards and those entertaining tripleheaders, Ross commented, “We have just enough dates to put these up and coming studs who are making their way into the boxing scene. In two or three years from now they might develop into the stars of a sport that has stars who are aging.
“Also, we’re showcasing them in tough fights. Take Kirkland vs. Julio. If Kirkland wins the results would be spectacular. And if Julio wins, well then he’s launched.
“But you have to give them an opportunity to shine. We need [the young fighters] to step up to be the next wave of stars.”
So who is the next future star?
“When you see it you know it,” Greenburg replied. “When you see Ortiz you know there is something special there. When you watch Angulo you know he’s unlike anything else at that age in that division. So we expect big things from both of these fighters.”
Mr. Greenburg squelched the perception that HBO pushes PPV out of greed.
“We’ve never pushed PPV,” he replied. “We make some money but it’s nothing that’s going to bankroll our boxing program. Most of our energy is putting great fights live on HBO. It’s a great misnomer.
“We’re at our proudest moment when we’re showcasing the top level fight on our network. The fact is that we service PPV in order to make money for those fighters, and they do, but our bread and butter is always going to be the network telecast. [Subscriptions] is where our money is made. We have to create a buzz for the network and be sure on Monday that’s what people are talking about.
“It’s clear that Manny Pacquiao and Ricky Hatton, for example, benefited from live appearances on HBO. [Fighters and promoters] have a better understanding now that driving millions of people to the set for HBO will generate [more revenue] than the fringe PPV shows. They can’t run the risk of going on PPV and making half of what they could in an HBO fight.
“The American public is having a problem with risk and I think managers and promoters are starting to look at risk factors now. What this reminds me of is the eighties and the nineties and PPV events are now Super Bowls once again, the biggest thing that boxing can offer. So a Pacquiao-Hatton fight becomes an event.”
Another positive note is that HBO has taken a pass on fights that they once would have aired. The recent Cotto-Jennings bout and the upcoming Taylor-Froch clash are examples.
“We just didn’t feel those fights would be competitive in the ring. We guessed right on the Jennings fight. I think Froch is a tough opponent for Taylor but we just didn’t have a definitive feeling on that. We’d rather wait for the sure thing.”
How about those awful PPV under cards?
“Unfortunately our HBO deals with the promoters give us almost no approval on the undercard. Honestly even the promoters have turned to me ringside and told me that they were embarrassed and this won’t happen again.
“So I think they have turned the corner as well and realize they have to invest more money in their under cards. They had always felt that if they took a dollar out of their pockets it was wasted because people were there for the main events. Well, that’s not always the case.”
Right now things are going well in every respect for Ross Greenburg and his HBO team. The “genius executive producer” reports that they are happy with the ratings.
“They’re starting to creep back up this year in a big way,” he says after they “held their own the last couple of years.”
He is also proud of the advances made on the HBO website. Once simply an excellent source of top feature writers and videos, the site has added video promos, podcasts, exposure on Facebook and Twitter, as well as an HBO You Tube site.
The new “Ring Life” series, narrated by Jim Lampley, with its mini 24/7 format is an innovative three-part chronicle of, according to a recent HBO press release, “the lives of up and coming inspirational fighters as they define the spirit of boxing.”
Ring Life is also available on HBO Mobile, HBO’s You Tube, podcasts via iTunes and 24 hours a day to subscribers on HBO On Demand. This week features James Kirkland, appropriate in that he faces Joel Julio on the March 7 BAD show.
“There’s a whole generation of young fans out there that we can reach,” Greenburg says of the recent HBO innovations.
As for potential mega fights on the horizon Ross said, “If that little guy from Grand Rapids/Las Vegas [Floyd Mayweather Jr.] comes back I think he could create some mega fights, don’t you? I think he will be the anchor for something like that but we have yet to hear from him so… We’ll see but the winner of the Pacquiao-Hatton fight will be positioned for a mega fight in November.”
For now at least, HBO can seemingly do no wrong. Greenburg tells the story of taking his cousin to her first fight last Saturday to see the Marquez-Diaz battle. The Chris John-Rocky Juarez bout preceded it and, “She was mesmerized.”
Ross told her, “Watch, the next one will be even better,” and said that she looked at him as if he was a Martian.
“And I was proven right again.”
As long as HBO continues this level of programming, I’m going to drop out of the Legion of Critics. Like boxing fans everywhere, all I want is to see exciting and competitive fights. Kudos to Greenburg and his staff.