HBO Boxing Raising Its Game in High-Stakes Battle with Showtime

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HBO Boxing Raising Its Game in High-Stakes Battle with Showtime
Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

For years now, HBO has maintained its edge as the premier distributor of top-flight boxing programming in the United States.

But after pound-for-pound king Floyd Mayweather ditched longtime television partner HBO in February to sign an exclusive six-fight megadeal with Showtime, many critics argued it would mark a dramatic shift in boxing’s long-reigning paradigm: Showtime is big, but HBO is bigger.

It’s easy to see why. After all, according to Kurt Badenhausen of Forbes.com, Mayweather was raking in copious amounts of revenue for the cable network giant:

This marks a huge loss for HBO. Mayweather’s nine HBO PPV events generated 9.6 million buys and $543 million in television revenue, according to the network. Mayweather has been part of the four biggest non-heavyweight PPV events in boxing history. With the recent struggles of Manny Pacquiao in the ring, Mayweather is the undisputed king of PPV.

Mayweather’s defection turned out to have even more startling consequences.  The month after he moved to Showtime, Badenhausen reported the relocation also effectively ended HBO’s dealings with Golden Boy Promotions:

The agreement sent shock waves through the boxing world, as Mayweather became boxing’s pound-for-pound king and highest-paid athlete in the world fighting for 14 years exclusively on HBO and HBO PPV...The fallout from the decision was felt yesterday when HBO announced that it would no longer buy fights from Golden Boy Promotions, which is the largest promoter in the U.S. Golden Boy has promoted Mayweather’s recent fights in conjunction with Mayweather Promotions.

According to Michael Woods of TheSweetScience.com, the rift between HBO and Golden Boy had been building for a while:

A source at HBO told me that the two parties are not on the same page strategically. It has been simmering for a year or so, I'm led to believe, with HBO not being pleased at seeing talent they've nurtured then being brought across the street to be showcased.

HBO Sports president Ken Hershman told Woods it was simply a matter of choosing to work with more agreeable business partners:

In order to achieve our goal of the best fighters in the most compelling matchups we've decided to focus our efforts and resources on those strategic relationships where we better share common goals and business philosophies.

Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sport
Mayweather isn't boxing's only star.
Luckily for Hershman and company, one of those “strategic relationships” was with Bob Arum’s Top Rank promotions. As long as Top Rank is around, HBO will remain viable.

Top Rank’s bevy of stars includes Manny Pacquiao, Juan Manuel Marquez, Nonito Donaire and Timothy Bradley. Up-and-comers Mikey Garcia and Guillermo Rigondeaux will likely soon become top-level pound-for-pounders, and roughnecks like Brandon Rios and Mike Alvarado provide the kinds of spills and thrills that boxing fans adore.

Moreover, Top Rank has gone through considerable effort to expand its horizons to a global level. Saturday’s bout between Pacquiao and Rios will take place in Macau, China, which gives the company a good opportunity to showcase 2013 signee Zou Shiming on the undercard. More importantly, it gives Top Rank a foot in the door for more international fights and international fighters.

And that’s the trend, isn’t it? Top Rank seems to think so. According to ESPN.com’s Dan Rafael, Top Rank’s recent bagging of 2012 middleweight silver medalist Esquiva Falcao from Brazil is just the latest in a marked move toward internationalism:

Falcao, who turns 24 on Dec. 12, is the latest 2012 Olympian to sign with Top Rank, which has landed four of the 10 gold medalists: Russian heavyweight Egor Mekhontsev... Ukrainian featherweight Vasyl Lomachenko (a two-time gold medalist) and Chinese flyweight Zou Shiming, who owns three Olympic medals (gold from 2008 and '12, bronze from '04).

But HBO doesn’t put all its eggs in one basket. The television network has also maintained solid working relationships with other world-class promoters, including DiBella Entertainment, Main Events, K2 and others.

Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports
Golovkin is a rising star.
This gives HBO opportunities to showcase fighters like middleweight champ Sergio Martinez, light heavyweight star Sergey Kovalev and heavyweight kingpin Wladimir Klitschko. And don’t forget about Gennady Golovkin, a middleweight who’s fast becoming a megastar.

Still, HBO does have work to do. According to Mlive.com’s David Mayo in February, the network as a whole has lost its subscriber lead over Showtime over the past 10 years:

A decade ago, the numbers were about 32 million for HBO subscribers and about 14 million for Showtime.  Showtime now has more than 18 million subscribers, while HBO's base has dwindled some.

And the Mayweather effect is real. According to CBS-BottomLine.com, Showtime has cut the gap even more since:

...Showtime Networks Inc. has become a leader in the premium cable and satellite television network business, increasing its revenue and subscriber numbers substantially despite intense competition from HBO. Showtime now has about 23 million subscribers and an estimated cash flow of roughly $900 million compared to $32 million in 1995...

Bloomberg’s Cliff Edwards reports that HBO has maintained “about 28.7 million” subscribers, which means the gap between HBO and Showtime is smaller than ever.

Still, the competition that Showtime has provided seems to have brought the best out of HBO, at least when it comes to boxing. HBO is putting on solid fight cards and featuring a wide range of boxing talent from all over the globe. The network has raised its game. 

Frankly, that’s good for HBO, Top Rank, and everybody else in the world of boxing.

Kelsey McCarson is a boxing writer for Bleacher Report and TheSweetScience.com. Follow him @KelseyMcCarson. 

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