After an 18-month stint developing new products for General Foods, Mark Taffet realized more stimulating challenges were desired in his career. Simply put, marketing peas and carrots, and other grocery store essentials, was not worth punching the clock for.
In 1984, yearning for more palatable cocktail conversations, the sports fan Taffet moved from the frozen aisle over to HBO to join the finance department.
Over time, he evolved his role within sports, and essentially would wind up creating the boxing pay-per-view model, which started 29 years ago on April 19, 1991 when Evander Holyfield defeated George Foreman on then-branded and HBO-owned TVKO.
During Taffet's HBO tenure, under the title of senior vice president of sports operations and PPV, he oversaw more than 190 HBO PPV events, which generated 65 million buys and $3.6 billion in revenue until he resigned from his role at the end of 2015, right before his contract expired.
Taffet's remarkable 25-year run presiding over PPV began by disrupting the existing model, which before the comfort of TVs in people’s living rooms consisted of going out to stadiums to watch fights in closed circuit — all while returning home with beer-and-mustard soaked and stained shirts.
“You had to drive to an arena to watch boxing fights, and the picture and sound quality was terrible,” Taffet told BoxingScene.com in an interview. “People were throwing soda and hot dogs all over the place.”
Taffet soon realized that Sugar Ray Leonard’s fights were being broadcast and distributed through microwave-like dish antennas across six major cities across the US in a fight-by-fight, house-by-house basis generating more money than what HBO would pay to have rights for Mike Tyson’s fights.
Taffet had the ear of Seth Abraham, the head of HBO Sports, and said they needed to jump into the PPV boxing business, or else they would lose their franchise.
HBO, then and still today a division of Time Warner, gave Taffet the green light to pursue newfound PPV paths to pave a lane they could eventually own.
Taffet and company knew they had to stage a dream fight that was headlined by characters that would generate a storyline worth paying for to watch on TV.
The unretired George Foreman and recently crowned heavyweight champion Evander Holyfield fit the bill for TVKO’s debut for $34.95 a buy at the Trump Plaza in Atlantic City.
HBO’s cost to have “The Battle of the Ages” was a pretty penny at the time — $34 million, ten times the amount they’d previously paid for a Tyson fight.
“I had to run around the country and learn about PPV,” said Taffet. “I’d never done it before. For months on end, I visited cable operators to figure out how to sell the fight.”
Taffet quickly learned that he was down on the cards after paying an exorbitant amount of money for the fight when he and HBO realized only 10% of cable subscribers in the US had the boxes needed to potentially order and watch the fight.
“I said ‘oh my god!’,” Taffet remembered. “I was responsible for the profit and losses on the event. I was very concerned.”
Taffet, still a nascent to the PPV scene, found it inconceivable that people had to line up outside of buildings on Friday to pay a $50 deposit for a box, buy and watch the event Saturday and return the box back by Monday to retrieve their deposit.
“I did a projection that said we were going to do 100,000 PPV buys,” said Taffet, sweating bullets because of the technological limitations. “We were going to lose a fortune. Foreman promoter Bob Arum told me, ‘you guys are going to close before you even open! You better do something to fix this.’”
Taffet needed a new flood of investment into the boxes, and the operators needed a regular flow of programming in order to create the hardware.
Thus, HBO committed a two-year plan for monthly TVKO and PPV programming.
By the time Holyfield vs. Foreman rolled around, consumers went from having access to nearly three million boxes to almost 16 million units.
HBO pumped money into its marketing, and the fight ended up being a smashing success, even by today’s standards, to the tune of 1.4 million PPV buys and $53 million in revenue.
“For all intents and purposes, that was the night PPV was born,” said Taffet. “We had no idea at all how many buys we were going to do. We were ecstatic. We didn’t know what to do with ourselves.”
The following month, TVKO served fans a matchup between James Toney and Michael Nunn for $19.95, yielding 19,000 PPV buys. The paltry sales performance forced HBO to recalibrate its business plan.
“Seth told me, ‘well Mark, this is a business of hits and misses’ — and that became a phrase I used for 25 years. We learned that in PPV, you either had an event where people called family, friends and neighbors to gather like a Super Bowl, or you didn’t.”
Shortly after delivering the long awaited and much anticipated match between Floyd Mayweater and Manny Pacquiao in 2015 — still the most lucrative fight of all time — Taffet decided to steer his career into a different direction and chase new passions.
Today he stands as an executive shaping the legacy of fighters, not networks.
“It was tough to move on, but it was time for a change and new era,” added Taffet. “Although I did events of great commerce for HBO, I wanted to do something more meaningful on the other side of the table and help athletes who had dreams and needed leadership and guidance. It gives me great satisfaction.”
Taffet still toils in boxing, most notably as a manager to Claressa Shields, a three-division champion and two-time US gold medalist, and a slew of other up and coming boxers. The New Jersey Boxing Hall of Fame inductee is also trying his hand as a promoter in other combat sports with the team-based company, MMA Pro League.
Taffet wants to stage one more significant PPV dance, however, with Shields in a mega fight versus Laila Ali. He believes the fight would be one of the most lucrative events of all time.
“Claressa is a once in a lifetime athlete. She reminds me of Floyd Mayweather. She’s levels beyond every female fighter today,” said Taffet, who helped make Mayweather into the commercial star he became before the fighter finished his career with Showtime. “She’s the greatest female fighter of all time. People say ‘I’m jaded as her manager,’ but I can see what her potential is to change the game for boxing, like Billie Jean King in sports.”
Three years after Taffet left HBO, the premium cable network abandoned the sport altogether.
Their legacy, however, going back to Holyfield’s unanimous decision win over Foreman in 1991, will serve as one of the sweet science’s most satisfying chapters.
“I had a magnificent career with HBO,” said Taffet. “I couldn’t wait to get to the office. I had to pinch myself, working as many significant events as I did. I couldn’t believe they paid me to do it. I worked hard though. I was blessed with passion and energy by my parents to work those 20-hour days. Sleep was not something I did well. I didn’t like to dream, I liked to make reality.”
Manouk Akopyan is a sports journalist and member of the Boxing Writers Assn. of America since 2011. He has written for the likes of the LA Times, Guardian, USA Today, Philadelphia Inquirer, Men’s Health and NFL.com and currently does TV commentary for combat sports programming that airs on Fox Sports and hosts his own radio show in Los Angeles. He can be reached on Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn and YouTube at @ManoukAkopyan or via email at manouk[dot]akopyan[at]gmail.com.