By Mitch Abramson
Ken Hershman smiled. He joked. He shook hands. The newly installed head of HBO Sports spoke of transparency and of eliminating mismatches and of brokering peace among the different promoters. He spoke of breathing new life into the heavyweight division and of cutting the number of PPV shows and of putting on another Super Six-like tournament at HBO.
In his first public sit-down interview with reporters since he was hired as the new head of HBO Sports in October, Hershman, who started in his official capacity last month, said all the right things, even if he did speak in broad terms, revealing little of his specific day-to-day plans.
He declined to explain how he got the job at HBO after working at Showtime running the sports department since 2003, calling it a “delicate” matter.
“It was just a great set of fortuitous [circumstances] on both companies parts in terms of when this opportunity arose,” he said. “It was the right time for HBO and now we’re moving forward.”
He's still learning on the job, he admitted.
“Everything is different,” he went on. “I was [at Showtime] 19 years. I knew the ropes. Here I have to learn the ropes. It’s going to be harder here for a while. Hopefully it will all turn out good and you won’t to be talking to someone else in this seat in a year or two.”
He was likeable, even-keeled, self-effacing, and described himself as someone who’s trying to build a consensus, rather than make enemies. He talked about his upbringing in Long Island, what he thought of HBO while he worked at Showtime, how he was able to exploit HBO's hubris to his advantage.
It was a good start for someone who’s been in his position for just 15 working days, and the fact that he agreed to meet with a small group of reporters on Tuesday at HBO’s Manhattan offices, was a signal that Hershman, the newly anointed most powerful man in boxing, is going to be accessible and friendly, if not always specific.
Without tipping his hand, Hershman says he’s working on a couple of big fights “that we think are just amazing and we’re looking down the road in the fall at some potential match-ups that we think will be really groundbreaking.”
But he wouldn’t say what those fights are.
Hershman, who’s being asked to upgrade the network’s lucrative boxing division- less mismatches, less pandering to certain promoters- did offer his opinion on a topic that has transfixed the sport for some time now- the likelihood of making a fight between Floyd Mayweather Jr. and Manny Pacquiao. A fight between them could be the most profitable ever, yet Hershamn, who’s generally well-liked in the business, promised to not be consumed by that fight.
“I’m over it,” he said on Tuesday. “I don’t think it’s imperative. I don’t think it’s anything the sport needs in terms of saving. I think that it does get in the way of fights being made because you do end up being stalled for weeks, months, while everything gets sorted out.”
The best strategy for ensuring the fight happens is for HBO to stay out of the negotiations, Hershman said.
He would like to see the fight eventually get done, but he also doesn’t believe each fighter needs the other to define their legacy. He would help and mediate the discussions only if he was asked to do so, he said. But “I don’t envision that happening,” he said.
Hershman’s stance is in contrast from the one that was taken by his predecessor at HBO. Ross Greenburg was reportedly forced to resign in July, in part because of a fractured relationship with Pacquiao’s promoter, Bob Arum. Greenburg desperately wanted that fight to happen, and acted as a mediator between the two camps during negotiations that took place in the summer of 2010 that ultimately broke down.
“I do believe there is a sell-by date by which this fight will become not what it should be,” Hershman said. “I hope by the end of this year we see these guys in the ring together. If not, maybe early next year. But after that it will get less and less relevant.”
Hershman grew up on Long Island and is a graduate of Fordham law school. He’s a die-hard Jets fan, who later worked at a corporate law firm, in corporate finance and securities work. When Viacom was looking for an in-house attorney to work for Showtime, Hershman applied and got the job. He started at Showtime at 1992 until this past October, when he was plucked by HBO to head the sports department.
“I never set out to be in sports or in boxing,” he said. “I was really content being a lawyer. I was enjoying being a lawyer in-house and I thought Showtime was a great place to do that.”
He described himself as a fan of the sport growing up, but not of the die-hard variety until he began to get more immersed in the sport with his duties at Showtime.
Hershman, through a free-flowing interview that lasted a little more than an hour described his relationship with both Top Rank and Golden Boy as healthy, having worked with both camps while at Showtime. “I think we have a very positive and productive relationship,”
Hershman said. “It’s certainly gone through ups and downs, just like everyone else in the industry.”
As far as promoters keeping fights in-house, making fights that just involve fighters in their own stable, Hershman was diplomatic but hopeful that he will be able to convince promoters to work with one another in the interest of making the best fights.
“I understand where they’re coming from,” Hershman said of why promoters just want to play in their own sand box with their own fighters. “I do hope there can be some cross pollination between not just those promoters but between other promoters who have top fighters. I hate to see unnecessary personal issues get in the way of fights being made because it’s hard enough to make good fights in a perfect world with everyone getting along.”
He described his mission statement in simple terms:
“My job is to put the best boxing on HBO as possible,” Hershman said. “I think it’s pretty simple. And I always tell the promoters and people I work with: I’m not in the boxing business. I’m in the TV business. I leave that to them. And I think that lets them do what they do best and it lets us do what we do best. And I try to stay out of the politics as best I can. I try to stay out of the machinations on the chess boards and just try to buy good fights at the right price.”
Watching HBO from a close distance while he was at Showtime left an indelible impression on him, he said. Here’s what he liked about HBO while he was at Showtime.
“I was always impressed, always, with their resources, with their reach, with the quality of their production, what they put on the air was always first class, very well done, very innovative,” he said.
As the chief of Showtime sports, Hershman adopted a specific position that allowed him to compete with HBO, describing his tactics similar to a martial artist.
“Where they’re so big that for in order for us to be successful we have to be able to use their own size against them to create a place for us,” Hershman said. “Now, being here, it’s going to be different and I have to learn how to manage in a bigger organization, in a bigger operation, how to find the right philosophy that’s going to work here.”
Explaining what he meant by that, in terms of using HBO’s size against them, he said:
“Well, you have to be nimble, you have to be reactive and opportunistic,” Hershman said. “Obviously the first stop for everyone was HBO,” he said of promoters who were shopping around a good fight. “But they couldn’t accommodate everything and they would often leave things on the table that I thought were really perfect for Showtime, and we were able to take advantage of that. But now it’s going to be different.”
While it’s still early, Hershman said he was interested in creating a Showbox-like series at HBO, as a vehicle to display up-and-coming fighters the public wouldn’t ordinarily see.
“I do love the idea of having a developmental platform for young fighters so we can expose them and see them grow up and fans can follow them,” Hershman said. “I think that’s important, but right now I’m not in a position to make a decision on that yet.”
Hershman said that boxing remains a priority at HBO, despite rumors that the budget would be slashed to the point where HBO Boxing would cease to exist as fans have come to know it.
“I know that management still likes the product,” he said. “It works with subscribers. The ratings have been up double digits this past year in 2011, so that the growth trends continue to be in place. Every company faces budget issues. There’s never an infinite amount of money, so you have to manage it and you have to deal with the practical realities of what you’re given, but there’s a strong commitment here to boxing that’s never wavered and I don’t expect it to under my tenure in the future.”
Hershman has not been involved in any of the decision making that’s already been announced at HBO, he said. So the fights that have been announced are not his doing.
“Which I still think is a pretty good opening to the year,” he said. “And now we’re working of sort of where we go from here.”
Hershman isn’t married to the idea of having a ton of PPV shows, and could see the network carrying in the range of between “four and five” PPV shows during the year.
“My goal is 100 % focused on getting the best boxing on HBO that I can,” he said. “Since our goal is to get as many on the network as possible we’re going to hope to minimize that. But there’s an inevitable limit to what we can do so there will be some.”
He’s an advocate of the heavyweight division and wants to see a platform where young American heavyweight will eventually have a chance to show their talents. However, he expects that will happen only when the Klitschko brothers start to slow down and eventually retire.
“It’s a dilemma,” he said. “And I don’t pretend that the heavyweight division isn’t hugely important to boxing. It is and hopefully in the next year or two we’ll get some prospects that we think we can really count on to help reenergize the U.S. component of that market. Right now I don’t see it in the immediate future.”
He likes the way the network has dealt with the emerging talents of Adrian Broner, Julio Cesar Chavez Jr. and Canelo Alvarez. He would like to see them a little more active, however, fighting more often so that the public becomes familiar with them.
“My goal is to have them on the network on a consistent basis,” Hershman said. “When I looked at the landscape before, you fought once and then disappeared for six months and then you popped in again. [that’s] never the best model for sustaining interest among the fan base. So finding ways to get these young guys on the network more regularly is a priority.”
Perhaps the most pointed question of the afternoon came when Hershman was asked if he felt mismatches were a problem in boxing. Again, Hershman was diplomatic in his answer, saying he saw times when feeding a prospect an easy mark made sense for his development.
“No one ever sets out to make a bad fight, at least from my experiences,” he said. “You want to go in there and make sure the fighters are as evenly matched as possible.”
Hershman said he will do his best to avoid counter programming with other networks, but that sometimes it’s inevitable because of limited dates.
“It will happen,” he said. “It’s not anyone’s strategic objective to go and stratify the audience. That’s not what we’re looking to do. We want the most viewers as possible.”
He doesn’t see the need to tweak the 24/7 franchise, despite grumbles from insiders that it’s getting repetitive. Hershman said that ratings are growing for the reality programming.
“We’re going to try to keep it fresh,” he said.
He doesn’t envision mixed martial arts coming to HBO anytime soon, he said.
But he’s also in favor of making the Hopkins-Dawson rematch.
“I know that Bernard Hopkins is a ratings draw for sure,” Hershman said. “People like to watch Bernard Hopkins. The ratings bear that out. And he’s also not a guy who’s going to shy away [from Chad Dawson and other young opponents]. The industry should be celebrating someone at that point in his career. To me, it’s something that should be celebrated and I think it will do very well for the network, so I’m bullish on the fight. There was a lot of controversy the first time and I think viewers will be interested in seeing what happens.”
Mitch Abramson covers boxing for the New York Daily News and BoxingScene.com.