In Search Of Patterns Within HBO Ratings For Boxing (Again)

It’s been a while — a year, in fact — since we last dived into HBO’s ratings, and there’s a reason for that. Reliable boxing television ratings figures are rarely reported. So Matthew Paras did us all a huge favor last week by snaggging them from Nielsen for the past year and a half. But what can we learn from them?

We can learn some things, but things that are loaded with caveats. There are so many ways to count television ratings, a point Paras himself explores, that we can’t precisely compare our conclusions last time to our conclusions this time, since the methodology was different and standards have changed. The way things are evolving in the television biz with DVR and advances like HBO GO, maybe the figures Paras delivered wouldn’t be the version that HBO brass touted as the best example of the overall audience any given broadcast reached. And so on.

What we can do is compare the figures a good deal within themselves, and try to put them in perspective with what came before. And that might give us some anecdotal evidence about who HBO’s biggest stars are right now, and what the new leadership at HBO has meant for ratings.

Ross Greenburg Vs. Ken Hershman

The first observation is Paras’: There’s been no substantial change in HBO boxing ratings under new HBO Sports boss Ken Hershman compared to the old boss, Ross Greenburg.

Recall, if you will, that HBO claimed ratings were up by a double-digit percentage under Greenburg in 2011, and contrast that with the widespread claim that Greenburg was somehow killing HBO’s audience. Maybe he was just reviving an audience he could be blamed for killing in past years, but all in all my view is that Greenburg had a pretty decent 2011. It wasn’t enough to save him. My view of Greenburg is that he wasn’t as bad as he was made out to be, which isn’t the same as saying he was great or anything. The numbers suggested he was doing better just before he got the ax.

You’ll hear people saying the eighth month since he began the job that Hershman is still trying to clean up Greenburg’s mess, but what’s the evidence of that? There is now a growing consensus that matchmaking isn’t signficantly better under him, and for all the “Greenburg caved to Al Haymon” stuff we heard about HBO’s alliance with the powerful boxing manager, Hershman’s been just as bad if not worse on that count. I’m still not ready to write off the new leadership at HBO (or Showtime, for that matter) because everyone’s still learning on the job. But if Hershman is suffering from an “inherited a bad product from the old boss” vibe, what do we know about what he’s doing to turn it around? Answer: Nothing publicly, and there’s no proof that things are about to change as a result of any secret plan.

Another observation of Paras’ relates to the whole “Is HBO counting ratings differently to make them look better?” flap from last year. He says the answer to that question is “no,” but read his explanation. It’s a very plausible explanation related to industry-wide shifts in how numbers are tallied.

The Caveats

Before we get into comparing fighters’ ratings, I should elaborate on what’s changed since the last time and the various other asterisks.

Paras didn’t publish the undercard figures. Last time, we considered the available rating to be for the overall card. Undercard bouts can have an impact on ratings, obviously.

Back then, we considered drawing 1 million viewers something of an achievement. With the new way of counting — and, presuming the truth of HBO’s claims about increased ratings apples-to-apples and the focus here on just the main event — 1 million doesn’t mean as much.

The confirmation of the shift in how ratings are counted skews some of the comparisons from our last piece, which overlapped with that period where the new ratings-counting methods kicked in. That makes some of the conclusions we drew last time for fighters who were included in that period somewhat less definitive. Consider this an asterisk to the first “In Search Of Patterns” post, then.

And the universe of boxers appearing most frequently on HBO has changed. For the last period we discussed, for instance, Paul Williams was a prominent name, but he only had one fight on HBO over that time, then shifted to Showtime and now his career is over as the result of a tragic motorcycle accident.

Also, we used Paras’ figures as published, with one exception. Inevitably, then, there are a good deal fewer ties in some of the ratings once they’re rounded to a different decimal point. (The one exception was a figure I dumped down from 1.02 million to 1 million, for consistency’s sake.)

Lastly, remember that ratings are not the be-all, end-all for a pay network for HBO. This A.V. Club piece explains the difference in approach. Whether a given boxer is worth what he’s paid by HBO is something that’s difficult to measure, because HBO has a more complex formula for calculating value than a boxer’s ratings, and it’s all very opaque and internal. Maybe to us it looks like someone is overpaid, relative to his ratings. Maybe to HBO, he’s not. And maybe HBO’s even wrong about that. It’s very hard to tell.

The Ratings Winners And Losers

Paras published 30 figures. Of those, the top 15 cut off at 1.3 million viewers, with everything at or above that representing the top half and everything below it the bottom half.

The boxer who stands heads above the others is middleweight Julio Cesar Chavez, Jr. He had four ratings in the top half of the period covered.

Next, with three each, were junior middleweight Saul Alvarez and junior welterweight Amir Khan. One of Khan’s fights, against Lamont Peterson, got an asterisk from Paras because Nielsen only provided the undercard rating for it — but I think it’s fair to assume that Khan’s rating at least matched what the undercard produced and probably surpassed it, so I will.

The only other fighter with more than one bout in the top half was light heavyweight Bernard Hopkins, with two.

In the bottom half, the following fighters appeared more than once: featherweight Yuriorkis Gamboa and welterweight Devon Alexander, who appeared twice each; and junior featherweight Nonito Donaire and middleweight Sergio Martinez, who appeared three times each.

Two fighters appeared in both the top and bottom half: Alexander and fellow welterweight Andre Berto.

Some Conclusions

I’m not going to analyze every single bout that was in the top half of the ratings like I did last time for patterns. Instead, I’m just eyeballing it.

Once again, any presumption of automatic if/thens when it comes to ratings is presuming too much. Fighters who are wonderful live draws pretty much always bring top ratings, but the inverse is not necessarily true. Neither Hopkins nor Khan, for instance, are U.S. ticketsellers of any consequence — they are mocked for being quite the opposite, in fact — but both appear in the top grouping. Meanwhile, Alexander, who typically sells a fair amount of tickets in his native St. Louis (although that figure has been dropping) appears multiple times in the bottom half. Fighters who are known to deliver excitement often deliver top ratings, but not always, and fighters who are thought to be boring sometimes manage to do top ratings themselves. For instance, James Kirkland’s guaranteed slugfests haven’t ever really done big TV ratings; meanwhile, nobody thought Chad Dawson-Bernard Hopkins II would be anything but a style disaster, but it tied for #3 overall with 1.6 million.

Of the big winners, it’s obvious why some of them are there, others not so much. Chavez and Alvarez mobilize the huge Mexican fan base, have mostly appealing styles, and have some gimmick (Chavez: his name; Alvarez: his red hair) that helps draw attention to them. Khan is about as exciting as a fighter gets, and he, too, has something of a story in his Muslim faith; he might also now sell a little bit as a black hat, since a lot of people dislike his personlity. Hopkins is an interesting one — nobody likes his fighting style, nobody buys tickets in any quantity for his fights, but he does have the “one of the best ‘old’ fighters ever” angle and he talks up his fights very well. I do think there’s plenty of anecdotal evidence that there’s a segment of the hardcore fan base that appreciates boxing styles beyond the “you hit me/I hit you” variety that doesn’t tend to buy tickets to live shows but does watch religiously, and maybe Hopkins benefits from that.

Of the losers, let’s give Donaire and Gamboa a bit of a pass, because both are fighters who are relatively new to HBO, and they also might suffer from being in the smaller weight classes. Nor have either been matched particularly well, outside of Donaire-Fernando Montiel, which perhaps not coincidentally drew 1 million viewers, more than Donaire’s other, less interesting or competitive match-ups. Alexander and Martinez are more interesting because they previously were among the winners of the last survey.  Alexander’s all over the place, from high to middle to low, but the highest came when he fought Timothy Bradley, and I suspect he hurt himself with viewers with that timid performance. Martinez stays mostly nearer to the top of the back half of the pack with 1.1 million twice (tied for #18) and 1 million (tied for #22). One of those dates pitted Martinez against a Miguel Cotto pay-per-view that inevitably stole potential viewers, but I suspect what’s hurt him most is his opposition. Serhiy Dzinziruk, Darren Barker and Matthew Macklin had near-zero domestic profiles compared to whom he was fighting over the last period — Paul Williams (who had been on HBO a lot) and Kelly Pavlik (who had some mainstream crossover fame) among them.

On the other hand, Chavez and Alvarez haven’t been matched particularly well, either, and they’ve done big ratings regardless of who they fight. I do suspect that there are some fighters who draw attention no matter what they do, and another group of fighters that need a good foil to live up to any ratings potential. These are just hunches, however. At any rate, that’s probably what separates the superstars from mere stars and those who are something else.

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.