HBO plans to ramp up Championship, After Dark cards

Ross Greenburg has heard the message loud and clear, and now the HBO Sports president promises to do something about it by "significantly ramping up" boxing coverage in 2006.

Greenburg, who oversees boxing on HBO and its $40-million plus annual budget, knows that by HBO's historical standards, 2005 was a less than stellar year for the cornerstone franchise of the premium cable network's sports division.

The criticism of Greenburg has centered on one key issue: That HBO's live fights have featured too many big names in mismatches -- Floyd Mayweather vs. Henry Bruseles, Mayweather vs. Sharmba Mitchell and Fernando Vargas vs. Raymond Joval, to name three of the most oft-cited offenses -- while virtually every attractive match was shifted to its pay-per-view arm, where fights typically cost between $40 and $50. That's in addition to the monthly HBO subscription fee, which is another $10 or $12.

Magnifying HBO's drop off in quality is the dramatic improvement made in the past 18 months by rival Showtime, which offered such compelling non-pay-per-view fare as Ricky Hatton-Kostya Tszyu, Zab Judah-Cory Spinks II, Jean-Marc Mormeck-Wayne Braithwaite and Diego Corrales-Jose Luis Castillo I, the lock fight of the year.

Although Greenburg wouldn't acknowledge Showtime's gain as part of the reason for his renewed commitment to boxing -- "We don't tend to look at our competition" -- he said he is committed nonetheless, and planned to bring more top bouts to HBO instead of pay-per-view in 2006.

"We don't ever want to do a crappy fight on HBO," Greenburg said, while hosting a recent breakfast for about a dozen boxing writers.

''We intend to refocus our commitment to the sport," he said. ''We're really determined to pick up the pace and focus on the sport and help prop up the fighters. We want to go back to our roots on the production side and do more features where we get up close and personal with the fighters. We want to try and bring their stories to life. We want to take young stars like Jermain Taylor, Floyd Mayweather and Miguel Cotto and project their image to the public."

Greenburg said part of the plan to improve the quality of live HBO bouts is an increase in the 2006 budget and an expansion of its two boxing series, World Championship Boxing and Boxing After Dark.

WCB, the high-profile series which begins its 34th season with Arturo Gatti vs. Thomas Damgaard on Jan. 28, will expand to as many as 14 broadcast dates in 2006, up from 10 this year.

Boxing After Dark, the late-night series with a long history as a breeding ground for future stars such as Gatti and Marco Antonio Barrera, is entering its 10th season. The series had just five cards in 2005 but will go monthly beginning in April.

Because of the increased number of shows, Greenburg will hire a new broadcast team for Boxing After Dark to replace Jim Lampley, Larry Merchant, Emanuel Steward and unofficial judge Harold Lederman. Lampley, Merchant and Lederman will continue on WCB, and Steward will move to that series to share the analyst role with Roy Jones Jr. All five will continue to work on HBO PPV events.

The new Boxing After Dark crew has not been named yet but former ESPN2 Friday Night Fights studio analyst Max Kellerman, who has been working on HBO PPV events, is expected to be part of the series, and is being groomed as an eventual successor to Merchant.

"Boxing continues to be a passion for those of us at HBO Sports," Greenburg said. "More important, our subscribers are extremely dedicated fans of the sport, and we're committed to presenting even more action and drama in 2006 across all the major weight divisions of the sport."

Greenburg's refocused philosophy is immediately being put to the test, as HBO is in the process of trying to work out a deal to keep the Hasim Rahman-James Toney heavyweight title fight off pay-per-view so it can air live on HBO March 18.

"The sport needs big fights live on the network to reach the masses," Greenburg said, noting that HBO's ratings for boxing trail only those of original series such as "The Sopranos." "That's a statement. We're not the savior of the sport, but we love it. We're gym rats. We love a great fight."

Todd duBoef, the vice president of promoter Bob Arum's Top Rank, agrees that it is important for some major fights to be offered minus the pay-per-view price tag.

"In our world, HBO is the biggest platform for any fighter right now," he said. "With their 35 million homes, there is no other platform to get that kind of exposure. So it's pivotal to building a superstar, which helps make our business stronger.

"There is a direct relation I believe to a fighter's performance on HBO and their appeal to the general public. Case in point -- Miguel Cotto fought three times this year on HBO and was voted [Hispanic] fighter of the year by Fox Espanol, with over 1 million online votes. If all of those fights were on pay-per-view, a much more limited audience would see him."

Arum, who has regularly been at odds with Greenburg in recent years, has expressed a desire to do Rahman-Toney on HBO instead of pay-per-view as well, hoping to reinvigorate the heavyweight division by giving HBO's subscribers a chance to see a marquee fight without having to pay extra for it.

"The best thing is to get the biggest possible audience for a fight like that so the audience can see a great fight and so we can build Rahman up," Arum said. "The way to do that is by having people see him so they can fall in love with him."

Greenburg said one of the ways to keep quality matches on HBO instead of pay-per-view is to convince the fighters and their promoters to take a little less money in the short term in order to dramatically increase their exposure by being on HBO. He said that, in turn, would translate to much bigger bucks for a true pay-per-view-worthy fight.

"That's important to us. But we need help from the promoters," Greenburg said. "They need to think long-term, not just the short term of the next fight. We feel if we can get these guys into millions of homes and not only show them fighting but tell the public their stories, we can reach out to the masses and build new stars. If we can convince promoters and managers and the fighters to leave $500,000 on the table to set up a much bigger fight on pay-per-view, the whole sport would prosper.

"'I'm tired of reading articles saying boxing is dying. It's not, but it's time for us to put our money where our mouth is and do what we do best as storytellers. We want to show the that this sport is ready for a rebound. We know the market is there. We're not saying we're the saviors of the sport, but we love a great fight and we know sports fans do, too. I see the sun starting to peek behind the clouds."

Dan Rafael is the boxing writer for ESPN.com.