HBO’s increasingly detached relationship with boxing culminated Thursday in the premium cable network announcing it will broadcast its final bout next month.
The move, following a separation from powerful boxing promoter Top Rank last year and the end of contracts with popular middleweights Canelo Alvarez and Gennady Golovkin following their Sept. 15 pay-per-view clash, allows HBO to compete more directly with the streaming services Netflix and Hulu on a wider range of entertainment options. HBO plans on moving more toward storytelling and less on live events.
“This decision has been a shift, not a result of where we stand in other places in boxing, but directionally where we feel the direction is in HBO Sports,” said Peter Nelson, HBO Sports’ senior vice president. “We had the fight of the year -- the No. 1 pay-per-view event, eight of the top 10 highest rated premium-cable fights. You could say our vibrancy in the sport is as strong as ever.”
Yet, since the departure of Floyd Mayweather Jr. from HBO to rival Showtime in 2013 and the loss of ties to powerful manager Al Haymon’s impressive stable, HBO’s role as the sport’s king broadcaster has sharply waned as competitors have risen.
Veteran promoter Bob Arum sensed the end and moved his stable last year to ESPN and its streaming service ESPN Plus, and Haymon recently announced a deal that will place 11 fight cards on Fox, with pre- and post-fight shows, starting in 2019.
“It’s a shame to see a brand so synonymous with the sport of boxing leave,” said English promoter Eddie Hearn, whose former middleweight champion Daniel Jacobs will meet Russia’s Sergiy Derevyanchenko Oct. 27 at the Madison Square Garden theater in HBO’s final card.
“Ultimately, they lost their desire to fight on in a marketplace that is going to be ferocious in the next 12 months. If you don’t have the pockets or the appetite in this climate, then you can’t be a major player and I can understand their decision. They have done an amazing job for the sport.”
At HBO, audience research revealed declining interest in boxing, Nelson said, including a notably low ratings figure for the Sept. 8 “SuperFly 3” card at the Forum.
“We’re proud of our legacy in boxing. The sport is in a better place because of HBO’s presence in it. We have a tremendous heritage to point to in regard to the road map we provided on how to humanize these fighters and their communities … that aspect of storytelling is one we look to continue,” Nelson said.
“There’s more ample opportunity for fighters across different platforms than ever before. As a fan of the sport, I think that’s great.”
Nelson didn’t slam the door on a future return to boxing if a bout generates widespread appeal among casual sports fans, but in moving toward projects like a new Muhammad Ali documentary, LeBron James’ “The ‘Shop,” and the NFL reality series, “Hard Knocks,” he closed a 43-year live-boxing era that opened with the George Foreman-Joe Frazier 1973 heavyweight fight.
He informed his HBO talent of Jim Lampley, Max Kellerman, Harold Lederman, Roy Jones Jr. and Andre Ward in a Thursday morning meeting.
Lampley will continue to work for HBO, saying, “I am motivated and prepared to support storytelling initiatives in the sports department,” while the others are expected to pursue other opportunities.
Arum hailed HBO’s unbelievable contribution to boxing,” but called its exit “inevitable.” He said he anticipates that ESPN will stage bouts with other promoters, including Golovkin’s, Tom Loeffler, who could bring his “SuperFly” series to the network.
“Our mission is to put the best fights on, whoever the promoter is,” Arum said.