Source: USA TODAY
It’s been nearly a year since boxing’s top pay-per-view draw, Floyd “Money” Mayweather Jr., jumped HBO’s ship and landed at Showtime with a six-fight deal worth as much as $300 million.
The February move, which sent shock waves through the industry, has been a financial boon for Mayweather, who earned a guaranteed $41 million for his September fight against Canelo Alvarez, and added an estimated $40 million more from the 2.2 million PPV buys.
The $32 million he was guaranteed for his May fight against Robert Guerrero, then a record, surely puts the undefeated, pound-for-pound king at the top of the list of highest-paid athletes in 2013.
There’s no doubt Mayweather’s departure was a blow for HBO. The nine PPV telecasts of Mayweather fights on HBO generated 9.6 million buys and $543 million in revenue, according to Forbes. The Alvarez fight, meanwhile, was the highest-grossing fight card of all time.
So where does that leave HBO? Did losing its star attraction make for a tough year for the premium network, long considered the bellwether for boxing coverage in the U.S.?
Not at all, says HBO Sports President Ken Hershman.
While Showtime touts a 21% increase in boxing viewership from 2012 and says it was 59% better than 2011, Hershman called 2013 a banner year for his network, too. He cites several Fight of the Year candidates from among its shows, led by Timothy Bradley’s slugfest victory against Ruslan Provodnikov in March. The network finished the year with a flurry: 10 fight cards in 11 weeks.
“We view it as a tremendous success,” Hershman, who moved from Showtime two years ago, told USA TODAY. “We set a number of goals for ourselves and I think we over-delivered on all of them. Most importantly the fans responded by watching in big numbers show in and show out and really enjoyed what they saw.”
Indeed, HBO claims the top five non-PPV slots for boxing viewership on cable TV this year, led by Miguel Cotto’s third-round TKO victory against Delvin Rodriguez in October, which the network said attracted 1,706,000 viewers at its peak. It also claims it had 21 of the top 25 shows in 2013.
Hershman said both networks got what they wanted out of the Mayweather deal.
“I don’t think it hurt us,” said Hershman. “(Showtime) made a decision to go after a business deal they found more favorable.
“We’ve turned the page and refortified our boxing franchise in a big way and we’re stocked with amazing talent, from (Sergio) Martinez and Cotto and (Andre) Ward and (Julio Cesar) Chavez Jr. and Bradley and (Manny) Pacquiao and (Juan Manuel) Marquez, (Gennady) Golovkin, (Adonis) Stevenson and (Sergey) Kovalev, Provodnikov, (Brandon) Rios, (Mike) Alvarado and Mikey Garcia, and the list goes on, Nonito Donaire.
“I just think we have so much talent in so many weight classes and so many exciting fighters that people want to watch. So I don’t think about losing Floyd as much as I think about how are we going to program HBO?”
Hershman shrugged off rumors earlier this year that HBO would cut back significantly on its boxing coverage for 2014. “That’s certainly not the case,” he said. “If you look at what we did in 2013, it was as strong as ever and we expect to over-deliver in 2014. We’ve set ourselves up in a great position for some significant fights to be made in 2014.”
Among those fights are Manny Pacquiao’s April 12th PPV date against either Provodnikov, a Bradley rematch or a fifth meeting with Marquez. Also, a possible June 8 matchup between Cotto and Martinez at Madison Square Garden looms.
There has been a renewed clamoring for a Mayweather-Pacquiao fight, especially since Pacquiao’s scintillating performance against Rios in Macau in November following two consecutive losses. Hershman says there’s been no discussions for what could be the richest of all possible matchups, but says anything can happen.
“I get asked that question all the time now,” Hershman says. “What I take from being asked the question again regularly is that Manny, in his last performance, reclaimed his place as one of the most talented and exciting fighters in the sport today.
“Is it possible? I never rule out anything in boxing. I don’t know that they’re on a trajectory to fight each other in a way that makes sense for either side. Both sides have their options to make good fights and do strong, solid pay-per-view numbers. I don’t see (Mayweather-Pacquiao) happening anytime soon, but it wouldn’t shock me if it turned around at some point.”
Asked how it could work for the two networks involved, Hershman said, “Mike Tyson and Lennox Lewis found a way to make that happen (both networks carried that fight). Nothing’s impossible. But as I said, Manny has a number of really strong options for him, and he has to get through that April 12th event, and Floyd has to get through May (his most oft-mentioned opponent is Amir Khan). So they’re not fighting in that cycle. Lots of things can happen in the interim.”
Pacquiao’s Nov. 23 fight in Macao was a mixed bag for HBO. It generated only 475,000 PPV buys, less than half of what HBO had hoped for. Hershman blames it on the 13-time-zone difference and the difficulty of marketing the fight from China, with few U.S. media covering it.
“It’s sort of out of sight, out of mind. It’s very hard to create a sustained marketing attack on it,” Hershman said. “It was a learning experience for us. At the same time we don’t want to be in China with Manny Pacquiao or other major pay-per-view events too often. There’s too much pushback. April will be right back here at MGM Grand in Vegas.”
Pacquiao looked like the Pacquiao of old against Rios, which makes him a more-attractive PPV entity, and that’s a plus for HBO.
HBO’s relationship with Golden Boy, the sport’s biggest promoter along with Top Rank, suffered in 2013 as well, following Mayweather’s deal with Showtime. Golden Boy’s stable of fighters stayed away from HBO, except for Bernard Hopkins and Adrien Broner, who both fought in March on the network. Can that relationship be repaired, especially since the man who replaced Hershman with Showtime, Stephen Espinoza, was a former Golden Boy attorney?
“Hard to say,” Hershman says. “I think the world of what those guys have accomplished, and I think they’re tremendous promoters and have a very nice roster of fighters. But given our roster and all of the fighters we want to work with, I don’t know if that’s going to change. But we never say never.
“What I always tell people is this is a complete open shop. We work with 11 different promoters, and we’re really looking for shared vision, the best fighters, the best fights, the right economics, and a shared vision of how to allow HBO to invest and get a return on that investment. … who knows as we move forward who will be coming through the door next.”
Hershman touched on several other subjects during the 30-minute phone interview.
On how HBO’s broadcast team has done since analyst Larry Merchant retired this year: “I think they’re hands down the best in the business. They’re so knowledgeable, they’re so skilled at what they do, they have great chemistry together, I love working with them and I think they add so much to every one of our telecasts. That goes for Max (Kellerman), and Roy (Jones Jr.) and Andre Ward in his role, and Harold Lederman, and (former judge) Steve Weisfeld. I think we found a great set of analysts and commentators, and it just works. And you know when you tune in and hear those voices you’re going to see an important and exciting event.”
On the hit Legendary Nights: Gatti-Ward documentary: “It was a tremendous effort on the part of our creative team here who developed that project and brought it to life. Would we like to do more? Absolutely. We have to find the right complement of characters and story that can live up, frankly, to Gatti-Ward. There’s nothing in production at the moment but we are evaluating ideas and stories and fights that we can maybe expand the Legendary Nights brand. It’s great programming and we want to do more of it.”
On the current state of boxing: “I’m a fan, No. 1, and I think 2013 was the year of the fan. They got a plethora of amazing fights and saw a lot of characters in the ring and a lot of talent, and certainly on HBO, a lot of shoulder programming that supported all of that. It’s in the lexicon, it’s used every day in all these various media, and movies and television, and everyone refers back to boxing, and I think it will always be important. Whether it’s a niche sport or not, it’s a great niche for HBO. We don’t view it as a niche, we view it as the cornerstone of our sports programming.”
On the cold war between Golden Boy and Top Rank: “I don’t know if I agree with the premise that it’s damaged the sport too much. Certainly in the last year the competition has been tremendous, the fights have been great, there’s a lot of fighters getting good work and good fights, and there’s been no shortage of compelling events. There’s a lot of tough personalities, and I hope that (the cold war) does go by the wayside with time, but right now I don’t see it happening. But I’m an optimist. I’d like to believe that everyone can work with everyone for the benefit of, ultimately, the fans. Because that’s what we’re here for.”
On how he feels about a central governing body for boxing: “I don’t think it would hurt to have a bit more structure and organization in an independent central place. It’s just a question of how that gets configured and there’s a lot of different complexities in boxing that aren’t present in other sports. Ultimately, it’s two guys who have to agree to step through the ropes and fight each other. It’s a very individualistic sport, but I’m all for reforms that will improve the credibility and quality of the judging and the rankings that will lead to more legitimacy.”
On his push for instant replay for boxing. “I very much believe that we’re behind the times to take advantage of the technology we have available to us. And the idea is to get it right. Whether we apply it to only knockdowns, or whether headbutts were intentional, whether it was a punch or a headbutt that caused a cut, we can deliver that today, at least on all of the HBO fights, with a nominal added cost. I have not been able to get much traction with the commissions on that but I’m a proponent and I think it would be an important addition to what we do.”
On whether seeing former HBO fighter Adrien Broner lose his first career fight on Saturday shocked him: “Nothing in boxing really shocks me. I think he’s a very talented kid, but maybe 147 pounds isn’t the right weight for him. He’s a relatively small 147-pounder. I don’t think you’ve heard the last of Adrien Broner to be sure.”