Tuesday, January 31, 2012
New HBO boss gets grilled over lunch
By Michael Woods
I had more, far more, interaction with new HBO Sports boss Ken Hershman at a Tuesday lunch at HBO headquarters than I ever did with the man who ran the previous regime, Ross Greenburg.
I dare say that might be a good thing. ...
First things first, though: I'm not out to bury Greenburg, who after running the show from 2000, was requested to resign, and did so last July. He was, and is, an immensely talented fellow who did some fine things in the boxing department at HBO Sports. But apparently his bosses didn't care for some of what was happening there in the last couple years or so, and this is why Hershman, who ran the boxing at Showtime prior to his landing at HBO, is in the seat that had belonged to Greenburg.
In the hour-and-a-half session attended by fightwriters representing Sports Illustrated, New York Daily News, Newsday, The Ring and other respected media outlets, Hershman showed himself to be a down-to-earth guy, mellow, politically adept, able to slip and duck tough questions with Mayweather-esque aplomb. And he gave us some hints about what we will see on HBO in the coming months and likely the years ahead, as well as some references to what went awry at HBO prior to his arrival. (For more on that, you'd be advised to track down some Thomas Hauser clips. The man has inspected HBO and its boxing division with a proctological thoroughness.)
Hershman, a Long Islander who is a lawyer by trade, started off at Viacom and transferred to Showtime in July 1992. By October 2003, he was asked to run Showtime Sports. He is now in his fourth week at the other cable powerhouse, and came off as a humble sort who is looking to get his footing, fit in and not give the impression of a Bigfoot know-it-all seeking to advertise his power by napalming existing departments and installing his own crew. This manner, I admit, appealed to me, as I don't care for the Trump-style know-it-all exec who is all cocky bluster or cold, ruthless functionary.
There were a couple of notable or semi-notable takeaways for me from this lunch. As I said, Hershman struck me as a skilled politician, one who isn't prone to being a loose cannon or a juicy interview, and he didn't look to score points or make the media his pals by offering delicious dirt or sexy soundbites. But he did subtly make a point of noting that HBO paid too much attention to its pay-per-view arm before he arrived, at the expense of its "regular" boxing programming. More than a few times, Hershman repeated his desire to "get the best boxing I can on HBO."
I could be wrong, but I do believe he also sent out a message to promoters that his regime will seek to be much more forthcoming when dealing with promoters about how and why fights are being bought. He talked about being "transparent," "open," and "honest," and that speaks to some issues that certain promoters had with the previous regime -- that deals were made seemingly based as much on relationships and familiarity as opposed to sound business practices or the appeal of a particular matchup.
Hershman also took pains to make clear that he doesn't crave the Floyd Mayweather Jr.-Manny Pacquiao bout -- "I'm over it," he said, alluding to the decade of flirtation between the two -- and, in fact, suggested that the fighters would be wise to hook up before they reach their "sell-by date." And when is that date, I inquired? "By the end of this year, you want to see these guys in the ring together," Hershman said. "Maybe early next year ... after that, it gets less and less relevant."
He struck down the notion that this fight needs to get made to save the sport. "That's hyperbole," he said.
It was nice to hear the big bossman voice an opinion roughly in line with what many, if not most, fans think about the situation. I hoped to hear more of that everyman thinking when I beseeched Hershman not to engage in counter-programming, calling for the scheduling of overlapping dates to diminish the impact of the competition's presentation. I'd like to see HBO and Showtime fight hard for the best bouts, because that spirited competition is good for the fans, but for them to agree to play nice when it comes to portioning dates. To stage events on the same night, at the same time, has always struck me as small-minded and silly. Hershman agreed that it's best to avoid overlapping dates, but said that it does happen because there isn't an infinite amount of Saturdays.
Folks who believe HBO airs too many showcase bouts designed to build a prospect up to a name, to a contender, to a star and finally to a PPV driver, might be a bit disappointed. Hershman said a few times that he likes to follow a several-fight focus plan for athletes, and that might well include the sort of fights that a Gary Russell has taken part in recently, fights in which he is the far-and-away favorite. Me, I think we all can understand some of that, but should have to tolerate far less than we've been subjected to in recent years.
I approached Hershman after lunch, shook his hand and wished him well. "You're the most powerful man in the sport now," I said, tongue somewhat in cheek. "Good luck. Do well."
He played off the "most powerful" designation, again showing a likable degree of humility. Hey, if the man books more pick-'em fights than we've seen in recent years, frankly, he can act as imperiously as he likes. It's the quality of the fights that matter. I'm hopeful the Hershman reign will be a rewarding for fans, who have for too many years paid too much for too little. The sport could use it, and the fans deserve that.