How to Fix HBO Boxing

By Paul Magno on August 10, 2018
How to Fix HBO Boxing
Saul “Canelo” Alvarez and Gennady Golovkin are the network’s only bankable “stars.”

Over the last several years, some of the sport’s biggest stars have all walked away (or have been led away) from the network for various reasons…

I take a lot of swipes these days at HBO Boxing. I do so because I really do want them to succeed.

When it comes to production values, the folks at HBO are industry leaders. There’s no network better at creating that “big fight” feel. Even announcers Jim Lampley and Max Kellerman, before going full Bill Mays infomercial, were nice additions to the telecasts—pleasant, at worst, and top of the food chain professional, at best.

Unfortunately, while the production team is still there, plugging away, the suits behind the actual boxing product are screwing up royally.

Peter Nelson, Executive Vice President of HBO Sports, and his predecessor Ken Hershman have torn the HBO boxing product to pieces, creating a disjointed mess increasingly devoid of high-end, star-level talent. It’s hard to tell whether the network’s reported lean working budget is a product of their boxing execs’ bad decisions or if the lean working budget is pushing their boxing execs to make bad decisions. Whatever the case, though, the buck stops with the bossmen—and the bossmen have led HBO Boxing to near-ruin.

So, the question is—What can be done to right this sinking ship?

A change in leadership may be the key to it all, but a change in direction is most definitely necessary if the premium cable network plans to stay in the boxing business (but they may NOT have plans to stay).

The allegedly tightening budget will have to be addressed first. Money is needed if fighters are to be secured with exclusive deals and if the network wants to stay competitive with what’s being offered for main stage fights by other companies. A bump in the budget will be a hard sell to the HBO people under current conditions, though. There will have to be a coherent, pragmatic plan in effect if HBO Boxing is to make a good case for some added money to the pot.

The bosses of the boxing department will then have to accept the fact that boxing is a star-driven sport (and always has been). The romantic notion Nelson had upon being promoted that boxing fans were “sophisticated” enough to disregard size and marketing factors in their viewing preferences is Ivy League nonsense. Yes, the die-hards and purists want good, quality match-ups, but what brings eyeballs to the screen is star power. Ideally, we’d see a bit of both and the whole world would be happy. But, without stars, boxing will play to the same 600-800K who turn into every fight, anyway.

Bringing star power back to HBO will require some mending of fences and building of bridges. Over the last several years, the network has lost hold of some of the sport’s biggest stars. Floyd Mayweather, Manny Pacquiao, Vasyl Lomachenko, Terence Crawford, Keith Thurman, Danny Garcia, and Adonis Stevenson, among others, have all walked away (or have been led away) from the network for various reasons. Other mainstays like Miguel Cotto, Bernard Hopkins, Timothy Bradley, Juan Manuel Marquez, and Andre Ward have retired. That leaves Saul “Canelo” Alvarez and Gennady Golovkin as the network’s only bankable “stars” while they continue to lose talent like Daniel Jacobs and Demetrius Andrade to upstart streaming services like DAZN.

An entertaining “Superfly” series, bringing some of the sport’s top smaller-weight talent to prime time, has been a critical success, but not a ratings success. They simply can’t build on 115-pounders in the US market. They need some real names.

HBO will have to swallow the pride it had when chasing away some of their talent and letting others walk. Olive branches have to be offered and offers need to be made, especially to Haymon Boxing, which often suffers from having too many fighters for too few dates. They may have to pick from Showtime’s leftovers in the beginning, but the point is to be able to beef up their own roster of available fighters and, who knows, maybe they find a star or two in the bunch who will stay loyal to HBO for giving them main stage consideration.

With more money to work with and a beefed-up roster, then the task will be to create a coherent, cohesive boxing program where fights have meaning and lead to other interesting bouts. That was Nelson’s stated plan all along, but it wasn’t going to work while he was clearcutting talent he (and Hershman) saw as problematic or difficult to work with. The harsh reality is that high-end talent WILL often be difficult, but that’s where someone who truly knows the sport and its culture would come in handy.

Nelson once implied that he’d be running HBO Boxing with an eye on “what’s capturing the imagination” of the writers. And, so far, he looks to be living up to that pledge—and that’s not at all a positive.

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  1. fan 04:12pm, 08/14/2018

    Everybody is waiting for the ending major fight and boxing should try to make global event experience live and on tv.

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