Following rumor after rumor after false report, this time it’s real. First came the Boxing Scene report that HBO Sports president Ross Greenburg would be gone by Monday, then came official confirmation today from HBO and Greenburg himself that the beleaguered chief of HBO’s boxing programming was departing.
There are already conflicting reports over why Greenburg is gone, ranging from his explanation that he had become tired of a brutal business to the view of some that HBO losing out on Manny Pacquiao-Shane Mosley to Showtime was the final nail in his coffin. Whatever the reason, Greenburg leaves with, in my view, a more mixed record than the wholly negative one many regard his tenure with; and he leaves a big void at what is arguably the most powerful job in the whole sport.
Greenburg took over at HBO Sports in 2000, and it’s hard to find a darker period for boxing than the early to late ’00s. It’s also hard not to blame HBO for that. They guaranteed fighters rights in a way that ensured they could get away with fighting lesser opponents, creating openings for the smaller Showtime to make in-roads against its far bigger opponent with its “great fights, no rights” approach. (I had never seen figures published for HBO’s budget until Dan Rafael put it here today at $35 million annually, citing no sources. But there’s no question HBO had a far bigger wallet than Showtime.)
Things began to improve starting in the later part of the decade, beginning with 2007’s Floyd Mayweather, Jr.-Oscar De La Hoya fight and the innovative and award-winning “24/7” documentary/marketing series. Mayweather-De La Hoya was the biggest-selling pay-per-view fight of all time, and it sparked a bit of a revival at HBO, accompanied by better matchmaking.
But still, despite some fluctuations, ratings overall dropped. It’s still not clear to me how much that has to do with people DVRing things or piracy or what, but simply because things were better in some ways, like the Mayweather-De La Hoya success and some high ratings here and there, didn’t mean all was well. The exclusive deal with Golden Boy held the network back and helped spoil relations with some promoters, and a bad relationship between HBO Sports’ brass and Top Rank’s Bob Arum was a major instigator of Arum taking Pacquiao-Mosley to Showtime. Yeah, as Greenburg said, HBO never won ’em all, mentioning the departure of Mike Tyson and others. But losing Pacquiao-Mosley was a big blow, even if it looks like HBO might be able to snag back Pacquiao for his trilogy fight with Juan Manuel Marquez.
Things were, at times, not as bad as they seemed. For all the flack HBO got during Greenburg’s tenure for not making exciting or competitive match-ups — flack that it sometimes deserved — we still got the Arturo Gatti-Micky Ward trilogy on HBO; the Marco Antonio Barrera-Erik Morales trilogy; and fights like Pacquiao-Marquez I and II, the Pacquiao-Morales trilogy, Marquez-Juan Diaz I, Paul Williams-Sergio Martinez I, Amir Khan-Marcos Maidana and plenty more Fight of the Year-caliber bouts, plus lots of other memorable moments.
The biggest knock I have on Greenburg’s tenure is how wisely the network used its tremendous resources. Sometimes, it used them wisely, such as when it used its financial leverage to force Martinez-Williams II. Too often, HBO bid against itself for reasons that remain totally inexplicable. You can cite favoritism toward the fighters of Al Haymon if you want — we’ve discussed that a lot lately here, so we’ll skip over it for the time being — but that doesn’t fully explain things like the crazy fee HBO paid for Chad Dawson-Antonio Tarver II, a fight nobody wanted and which HBO could have passed on and still stolen Dawson away from Showtime whenever it wanted. (Many of the fighters HBO overpaid were black fighters. The reporting by Thomas Hauser said that HBO brass was pretty worried about declining viewership among black fans. In that context, going after black fighters like Dawson [who wasn’t managed by Haymon] made some measure of sense, since boxing fans definitely like rooting for their own ethnic and/or regional alliances. But overpaying for Dawson-Tarver II — let alone paying for it at all — was, to me, the strangest example of HBO’s misspending.)
All of this leaves out the other work Greenburg did with HBO Sports, where he was really excellent with sports documentaries and the Real Sports program and won a gazillion Emmys for the network.
There will be celebrations of Greenburg’s departure. I get it. In toto, Greenburg’s “some good, some bad” record isn’t as good as you’d want from such an important position in the sport.
But we don’t know who’s going to replace Greenburg, and we don’t know if he’s going to do much better. For all the talk of the “good old days” under Seth Abraham and Lou DiBella — and we don’t know what’s going to come of Greenburg’s much-criticized (and often more criticized) deputy Kery Davis — I think that’s looking at things through rose-colored lenses. The sport’s big decline began in the 1990s, after all, and there were plenty of complaints at the time about what HBO did during that time.
For now, HBO Sports will be starting fresh. It’s a promising opportunity for HBO to make the best of its influence in boxing. But this also has the potential to be a “devil you know versus the devil you don’t know” or “out of the frying pan, into the fire” situation. Time will tell.