HBO DECIDES TO DROP BOXING FROM THEIR NETWORK
New York, NY (September 27th, 2018)– After 45 years, more than 1,000 fights and some of the most lucrative and controversial matches of all time, HBO is throwing in the towel on professional boxing.
What started with a monumental upset seen by a relative handful of customers — George Foreman’s knockout of the heavyweight champion Joe Frazier in 1973 — will come to a close at the end of 2018. Currently, the network has no boxing broadcasts scheduled beyond a middleweight title fight at Madison Square Garden on Oct. 27.
Peter Nelson, the 37-year-old executive vice president of HBO Sports, made the announcement that the new network was dropping boxing Thursday morning in a meeting with the HBO Boxing production staff, a group that includes the play-by-play announcer Jim Lampley, the analyst Max Kellerman, the ringside scorer Harold Lederman and the former boxing champions Andre Ward and Roy Jones Jr., who work for HBO as freelance commentators. Of the announcing staff, only Lampley is expected to remain with HBO.
“This is not a subjective decision,” Nelson said in a recent interview. “Our audience research informs us that boxing is no longer a determinant factor for subscribing to HBO.”
The decision cuts against a recent influx of investors and broadcasters into boxing, and amid a much wider availability of fights on a variety of digital platforms.
“I think it’s a great time for boxing and to be a fight fan,” said the British boxing promoter Eddie Hearn, whose promotional company, Matchroom Boxing, recently signed a $1 billion deal with DAZN (pronounced “Da-Zone”), a new digital platform, to televise fights over the next eight years.
DAZN represents the next wave of boxing programming. Its streaming service will cost $9.99 a month and be available through the internet and smartphone apps. DAZN made its debut last Saturday with a heavyweight fight between England’s Anthony Joshua and Alexander Povetkin before 80,000 fans at London’s Wembley Stadium. According to Hearn, a million fans watched Joshua’s victory on DAZN’s various platforms.
In August, ESPN completed a seven-year deal with Top Rank to present 54 boxing shows on its various outlets, including its ESPN+, its subscription-based streaming service. And Showtime, whose fights were once used as a feeder system by HBO, presented 22 live boxing events in 2018. It says it has committed to “a more robust schedule for 2019.”
Add in the four-year deal signed earlier this month between Fox Sports and Premier Boxing Champions, which controls many of the sport’s top performers, and it appears that others are getting into the fight game just as HBO is getting out.
That may have more to do with HBO than it does with boxing. In the 1980s and 1990s, viewers were drawn to the network by marquee boxing matchups featuring Marvin Hagler, Sugar Ray Leonard, Oscar De La Hoya and especially, Mike Tyson, who headlined 16 HBO telecasts. More recently, according to Nelson, viewers now list original programming such as “Game of Thrones” or the recent HBO Sports series “Being Serena” — a five-episode reality series that chronicled Serena Williams’s marriage, pregnancy and return to tennis — as their reasons to subscribe.
Other than the biggest fights, boxing has recently struggled to penetrate the mainstream sports discussion.
“There’s plenty of boxing out there,” Nelson said. “But what we have not seen is a lot of signature destination fights.”
When a 20-year-old Tyson became the youngest heavyweight champion in history by knocking out Trevor Berbick in 1986, he did it on HBO. His upset loss to Buster Douglas in Tokyo was an HBO fight. So was the June 1990 fight between Meldrick Taylor and Julio César Chávez that was halted controversially with only seconds remaining. Other memorable fights — Hagler-Leonard, Hagler-Thomas Hearns and Leonard-Hearns — were HBO-produced closed-circuit telecasts that were later replayed to huge audiences on HBO.
Such bouts sometimes attracted as much as one-third of HBO’s domestic subscriber base, which was roughly 15 million people at the time. Now, that base is roughly 40 million, but according to Nielsen, HBO boxing telecasts in 2018 averaged about 820,000 viewers, or about 2 percent of the total audience.
The most widely-watched live bout on HBO of 2018, a middleweight title fight between Gennady Golovkin and Vanes Martirosyan, drew 1.3 million viewers. But a super-flyweight bout presented as an HBO main event on Sept. 8 peaked at 349,000 viewers, making it one of the lowest-rated boxing matches in HBO’s history.
That decline in viewership, apparent for the past several years, was the final straw for Nelson. Boxing was no longer a profitable investment for HBO; last April’s Andre the Giant documentary, for example, drew about seven million viewers at a much lower cost than the $1.5 million to $3 million generally required to produce a boxing match.
“Because of our association with boxing, people forget that we’re not a sports network,” Nelson said. “We’re a storytelling platform.”
Some episodes of “Game of Thrones” garner audiences in the tens of millions. And HBO Sports has high expectations for “The Shop,” a recently-launched talk show set in a barbershop produced by and starring LeBron James.
HBO’s only association with boxing in 2019 will be a two-part documentary on Muhammad Ali, with James serving as the executive producer. Still, the prospect that HBO would soon be out of the boxing business seemed unthinkable to some industry insiders.
“As someone who helped contribute to building their boxing legacy, it would be heartbreaking to me,” said Lou DiBella, an HBO vice president during the network’s boxing heyday and now a promoter.
Nelson left the door open for a possible return to the ring one day after the network’s final scheduled bout next month: a middleweight fight between Brooklyn’s Daniel Jacobs and Sergiy Derevyanchenko. A heavyweight showdown between Joshua and Deontay Wilder, for example, might tempt HBO, he acknowledged, if only for one night.
“I’m still a fan of boxing,” Nelson said. “If there is a destination event, absolutely we’re in that conversation.”
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