HBO Hits A Grand Slam By Hiring Ken Hershman To Run Its Sports Department* (*Even If Hershman Isn’t Perfect)

HBO simply couldn’t do better in filling the top spot in its sports department than Ken Hershman, the man who did the counterpart job for rival Showtime and did it in a way that often put HBO to shame. So that’s who it picked, per a story that HBO made official with a news release Thursday. And just like that, arguably the most powerful job in boxing will now be occupied by the best possible person.

If you’re a boxing fan, this is almost certainly great news. I say “almost certainly” because as good a hire as Hershman is, he’s been deified in a way that is out of proportion. And there are conditions on the ground that make it so maybe — maybe — he won’t revolutionize HBO compared to what his out-of-proportion reviled predecessor Ross Greenburg did.

Make no mistake, Hershman has been very, very successful running Showtime Sports. He’s very creative, is thought of as a real “boxing person” and showed up HBO numerous times over his tenure there, despite a much smaller budget.

For all the criticisms out there about the Super Six tournament — it cost a lot, it had a lot of setbacks and ratings haven’t quite lived up to expectations — it sure made a lot of boxing fans happy. It was a program that, whatever the tangible benefits, projected as the kind of intangible thing that helps boxing as a sport overall, because it was about the best fighting the best and for so long, the lack of such match-ups had driven fans away from pugilism. The scaled-back bantamweight tournament that followed has offered a similar set of pluses and minuses. Both generated interest in deep divisions with untapped potential, besides. Both will wrap up in 2011.

This summer he stole away from HBO one of its biggest cash cows, pound-for-pound king Manny Pacquiao, for a pay-per-view fight with Shane Mosley. He did it by teaming up with parent network CBS to do something a bit more innovative for mainstream exposure, and, admittedly, by leveraging Pacquiao promoter Bob Arum’s bad blood toward HBO to his advantage. That forced HBO, despite its inherent advantage of a bigger budget, to go to greater lengths creatively to re-steal Pacquiao back for his upcoming November PPV.

That’s just recently. The overall approach by which Showtime was able to get into competition with HBO was with the network’s “great fights, no rights” policy. While HBO was locking top names into multi-fight contracts that hurt their chances of featuring those men into the most competitive fights, Showtime was just making the best fights it could and avoiding such long-term deals. Hershman didn’t invent the policy — his predecessor, Jay Larkin, did — but Hershman worked with Larkin and largely continued that policy. Overall, Showtime has shown better matchmaking skills under Hershman than HBO has in recent years.

But Hershman has not been perfect.

Either because Showtime is smaller or a large faction of boxing media/fandom has become convinced that everything HBO does is wrong no matter what or both, Showtime’s missteps have not garnered as much as attention as HBO’s. It’s my view that it’s also made fewer such missteps in recent years, and that’s helped dampen the spotlight, too, but the missteps are there for anyone paying attention.

In one recent instance: As exciting a super middleweight as Lucian Bute is, Showtime signed him to a risky three-fight deal at a high price (reportedly, $2 million per fight) without any surefire candidates for competition for him. His first fight was a pretty crappy one against Brian Magee. His second is a much better one coming up against Glen Johnson. But it was supposed to be against the even better Mikkel Kessler, only Bute and Kessler couldn’t come to a deal. Bute’s next fight is supposed to be against the winner of the Super Six, but early indicators are that the fight could be difficult to make. Why did Showtime do this deal? Couldn’t it have just signed Bute for good fights or not at all, per its usual policy, since Bute was freed from his HBO contract and there was therefore no competitive reason to sign him to such a deal? I still don’t understand. And remember, Bute was a very, very obvious omission from the Super Six in the first place.

In another: Showtime’s relations with Arum have gone south in a big way since Pacquiao-Mosley. Maybe a reasonable person would side with Hershman over Arum on this; after all, Arum is the common denominator in a hell of a lot of boxing feuds, including, previously, with HBO. I’m not on the inside of this feud and there’s been little reporting getting to the bottom of it. But if HBO being on the outs with Arum for so long is a knock on HBO — the way it was with so many boxing writers — then it’s a knock on Hershman, too. (According to one unnamed promoter — from the way the article reads, I’ll give you one guess who it is — Golden Boy won’t be happy about the Hershman hire, either.)

More systematically, Showtime under Hershman has shown the kind of favoritism toward one promoter that has often been a subject of massive criticism toward HBO but not so much toward Showtime. For HBO, it was an allegiance with Golden Boy Promotions, and before that Lou DiBella, and often with adviser Al Haymon (as overblown as that Haymon criticism has gotten in recent years). Yet Showtime has been so tight with Gary Shaw that at times the network has been dubbed “Shawtime” by wags. As with the HBO-GBP/DiBella/Haymon alliances, maybe there are defensible, if misguided, reasons for this. Some have said Hershman and Shaw have some kind of personal ties, although it’s nothing very conclusive; perhaps it’s that Shaw, for all the knocks on him as a promoter, has always shown a willingess to match his boxers tough, which would fit well with the Showtime philosophy. Whatever the case, Showtime under Hershman hasn’t been above favoritism, and it hasn’t always worked to the network’s advantage.

(Here, as something of an aside, I would remind you, dear reader, of my argument that Shaw has exhibited similar outsized influence at HBO of late, too, more so than some of the people said to have an “in” with the Home Box Office. What kind of mojo does Shaw have, anyhow?)

For all the deserved praise Hershman has gotten for his creativity, let’s not forget that while HBO has at times been jealous of Showtime, Showtime has recently stolen a couple boxing ideas from HBO, like it’s 24/7-esque documentary series Fight Camp 360, or its Face-Off-esque interview segment Staredown. Outside of boxing, it literally stole Inside The NFL from HBO, or, rather, picked it up when HBO dropped the program. In other words, HBO has had its creative stretches, too, without Hershman.

In fact, it’s fair to wonder, when looking at what comes next for HBO under Hershman: Was Showtime creative because it has had the right personnel, or because it had no choice? In any business, against a bigger competitor, innovation is a must. If Showtime just tried to be HBO Jr., it wouldn’t have competed well at all. And if Hershman doesn’t have that incentive when he’s in the catbird’s seat at HBO, I can’t help but worry slightly that he won’t be as forward-thinking and envelope-pushing as he has been at Showtime.

There are other potential trouble spots besides. Will Hershman, who has championed mixed martial arts programming at Showtime, try to do the same at HBO? And if he does, will that cut into the HBO boxing budget, which has already seen a steep decline? Moreover, without Hershman at the helm, will Showtime take a step back, look at what boxing has done for the network, and decide to throw all its weight behind MMA? If either of those scenarios transpire, then boxing loses a great deal. As insufferable as the competition between HBO and Showtime has been on occasion, and as much as boxing airing on premium networks almost exclusively has limited the sport’s growth potential, Showtime being in boxing is better than not, and HBO focusing exclusively on boxing is better than not. Also, what becomes of Kery Davis, Greenburg’s right hand man? When promoters bitched about HBO, they bitched as much if not more about Davis as they used to about Greenburg. In my limited conversations with him, Davis has often come off pretty well, but he’s also sometimes sounded out of touch. With the right boss, and with respected writer Peter O. Nelson recently signed on as director of sports programming, can Davis be put to good use? Or is his presence too much of a connection to the mistakes of the past?

If this blog post has come off as excessively negative, know that I don’t mean it that way. I do, however, think it’s good for people to temper their expectations by considering all the possible outcomes, and by looking at Hershman’s record in toto as opposed to just his successes.

The truth of the matter is that by hiring Hershman to head its sports department, HBO has picked the perfect candidate. Now let’s see how close to perfect he gets once he begins the gig officially on Jan. 9.

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.