HBO Boxing: From Superfly to Super Mess

By Paul Magno on February 28, 2018
HBO Boxing: From Superfly to Super Mess
Will HBO Boxing see it as worth their time and money to clean house and start over again?

Peter Nelson, like most writers, is good at knowing what HE likes and good at creating concepts around what pleases HIM…

HBO, the one-time king of American boxing programming, is now a private club for old and dying fight fans. This past weekend’s Superfly 2 card and its anemic TV ratings pretty much confirm this.

The triple-header main event of Srisaket Sor Rungvisai vs. Juan Francisco Estrada, which delivered on its high-octane promise, drew an average audience of 639,000 viewers according to Nielsen TV ratings. That’s below what a late night George Lopez sitcom rerun on Nick at Night typically generates.

Yeah, one can probably blow smoke up fans’ asses and pretend that last Saturday’s card was a win-win for the sport. It was, after all, a good night of action and those who watched on TV and half-filled the Forum in Inglewood, California, had to be pleased with the quality of what they saw. But if someone can say with a straight face that Superfly 2 did anything beyond play to an already-sold boxing fan base, then they are either happy-faced idiots or paid stooges, in the bag for HBO and/or promoter Tom Loeffler. (By the way, you can always tell how deeply a writer is compromised by how often he tosses “shout-outs” to a promoter during his coverage of an event.)

Superfly 2 wasn’t BAD for the sport, of course. It was just an entree served as a main course at a failing restaurant. It was too little, too late, and coming from shot-callers clearly out of touch with what their programming goals should be. 

At this point in Peter Nelson’s HBO reign of inadequacy, HBO marketing muscle is aimed at fights that won’t appeal to a single fan outside of those who will already tune in to any boxing on HBO, no matter what. And the number of loyal fans willing to tune into everything is somewhere between 600 and 750K at this point. That’s not a good number.

Back when Nelson, a former boxing writer, first got the gig of Executive Vice President of HBO Sports, this writer joked about how poorly most boxing writers would do at that job. Those jokes, as things have turned out, were prophetic.

Nelson, like most writers, is good at knowing what HE likes and good at creating concepts around what pleases HIM. But, also like most boxing scribes, he’s oblivious about much of the big picture stuff that goes into making stars and supremely out of touch with what brings the much-needed casual/curious fan into the boxing world.

The premium cable network has tried to build stars with showcase squashes and then flip them immediately to pay-per-view without ever having the seminal legacy fights boxers need to transition from “star” to “attraction.” Actually, those seminal moments have been ON pay-per-view, which totally defeats the purpose of having them at all.

HBO Boxing has become a place where anything “good” that might reach a larger audience is pushed back behind a second paywall. Under recent regimes, it has also become a place where making a big fight is increasingly difficult because of feuds HBO executives have picked with specific managers and promoters.

Every once in awhile, the die-hard fans will get tossed a bone, like the Superfly series, but, overall, HBO Boxing is stuck in the muck—and not doing much to get out. 

As members of HBO’s exclusive “let’s watch boxing” club begin to die off—in a world where everyone under 60 is cutting cords, anyway—could it be very long before HBO decides to just give up on boxing? Will they see it as worth their time and money to clean house and start over again?

Actually, getting premium cable out of the boxing business is probably a good thing.

It would be nice, though, if HBO Boxing, with their mainstream muscle and their one-time industry-driving money, could work WITH the sport to make things better. Right now, however, they do more to stand in the way of growth and seem pretty firm on sticking to that position.

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