HBO Sports Chief Says Boxing Ratings Up By As Much As Nearly 40 Percent

I’m in full-on skeptical mode about anything anybody says about HBO right now, including what HBO says about HBO, but Yahoo!’s Kevin Iole has an extensive piece on the network that has some mighty interesting good news in it… if it’s true.

Coming on the heels of the scathing HBO piece from last week by’s Thomas Hauser and its eye-popping news about deep budget cuts in the network’s boxing future — which ESPN’s Dan Rafael subsequently questioned (back to that in a minute) — Iole takes his own look at what’s ahead for HBO in 2010.
There’s a lot in there, but as with the Hauser piece and its $15 million budget cut news, the thing that jumped out at me, again, were the numbers. Big numbers, according to HBO’s Ross Greenburg. Numbers that would, if accurate, suggest what I’ve argued all along — that the sport of boxing, far from dead, is in fact on an upward trend — have some truth to them.

He said ratings on HBO’s World Championship Boxing are up 37 percent in 2009 over 2008 and said “Boxing After Dark” has increased from 2008 levels by 19 percent.

This, too, as well as other aspects of the piece, requires some rumination.

We all know about the phrase “lies, damn lies and statistics.” I have no idea if there’s some kind of funny business behind the numbers Greenburg gave. And certainly, if Greenburg is under the kind of fire Hauser says he is, he’d have a motive to play up numbers. But then, Golden Boy’s Richard Schaefer, an HBO favorite, has said he’s encouraged by the increase in boxing ratings, too. And then there was the independently-reported news from John Chavez that the heavyweight Vitali Klitschko-Chris Arreola fight did fantastic ratings, and not just because of the replay of the welterweight Floyd Mayweather-Juan Manuel Marquez fight the same night.

Make of the numbers, then, what you will.
If they’re accurate, as I said, it’s really good news. It means not only what I said it meant about the sport’s upward arc, but it probably also means that there are tangible results to show for what some think — a camp I’m in — has been improved HBO programming decisions in 2009. Not perfect programming decisions, mind you. Not good enough. But improved.
Another subject Iole’s piece addresses is the accuracy of Hauser’s piece. According to Top Rank’s Bob Arum (again, everybody has a motive here, and Arum basically loathes Greenburg), Hauser’s piece is “100-percent accurate, totally accurate.” Rafael, as I mentioned, had said the $15 million/20 percent cut figure in Hauser’s piece wasn’t true according to his sources. I e-mailed Rafael to ask him about the correct figures, and he answered that he wasn’t going to say “at this point.” I hope he does say at some point. Whatever’s happening to HBO’s budget, it’s a big story for the boxing world. If some other reporters got on this story, it’d be a good thing. For his part, Greenburg “denied his budget had been slashed,” according to Iole, but note that’s past tense. I wasn’t sure if it means his 2009 budget was not slashed, which isn’t what Hauser’s piece was about, or his 2010 budget hasn’t been slashed as of now, which would be true since Hauser’s story said a decision wouldn’t be made until this month or next. I asked Iole and he told me on Twitter, “He denied his 2010 budget had been slashed,” but as of this writing — and I’ll update it when and if he answers — he hasn’t answered my question as precisely as I’d like, vis-a-vis whether the budget would be slashed in the future. So, murky murky.
There’s some other good stuff in the piece, stuff that we’ve covered a bunch at this blog such as the proper balance between HBO flexing its muscle for the good of the sport versus flexing its muscle too much. But here’s the last thing I want to touch on personally: Greenburg’s explanation of overpaying for the light heavyweight rematch between Chad Dawson and Antonio Tarver. It’s fairly weak. He acknowledges he shouldn’t have paid quite as high a fee as he did. If the reason for paying such a high fee is that he was trying to lure Dawson away from Showtime — which I think he could have done after Dawson-Tarver II happened, by the way — then why pay any more than you have to in order to outbid Showtime? Greenburg’s answer suggests he paid more than he had to, since he could have at all paid less. When people wonder about Greenburg, it’s stuff like this, where only Greenburg thought some course of action made sense.
I thought Greenburg might be on some kind of publicity tour, but Iole told me on Twitter that the interview came about in a way that was “Kind of mutual. Was talking with an HBO pr person and it came from discussion there. he said, Ross’ door is always open to you.” I’m not sure how Fanhouse came to score this softballish, elementary interview with HBO’s Mark Taffet, where he talked about the “hunger to go younger” in boxing.
I’d like to make my own offer of door openness to HBO folk. I know they’ve heard of this blogging stuff. Maybe they’ve heard that a lot of young people like to get their information from blogs. Mine’s got a decent audience. HBO people: Seriously, if you want to do an interview, I have a lot more questions for you. Drop me a line at I’ve been in touch in the past, but unlike Showtime and most other major figures in the sport of boxing, I haven’t heard back from you. It’s kinda strange.
In the meantime, because this is the kind of thing young people who like blogs and boxing might enjoy, I’m attaching images of the three boxing writers discussed here, Iole, Rafael and Hauser. I encourage you to print out this blog entry. Cut out the pictures. Put the pictures through a laminator. If this proves popular, I’ll do more limited edition trading cards of boxing writers in the future. Collect them all!

About Tim Starks

Tim is the founder of The Queensberry Rules and co-founder of The Transnational Boxing Rankings Board ( He lives in Washington, D.C. He has written for the Guardian, Economist, New Republic, Chicago Tribune and more.