By Thomas Hauser
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.
Thomas Hauser can be reached by email at [email protected]. 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.”