By Thomas Hauser
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.
PART TWO OF “WHAT HBO SHOULD DO NOW” WILL BE POSTED TOMORROW.
Thomas Hauser can be reached by email at email@example.com . His most recent book (“Waiting For Carver Boyd”) was published by JR Books and can be purchased at http://www.amazon.co.uk/ or http://www.abebooks.com .
Hauser says that Waiting for Carver Boyd is “the best pure boxing writing I’ve ever done.”