HBO all-in with new crop of fighters
Two years into his tenure as president of HBO Sports, Ken Hershman finds himself in charge of a boxing program in transition.
Since the 1970s, HBO has been the undisputed king of premium cable boxing, putting on the biggest fights year in and year out -- save for a handful of Mike Tyson fights in the 1990s -- and drawing the most viewers. But for the first time in its history, it was seriously challenged by rival Showtime in 2013.
The challenge was not necessarily in terms of viewers, because HBO still has a sizable advantage in subscribers (29.2 million to 22.8 million), which allowed it to rack up 21 of the top 25 most viewed bouts on cable during the year.
We want the most exciting fighters who can deliver and are willing to take on any comers and have personalities we think the fans will connect to.” -- Ken Hershman
But while HBO's viewership was essentially stagnant -- and even down 2 percent for its flagship series, "World Championship Boxing" (in part because three fights from Argentina, England and Russia aired live outside of the normal 10 p.m. to 11 p.m. prime-time sweet spot) -- Showtime's average viewership for its cornerstone series "Showtime Championship Boxing" was up 21 percent from 2012 and a staggering 59 percent from 2011, Hershman's final year running the show at Showtime before leaving for the HBO gig.
While HBO led in terms of viewership, Showtime had many of its most viewed fights. Critically speaking, Showtime had a huge year, offering numerous compelling bouts with some of boxing's most recognizable names, most of whom got their initial premium cable exposure on HBO.
And that brings us to the transition situation for Hershman, who spent much of the year breaking in a new crop of fighters for his audience to get to know, including middleweight titleholder Gennady Golovkin, light heavyweight champion Adonis Stevenson, light heavyweight titlist Sergey Kovalev, junior welterweight titlist Ruslan Provodnikov, junior lightweight titleholder Mikey Garcia and lightweight contender Terence Crawford.
The reason for the introduction of so many new faces was the defection of pound-for-pound king Floyd Mayweather Jr., who signed a 30-month deal for up to six pay-per-view fights with Showtime/CBS worth more than $200 million, and Hershman's decision to jettison Golden Boy Promotions, with whom the relationship soured, from the network.
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Under Hershman's watch, HBO also has taken a beating on pay-per-view. For many years it was the undisputed king, a position it ceded in 2013 because of Mayweather's defection. HBO put on just two pay-per-views (Manny Pacquiao-Brandon Rios and Timothy Bradley Jr.-Juan Manuel Marquez), far fewer than usual, and those bouts combined to sell about 865,000 units for approximately $50 million in revenue.
Showtime put on two Mayweather fights, against Alvarez in September and Robert Guerrero in May. Together they generated more than 3 million buys and more than $200 million in revenue, with Mayweather-Alvarez setting the PPV money record with $150 million in revenue.
Whether it was spin or just a positive attitude, Hershman expressed satisfaction with the year HBO boxing had, despite the storm clouds.
"I was thrilled with the way 2013 played out," Hershman told ESPN.com this week in a wide-ranging interview. "We accomplished a number of things. One of the most important things was we got our big stars back on the network, Miguel Cotto, Andre Ward, Julio Cesar Chavez Jr., Sergio Martinez, and Pacquiao returned rejuvenated [on pay-per-view]. That's hugely important."
Hershman was also pleased with what he called the "accelerated" advancement of television-friendly action fighters Golovkin and Stevenson (three 2013 appearances apiece) and Kovalev and Provodnikov (two apiece).
"The growth there was spectacular," Hershman said. "We nurtured them and have put them in position to be in significant fights in 2014. We got what we wanted and then some. We saw the audience respond with their eyeballs. All had significant viewership and helped us maintain our leadership position.
"We want the most exciting fighters who can deliver and are willing to take on any comers and have personalities we think the fans will connect to. That, coupled with working with promoters and fighters who value being on HBO, made us comfortable investing in those fighters. We couldn't be happier in the development and where we're headed with them."
Hershman addressed a number of other topics. Here's a look at what he had to say:
Golden Boy sent packing
Hershman severed ties with Golden Boy early in the year and made Top Rank his primary fight supplier. He said the network grew tired of being put into a bidding war with Showtime for Golden Boy's fights, demands for specific dates and a take-it-or-leave-it approach to matches. Still, Hershman didn't rule out a return to doing business with the company, but he has no immediate plans to do so.
"I think that they're a terrific promotional entity with terrific fighters," Hershman said. "I have a lot of respect for what they've accomplished. I also believe we have to be able to get a return on our investment and be on the same page with our partners. It wasn't the case with Golden Boy. I feel very good about where HBO boxing sits heading into 2014, and maybe some of these new attractions wouldn't be as far as along as they are now if we had continued [working with Golden Boy].
"What we have to do is play our game, which is invest in fighters that are going to return the investment to the network and have a regular schedule and lead to fights that are significant. If you can't be comfortable, you have to move in a different direction. I don't ever rule anything out. I'm open-minded [about doing business with Golden Boy], but we worked with 11 promoters in 2013. We think it's the right approach -- open door, open phone. We're willing to talk to anyone."
When Ross Greenburg, Hershman's predecessor at HBO, lost Pacquiao for one fight to Showtime in 2011, it was a major reason he ultimately lost his job and was replaced by Hershman. Hershman has effectively lost Mayweather, a bigger pay-per-view draw than Pacquiao, for the rest of his career and watched him shatter the PPV money record HBO once held for Mayweather-Oscar De La Hoya. But Hershman brushed off the notion that losing Mayweather was damaging to HBO and his own employment at the network.
"[Mayweather-Alvarez] was one night, one event," he said. "[Showtime] should be proud of that accomplishment. Floyd's a big star. I appreciate that. But we're focused on HBO. We tried to keep him, but at what cost? We turned that page and continue to do great things.
"Everything goes through transitions. You can't change the past, but we put forth a very strong proposal [to keep him]. We thought it was the right decision for our company. Floyd thought differently. That's life in professional sports."
So what about the prospect of an eventual Mayweather-Pacquiao fight, still the biggest in boxing?
"I can't predict that future," said Hershman, adding that he is asked about the fight a lot more now that Pacquiao has rebounded from his 2012 knockout loss to Marquez. "That I am getting that question more now signifies to me that Manny is back in the equation, and that's refreshing. We saw a revitalized Manny in the Rios fight and he has some big fights available to him, but what those fights are, he will make that decision with his promoter [Top Rank's Bob Arum]."
Fight of the year
"I think for me Bradley-Provodnikov stands out," he said. "I loved Froch-Kessler and Rios-Alvarado and Barker-Geale, but I thought Bradley-Provodnikov offered what fight of the year should be about -- guys at the highest level being taken to places they've never been taken to, wild swings in momentum, taking your body to places you've never taken it to. Tim had to dig deeper than he ever had to. He did it and it was dramatic, and it was dramatic the way Ruslan performed."
A big fight for Golovkin
"What you have with Gennady and [K2 promoter] Tom [Loeffler] is that they are willing to fight whoever you want, at 160, 154, maybe 168. We have a number of possible opponents," Hershman said. "There's Martinez, Ward or maybe fighting Stevenson if there are weight accommodations."
Golovkin will fight in Monaco off HBO on Feb. 1, but he is due back on HBO in April, when his opponent could be Kirkland or Geale, Hershman said.
Stevenson vs. Kovalev
With the investment HBO has made in Stevenson and Kovalev, the most formidable and exciting light heavyweights, the drum beat has begun for them to fight each other, especially after both scored exciting knockouts on a Nov. 30 doubleheader. Count Hershman as someone who wants to see their showdown.
"Everyone wants to see them against each other. That's what we're working on now," Hershman said. "We're fans here. We want to see the same fights that most of the fans want to see. We will do everything we can to make that happen. Whether it's next or the one right after that, that's a priority for us, a goal. We're pretty confident we'll be successful. I'm a believer in when the fight is there, let's get it done."
What about Ward?
Ward, the super middleweight champ, is one of the best fighters in the world, knocked off course only by injuries that have limited him to just one fight in each of 2012 and 2013. He's also in his second legal battle in trying to free himself from a contract with promoter Dan Goossen.
He returned from his latest injury in November to rout Edwin Rodriguez. Now it's time for a bigger fight, Hershman said.
"He should be seeking out the biggest fights possible. I understand coming off the injury and layoff that he wanted to see how the shoulder would hold up," Hershman said. "You want to test it against a credible guy and see. We did that. I think Andre would say, 'Now I'm ready to take on the biggest possible names in the sport.'"
Ward has already wiped out the super middleweight elite, meaning he needs a challenge from a top middleweight coming up or to go up to light heavyweight.
"Going to 175 is more fertile territory," Hershman said. "There are big fights there for Andre, but maybe there will be a surprise or two before he goes to 175."
As for the litigation between Ward and Goossen, Hershman said he didn't want to be in the middle of it. Ideally, he said, Ward would be back in the spring, but it depends on the lawsuit.
"We hope they resolve it quickly and it doesn't interfere with Andre's schedule," Hershman said. "I think fights against Kovalev, Stevenson, Golovkin or the winner of the [Jan. 18] Jean Pascal-Lucian Bute fight would be great. I want to see him challenged by the best opposition out there. When you're that good you need those challenges to keep building your brand, but it's not easy to get people to take that challenge."
HBO has not done much in the heavyweight division in recent years other than an occasional Wladimir or Vitali Klitschko title fight and some Seth Mitchell fights before the Golden Boy prospect flamed out.
Now there is a concerted effort, Hershman said, on making sure there is at least some regular heavyweight action on the network. He said he is interested in future Klitschko fights as well as developing Mike Perez, who will make his second appearance on Jan. 18, and Bryant Jennings, who will make his HBO debut Jan. 25. A fight between them is something Hershman envisions eventually.
"I think the heavyweight division can drive a lot of interest in boxing beyond the hard-core fan, but it's a struggle," he said. "I think we're on to a few guys. We'll test the waters with them and see what happens. There's Perez, Jennings and we also like this kid Andy Ruiz. We'll see how they do, take stock and see if we can develop that weight class a little better."
As for champion Wladimir Klitschko (Vitali essentially retired this week), Hershman said he hasn't had any discussions yet regarding his next fight but will consider it.
"I'm big fan of Wladimir and Vitali as boxers and as citizens of the world. They are great people," he said.
Perez's Nov. 2 fight on HBO resulted in a serious brain injury to opponent Magomed Abdusalamov. While declining to get into details, despite being pressed, HBO spokesman Ray Stallone said the network has assisted with his medical bills.
"We're praying for him every day, paying close attention and trying to help," Stallone said.
"I hope it gets done," Hershman said. "I think it would be the standout fight of the first half of the year. We are keeping our fingers crossed that [the promoters] can bring it to closure and get it announced. It's perfect for both guys. They can both make a lot of money, both come in thinking they can win the fight, and we know both fighters' styles will make this an all-action fight. I look forward to sitting there ringside June 7 if they can pull it off."
Rigondeaux, a two-time Cuban Olympic gold medalist, is a polarizing junior featherweight champ who beat 2012 fighter of the year Nonito Donaire on HBO in April. Rigondeaux's skills are sublime, but his fights lack excitement and drama. HBO had to be cajoled by Arum into putting him back on the air against former bantamweight titlist Joseph Agbeko on Dec. 7, and it was an all-time snoozer.
Do not expect Rigo back on HBO any time soon, especially after the Agbeko fight registered a puny rating and was outdone by one of the undercard fights.
"I'm very torn, I have to say. I was expecting more from him," Hershman said. "This is one where you listen to the fans. The fans voted by turning off the channel. At the end of the day we're a TV network, and we have to please our subscribers. If they're not interested, we have to respect that. In the right match maybe there will be another opportunity, but it's not something getting done in the near future. I have tremendous respect for what he does, but it's not something our subscribers responded to."
Hershman brought back Emmy Award-winning documentary series "Legendary Nights" in 2013 with a special on the Arturo Gatti-Micky Ward rivalry. It was perhaps the finest boxing-related feature HBO Sports has ever produced, and it was a ratings and critical success. Hershman said he hopes to do more episodes in the future.
"We loved the way that one came out, but it's hard to find as compelling a story as that one," he said. "I'd love to do more of them. We're looking at it, but I can't promise when."
"They've done a good job," Hershman said of his former network. "We have to do our thing. Other networks will have moments of good events and programming, but it doesn't detract from what we're doing. Anything that helps boxing is to HBO's benefit. My view is, let's have another great year in '14."
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