What We’re Getting From The New Leadership At HBO — So Far

This is the continuation and conclusion of a two-part series that began with an evaluation of Showtime under its new boxing programming leadership. Now we look at things at HBO under Ken Hershman (at right).

Examining this year so far vs. last, I think HBO has improved a little under Hershman or at least treaded water — although some of that is a result of bad luck last year with some match-ups that went sour, compared to a fresh slate of potentially quality fights that haven’t had a chance to do the same. Remember, we’re evaluating not quite three months of programming past and a few more months where the programming slate is incomplete, so it’s too early to draw solid conclusions.

The Match-Ups

When I look at all of the fights that have happened on HBO in 2012 so far and all the fights on the schedule through June, I see an awful lot of good/acceptable fights and very few “must-sees.” And the number of outright stinkers is pretty small, too. In this regard, HBO is delivering a more consistently good product than Showtime, without some of the same highs and lows.

The one “yes, yes, yes” fight and the one “really?” fight share something in common: They’re rematches. Lamont Peterson-Amir Khan was a terrific junior welterweight fight last year with some serious controversy, and a do-over on HBO is a great idea. But last year’s Bernard Hopkins-Chad Dawson light heavyweight championship fight was last year’s least-anticipated fight and while it ended with serious controversy, very few people were interested in a do-over. Stylistically, it’s a bad match-up. You can defend it slightly on the grounds that Hopkins has been good for ratings in the last couple years, and that the rematch has more intrigue than the first fight because of the controversial ending, but don’t forget that Hopkins-Dawson was a huge bomb on pay-per-view. (That Hopkins-Dawson II is paired with one of the other handful of less-desirable match-ups — heavyweights Seth Mitchell-Chazz Witherspoon — is a bit of a double slap, even if, again, it’s potentially defensible because Mitchell is a promising American heavyweight with an action style; it’s who he’s fighting that’s an issue.)

There’s a lot of solid-to-excellent among the rest. Saturday’s doubleheader; Devon Alexander-Marcos Maidana; Floyd Mayweather, Jr.-Miguel Cotto, on PPV; and Manny Pacquiao-Timothy Bradley, on PPV, are all match-ups that people greeted warmly or are anticipating at least somewhat. There’s an awful lot of stuff in there that is defensible, at least, stuff that some people were into but some weren’t, like Sergio Martinez-Matthew Macklin; Julio Cesar Chavez, Jr.-Marco Antonio Rubio; and Adrien Broner-Eloy Perez. I’m not condemning the programming so far here, because “rather consistently good with few absurd highs or absurd lows” is far from a disaster, but a word of warning that some of last year’s bad outcomes came when fighters weren’t facing their absolute best possible opponents.

There are some related programming issues that have been beyond the control of HBO. If Brandon Rios’ lightweight tilt against Yuriorkis Gamboa was still on the schedule, it would definitely be in the “yes, yes, yes” category that is thinly populated this year, but unfortunately Gamboa lost his damn mind and pulled out of the fight. While a few people are intrigued by Saul Alvarez-Shane Mosley on the Mayweather-Cotto undercard, most aren’t — and anyway, promoters tend to have more control over PPV undercards than the networks airing them. And, obviously, some of the “best possible opponent” match-ups like Chavez-Alvarez are things HBO couldn’t force if it tried, since the bad blood between rival promoters Top Rank and Golden Boy is overriding any amount of money that could be made off top-notch fights.

As with Showtime, Golden Boy is ahead of the rest of the pack among promoters with their fighters on HBO, with 13. Before the Rios-Gamboa card fell through, Top Rank was a relatively close second at nine. Now, it’s down to six. As with all the caveats from the Showtime piece about none of this being a statistically meaningful enough sample to draw strong conclusions, for the time being it sure looks like Golden Boy is the big winner of both the realignments at the two big boxing networks. Combined, Golden Boy represents, by my count, 30 fighters who have been featured, will be featured or are likely to be featured on HBO or Showtime; Top Rank, the next closest, is at 12.

Unlike at Showtime, though, no one manager or adviser has an obvious advantage — with Rios-Gamboa off the schedule, Cameron Dunkin and Al Haymon are tied at three fighters apiece. Also unlike at Showtime, there isn’t as obvious a tilt toward Golden Boy’s fighters being in less attractive fights. Some of them are, sure, but not disproportionately. That reduces the potential problem of promoter favoritism to one of maybe alienating other promoters down the line if it cements as a trend, but it’s less of a short-term programming problem. There’s also the chance that a favored promoter is getting better purses, but we’ll touch on that next.

The Institution

One problem with the previous regime is that they tended to throw too much money at fights that didn’t deserve as much of the green. So far in 2012, the amount of reporting — let alone reliable reporting — on what HBO is spending on fights is a trickle. What does seem to be happening, though, is that HBO is being more conservative with its dollars. It went so far as to turn down a Randall Bailey fight for Andre Berto so it could set up a rematch with Victor Ortiz… but then it allowed itself to be outbid by a mere $100,000 for Ortiz-Berto II. And while Showtime has deservedly caught more hell for not buying Carl Froch-Lucian Bute, it’s worth noting HBO didn’t want it, either — despite it being potentially a very good fight. Since Bute’s under contract for one more fight with Showtime, this makes a bit of business sense not to promote the competitor, but this is another area where HBO could have spent money on a good fight and didn’t. On the other hand, it’s the right call by Hershman to pass on Rios’ replacement for Gamboa, Richard Abril — that’s a smart withholding of cash.

Just like we have little reporting on purses, we also have little consistently reliable reporting on ratings. HBO says that in 2011, they doubled had a double-digit percentage increase in their audience for boxing telecasts. It’s on a similar number of cards to that of 2010, just eyeballing it. And that’s apples to apples — live plus encore vs. live plus encore. That’s more about 2011 than 2012, but I thought it was interesting to pass along. We’ll see how the 2012 ratings play out, but that’s the backdrop from HBO’s perspective.

There have been a couple innovations that have debuted in 2012, both of the promising. The “Two Days” feature was, for Kirkland, plain amazing. More of that would be good. There’s also a studio show about boxing on the way hosted by Jim Lampley that is an idea I can get behind, with the caveat that if HBO’s boxing budget is low then I hope they’re spending only a tiny amount of cash on a boxing discussion program rather than on the fights themselves. The plans for that program began last year, though, same as the “On Freddie Roach” series that was pretty swell.

Personnel-wise, Hershman has mostly held firm. Peter Owen Nelson, who’s the “director of programming” for HBO boxing, has appeared to develop a good reputation with boxing folk, at least by my reading of how he’s discussed publicly, and he’s stayed on with Hershman so far. VP Kerry Davis was thought to be on his way out with Ross Greenburg because of all the complaints directed at both of those men, but he’s stuck with HBO, too. Then there’s the Thomas Hauser pick-up, which we’ve discussed more extensively elsewhere and that we haven’t seen any tangible effect from quite yet.

It’s obviously early. But Showtime has got out to a faster start than HBO in this category, both positive (like expanding “Fight Camp 360”) and negative (the way has rather quickly damaged one of its brands, ShoBox).

The Stated Philosophy

Hershman gave a sit down to a roundtable of reporters in February. This story captures most of what he had to say.

–He said he wants to see Top Rank and Golden Boy working together. Who doesn’t? It’s only one of the couple biggest problems in the whole sport. He doesn’t say how he’ll make that happen.

–Nor does he want to show favoritism toward any particular promoter. We’ll see if the numbers, as currently configured, don’t balance out to not so heavily lean on Golden Boy fighters.

–He said he will be honest with those promoters. Consider the number of them who have publicly and privately complained that HBO hasn’t always been upfront in its business dealings, this could count as progress if he does it. He also said he’s “not in the boxing business, I’m in the TV business” in a way that suggests he won’t play matchmaker too much. We’ve debated the pros and cons of that endlessly on this site, so we’ll skip it this time.

–He said HBO is still committed to boxing. Since there had been published speculation that HBO might one day soon decide the sport wasn’t worth the headache, this constitutes reassurance.

–He is “over” Mayweather-Pacquiao. In other words, he’s not going to stress to make it happen. I suspect this is a case of him realizing he can’t make it happen anymore than Greenburg could, so why risk pissing off Mayweather and Pacquiao by pushing them into a fight neither really wants?

–One more thing, in another story: Hershman hyped a bunch of match-ups, including Hopkins-Dawson II, which he said was selling tickets well and that he expected a better fight than most others expect. We’ll see.

About Tim Starks

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