Analysis:: HBO’s boxing position emphasizes importance of improved fight quality

Terence Crawford punches Viktor Postol during their fight on July 23.
(Steve Marcus/Getty Images)

HBO’s challenging environment in staging boxing cards this year could wind up enhancing the sport.

In Saturday’s Los Angeles Times, it was detailed how the premium network is on pace to stage almost 20% fewer fights than it did just three years ago as it transitions from the Floyd Mayweather Jr.-Manny Pacquiao era to a new crop headed by Canelo Alvarez and Gennady Golovkin.

“The network has been cutting back because there are fewer new bankable stars,” said a former HBO executive, who asked not to be identified because he was not authorized to comment. “Without big marquee names, the economics are terrible.”


Ratings are down 10% on HBO fights this year as the network has been saddled with some lopsided duds, including separate obligation fights involving light-heavyweight champion Sergey Kovalev in Russia and Andre Ward in Oakland leading to their Nov. 19 pay-per-view

The tightened screws on the boxing budget mean Peter Nelson, the executive vice president of HBO Sports, isn’t as eager as in prior regimes to waste money on fights few want to see in the first place.

And the situation also forces promoters who’ve shown resistance to cross-promotion – starting with veteran Top Rank promoter Bob Arum – to knock down the walls and work to create the best fights possible, not just the best in-house bouts possible.

Without big marquee names, the economics are terrible.

— A former HBO executive

Such is the case with Arum’s incredibly gifted super-featherweight champion Vasyl Lomachenko, who was remarkable in his June knockout of Roman Martinez but doesn’t yet have another fight scheduled because Arum hasn’t proposed anything too appetizing.

Arum’s unbeaten junior-welterweight champion Terence Crawford, who was assigned to a disappointing, 50,000-buys pay-per-view in July, is also in a holding pattern.

The network’s “license fees [which are used for fighter purses] reflect the available programming we’re being presented with,” Nelson told The Times in an extended conversation Friday before Alvarez’s Saturday pay-per-view knockout of Liam Smith in Texas.

So Nelson has sought to maximize the value of the fights he stages, leaning on the knowledge of the sport and contacts he’s built with fighters and handlers gained as a former freelance writer and while at HBO, able to point to the hard numbers of ratings and pay-per-view buys to support his decisions.

Getting the right people together in boxing’s “Balkanized” landscape can be “like herding cats,” Nelson conceded, but he insisted he will spend for the right bouts.

“When we have an opportunity to expand our portfolio,” and purchase fights that might exceed the budget, “it does happen,” Nelson said. “For us, success is always defined as, ‘What does the viewer get out of the product?’ We’re in this long-term. I know that.”

That position could be tested this fall because Golovkin (36-0, 33 KOS) faces a mandatory title defense from co-World Boxing Assn. champion Daniel Jacobs, who fights for Showtime-aligned manager Al Haymon of Premier Boxing Champions.

Haymon pays his fighters well, so the license fee for a non-pay-per-view bout on HBO will be steep.

Vasyl Lomachenko does a backflip after knocking out Roman Martinez on June 11.
Vasyl Lomachenko does a backflip after knocking out Roman Martinez on June 11.
(Frank Franklin II / Associated Press )

Some savings emerged Monday, however, when Alvarez was found to have suffered a fractured right thumb in his Saturday knockout victory over Liam Smith, scrapping Alvarez’s planned non-pay-per-view fight on HBO on Dec. 10 from Madison Square Garden.

HBO is in the process of crafting its 2017 budget.

Beyond the possible boon of an Alvarez-Golovkin pay-per-view showdown in September 2017, there are fights such as the likely action bout between super-featherweights Orlando Salido and Takashi Miura and anything involving unbeaten new super-flyweight champion Roman “Chocolatito” Gonzalez that qualify as justified investments.

“Our strategy as a team is to work with our partners to make the best fights the fans want to see,” Nelson said.

“We believe in terms of architecting success by ensuring we can provide the best possible fights for whatever talent is out there who want to be the best. That’s how you step toward greatness. That’s what fans want.”

What about the alarms of the decreased ratings?

“That might speak to the quality of fights being offered these days, but that doesn’t mean the fans have evaporated,” Nelson said. “They’re there, waiting for the quality fights to be made, waiting for the fighter’s representatives to step up and take the risks necessary to get the fans to show up and watch.

“We work in partnership with fighters and representatives and try to stay in tune where their careers are heading. Ultimately, if you aspire to greatness, you have to assume risk, take chances and be the fighter willing to take the game-winning shot every single round. If you’re not that fighter, then you’re not the right fighter for us.

“The top pound-for-pound fighters want to fight the best, and fighting on HBO is part of that.”