The Real War: HBO and Showtime Battle for Boxing's Future

Jonathan Snowden@JESnowdenCombat Sports Senior WriterJanuary 17, 2014

Sep 14, 2013; Las Vegas, NV, USA; Floyd Mayweather Jr celebrates after defeating Canelo Alvarez by a majority decision at their WBC and WBA super welterweight titles fight at MGM Grand Garden Arena. Mandatory Credit: Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports
Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Spor

In 1979, Larry Holmes, a talented heavyweight doomed to spend a career in Muhammad Ali's lingering shadow, created a seismic event that rocked the boxing world to its very foundation. It was a paradigm shift that changed the way boxing was promoted and televised. But it had nothing to do with a much-lauded megafight or any excitement Holmes managed to generate when he wasn't busy yelling at the press and glowering.

Quite the opposite. Larry Holmes' title defense that June against Mike Weaver was supposed to be a joke. 

"Not many people had heard of Mike Weaver and even fewer cared," is how Dave Anderson put it in The New York Times (subscription required). All three broadcast television networks agreed. Once the home of big-time boxing, they wanted no part of Holmes, especially in what was widely considered a tuneup match.

It was a decision that came back to haunt them. Not only was the fight much closer than anticipated, but a fledgling outfit called Home Box Office swooped in to steal the fight for just $150,000, providing their then-meager audience of just two million viewers a heck of a fight on the cheap.

It was the start of a revolution. Almost from that moment forward, HBO has led the way, becoming the home of boxing in America. From Holmes to Marvin Hagler and Thomas Hearns, from Mike Tyson to Floyd Mayweather and Julio Cesar Chavez to Oscar De La Hoya, the biggest stars in the sport have all plied their trade on HBO.

In many ways, to many people, HBO was boxing.

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The State of Boxing

HBO seems to be hearing footsteps. A slight movement of air, a tingle on the neck. That's Showtime, and it is coming forward with a full head of steam.

"It was a steady build, and then it became a crescendo," Showtime announcer Al Bernstein told Bleacher Report. "For a period of time, six or seven years, we had really good fights. But in the last two years, clearly, the influx of resources and support to the boxing program and Showtime Sports in general—things got kicked up a notch. It has allowed Showtime to play on a slightly higher level."

Long HBO's little brother, both in boxing and generally in the premium cable space, Showtime is aggressively pursuing an ever-increasing share of the market. As HBO's subscriber base has stagnated at around 30 million, Showtime's has grown remarkably, approaching close to 23 million according to industry sources.

In the last two years, Showtime's boxing ratings are up 61 percent. That increase still doesn't favor it in a head-to-head comparison with HBO. With its advantage in subscriber base, big budget and long history as the best place to see the top fighters in the world, HBO still had all five of the top pay cable boxing fights of the year to its credit.

HBO's Top Three Fights of 2013
Miguel Cotto vs. Delvin Rodriguez10/51.555 million
Julio Cesar Chavez Jr. vs. Bryan Vera9/281.416 million
Gennady Golovkin vs. Curtis Stevens11/21.410 million

"At the end of the day, it's about the quality of the fights you put on and how the audience responds," HBO Sports president Ken Hershman said. "And by any means you measure, this was a fantastic year for HBO boxing. We had quality fights, and the ratings reflected it. The fans loved the shows, and we launched a bevy of new stars into the sport."

But for the first time since Tyson made a brief post-prime pit stop there in the 1990s, Showtime is in the ballpark, competing with HBO for talent, fights and fans—and gaining significant ground. And it all starts with the man at the top, general manager of Showtime Sports and event programming Stephen Espinoza.

Tom Casino/Showtime

Once an attorney for Tyson and then Golden Boy Promotions, Espinoza had been at the heart of some of boxing's biggest events. But he was also a huge fan, a perspective he relied on to make some sweeping changes in how Showtime approached its boxing schedule when he took over for a departing Hershman in 2012.

"We had a clear, decisive strategy from the outset," Espinoza said. "One of the first meetings we had after I started the job, a meeting with our entire sports and event department, I said, 'If we are going to fail, I want us to fail spectacularly. We are going to go in the direction I feel is right.'

"If we were wrong, it was going to be one of the most spectacular flame-outs in television. If we were right, we were going to gain a lot of ground very quickly and become the go-to network for boxing."

The first step Espinoza assigned his core team was finding a group of fighters to focus on. Rather than a scattershot approach, flip-flopping weight classes and divisions in a desperate search for a star, Espinoza chose to key in on fighters between 140 and 154 pounds. That created a number of diverse matchups, and the company went about building stars the old-fashioned way—in competitive, exciting fights.

"Stephen Espinoza came in and said, 'I don't want mismatches. I don't want squash matches anymore. I need to put the best of the best together,'" Showtime's new boxing play-by-play man Mauro Ranallo said. "Look at what has happened as a result in the entire sport. It's been amazing."

Here Comes the Money

Of course, Showtime was on this track in 2012 as well. Back then, no one was considering the idea that Showtime was competing head-on with HBO.

A single fighter changed that perception. In 2012, HBO led the way on cable and on pay-per-view. But when Floyd Mayweather signed a six-fight, 30-month contract with the promotion in February 2013, Showtime became the industry leader in pay-per-view overnight.

While HBO still features the top pay cable fights, Mayweather's record-breaking bout with Canelo Alvarez in September 2013 outsold HBO and Showtime's other PPV shows combined, making Showtime an immediate force.

Mayweather's arrival was a signal that Showtime was playing for keeps.

A month after Mayweather's signing, Golden Boy Promotions joined him after HBO officially announced that it would no longer work with the sport's biggest promoter as it strip-mined HBO of fighter after fighter like Amir Khan and Canelo. The final breakup between longtime partners brought Adrien Broner and Bernard Hopkins, an HBO mainstay, into the fold as well.

Showtime suddenly had all the tools to build a year's worth of great fight cards. Instead of carefully matched snooze-fests, designed to keep a prospect undefeated rather than entertain a crowd, Espinoza wanted to go for the knockout.

"Establishing that core group and getting them to buy in and sign on to the project was critical," Espinoza said. "We sold them on the fact that we were going to elevate the whole sport by broadcasting tough fights.

"In that way, Mayweather provided a bit of a model as well. Mayweather didn't have to fight Canelo. He could have fought anyone he wanted. But when Mayweather, who is choosing his opponents, chooses arguably the toughest opponent available, it's easy to say to everyone else, 'There are no easy fights here.'" 

Contrary to his reputation as a hard-to-work-with and arrogant diva, Espinoza says the real Mayweather is a consummate professional, happy to work with the network to get things just right.

"It's no coincidence that Floyd both cooperates with all the network and press requirements and understands what they need and that he has become the biggest star in the sport. Those two go hand in hand," Espinoza said. "Whether it's a promo shoot or marketing, shaking hands and kissing babies, he has been an absolute professional. He's done everything we've wanted and more. It's been a smooth process throughout the year. And that's not something I necessarily expected given his public image."

A perfectionist in the ring, the kind of detail-oriented fighter who outsmarts every opponent and would be happy to come out of every fight without a single mark on his body, it should come as no surprise that Mayweather shows the same attention to detail in the pre-fight promotion. His performances on reality shows like All Access are legendary.

However, it's the little things he does, Espinoza says, that make a Mayweather event special.

"Before every pay-per-view, we put the fighters in front of the camera and do what are normally really boring lines: 'Watch my pay-per-view on DirecTV.' Then, 'Watch my pay-per-view on Dish.' They have to do one for all the distributors," Espinoza said.

"Most fighters will go through, do two or three takes of each one and they'll move to the next one. Floyd is the only guy, in my experience, when the director has said, 'That's good enough,' he said, 'No, no, no. Let me do it a couple of more times. I want to try something else.' And then he does the Mayweather version of it. A smoother version of it. What you see as the viewer at home is a more polished presentation."


The Sleeping Giant

In some ways, the fate of its most popular fighter in December 2012 was a bad omen for HBO's 2013. Manny Pacquiao got caught by a punch he never saw coming and ended up face-down on the mat against Juan Manuel Marquez. HBO took a similar blow, losing Mayweather and Golden Boy to Showtime and watching Pacquiao lose a bit of his luster to age and a tumultuous lifestyle.

Like Pacquiao, HBO got up, brushed itself off, and went right back to work.

"It was a great challenge for us," Hershman admitted. "But we met it head-on. Because we had given a lot of thought to fighters we were working with and where they were going and fighters we wanted to work with, we were able to keep our position without any fall-off."

It was a rebuilding year of sorts for the company, by necessity more than by choice. Losing a handful of headliners in one fell swoop called for no small amount of creativity, and HBO was able to turn to a dozen different boxing promoters to find some of the world's most compelling unsung fighters.

Ken Hershman
Ken HershmanCourtesy of HBO

"I think they were waiting for the opportunity, and they embraced that challenge and the opportunity for their fighters," Hershman said. "And I think it was reflected in what they were willing to do and what we were able to put on. It worked for everyone."

For the first time in decades, HBO was left without the excess of headliners the network had come to take for granted. Rather than plugging stars into available dates and watching the money come pouring in, Hershman and his team had to take on an emergency mission—star creation.

It's something Hershman says the company is very proud of. Though its flagship program World Championship Boxing was down slightly, in part because of fights from overseas airing outside of prime time, for the most part HBO weathered the series of blows from Showtime and held its ground.

"One thing we're very proud of is that Sergey Kovalev, Gennady Golovkin and Adonis Stevenson weren't on HBO before this year in essence in any major way," Hershman said. "So we needed to expose the audience. We knew how talented and dynamic they were, in and out of the ring. But our audience didn't yet know that. Now we've done that and all these fights are sitting there, and now it's just a question of economics and doing the hard work behind the scenes to make them happen."

HBO's star-building efforts, however, fail to mask what may be a deeper problem—a lack of marquee fights.

Pacquiao's bout with Brandon Rios underperformed on PPV, and stars Andre Ward and Julio Cesar Chavez Jr. took warm-up matches rather than competitive bouts.

The contrast between Showtime's compelling matchmaking in its money class and HBO's failure to make the most of its deep talent pool in and around middleweight is stark. A series of bouts between Chavez, Sergio Martinez, Golovkin and Ward would create a deafening roar of excitement in the boxing world.

But in part because of competing promotional interests, the divisions remain stagnant despite the vast talent occupying the same network at the same time.

HBO's vice president of pay-per-view, Mark Taffet, argues that isn't something HBO can control.

"That's up to promoters, managers and fighters to decide," he told Bleacher Report. "That's not a network issue. That's not our role. Our role is to produce and televise on HBO and to deliver the best, most competitive and entertaining fights we can to the HBO subscriber base."

Hershman contends that the work done creating new headliners in 2013 will pay major dividends this year. Everyone agrees that boxing creates the most excitement when the best fighters in the world meet in the middle to touch gloves and come out swinging. That's exactly where Hershman hopes to find his top stars in the new year.

"We have to deliver on the expectations, which are very high and rightfully so. Coming back with these elite fighters in very compelling matchups. We've found some fighters whose style is very, very compelling. It's our job to buy those fights between those fighters who will make a very compelling fight in the ring. If we do that month after month, we'll be fine," Hershman said.

But he also conceded fights that make sense are never a sure thing in boxing: "It's one of the most difficult parts of boxing. It's unlike other professional sports that have schedules and conferences and divisions, where you know who(m) you are playing and it's all set up. It doesn't matter who gets hurt—the game goes forward in the march toward the NBA Finals or the Super Bowl.

"We have a lot of moving parts and competing interests. You have to work behind the scenes to get everyone in rooms to talk about what their interests and expectations are. You hope that the partners you are working with share your vision about how their fighters should progress. What the upside and downside is for any fight.

"One of the things we stress, and this helps get fights made, is that we don't really care who wins and loses. We just want great fights. And the losers often come out winners. Just ask Ruslan Provodnikov. Just ask Mike Alvarado. Just ask Brandon Rios. (These are) guys who have been in tremendous fights who have enhanced their career prospects even when losing fights."

For now, while Showtime looks to push breakout stars like Canelo and Broner onto PPV, HBO seems content to continue focusing its attention on its subscriber base rather than the pot of gold over the PPV rainbow.

"This is a big change from years past," Taffet said. "Fights of that magnitude would have been on pay-per-view, but we've made a conscious effort to put them on premium television instead."

"I think pay-per-view is certainly an effective tool, and we use it where necessary. But our focus has to be the HBO subscribers," Hershman said. "That's why we're so proud of what we accomplished this year. We were able to bring fighters like Miguel Cotto and Sergio Martinez and Wladimir Klitschko and Tim Bradley onto HBO and give our subscribers the ability to see and enjoy their work. Anytime we can do something on network, rather than pay-per-view, that's what we want to do.

"Pay-per-view as a tool is there in the right circumstances. With fighters like Manny Pacquiao, where the economics dictate it, it's nice to have it. Our infrastructure is second to none, and we take advantage of it very well. But our focus is on HBO."

The Future

Despite the occasional mainstream story about boxing's impending death, the sport is on very solid ground.

"This is the best year boxing has had in 25 years as far as product in the ring," Bernstein said. "I'm very proud that Showtime has been a big part of it. It's given people like me a lot to talk about."

HBO's tremendous finish in 2013, closing out its boxing calendar with 11 fights in 12 weeks, was a promising sign of what is to come. And Showtime's budding star Broner, despite a loss to Marcos Maidana, proved that he can attract an audience. It's an exciting time for both companies.

"I'm enjoying this like nothing I've ever been involved in. Every month, every event, there's been a highlight. Regardless of the so-called 'cold war,' the fight cards on both channels have been amazing," Ranallo said, comparing the battle to a wrestling war that propelled competing wrestling promotions to record ratings.

"It's been like the Monday Night Wars between WWE and WCW. It produced the best ratings and the best content because of the intense competition. I'm hoping that the same happens here, that the fights that need to happen get made."

Although both sides are playing relatively nice in public, behind the scenes tensions are beginning to simmer, especially on the HBO side, where there is the perception that Showtime is succeeding with talented fighters built by HBO television.

"I don't think we've ever compared ourselves to them," Hershman bristled when asked about an email outlining HBO's dominance in the ratings and specifically comparing the two networks. "We're just explaining what we're doing and how we're performing.

"I always say that any attention on boxing and high ratings is beneficial to HBO and we're going to benefit from that. We think it's great for the sport. It's good for the sport and it's good for the fans. We're very proud of what we've accomplished, and we don't denigrate what anyone else is doing. We don't criticize what anyone else is doing. We are very focused on hitting our marks."

The public relations battle they've initiated to retain their place at the top of the boxing pecking order suggests otherwise, hinting that HBO is keenly aware of Showtime and the reigning perception that it is now in the catbird seat.

The company's relationship with Golden Boy, once the apple of HBO's eye, was placed off-limits in our discussion and, in over an hour of conversation with top HBO executives, they never once said the word "Showtime." "Other networks" was the description of choice. 

But simply wishing the competition out of existence won't work. If HBO wants to stay on top of boxing, it'll have to meet Showtime in the virtual ring and slug it out.

May the best network win.

Jonathan Snowden is Bleacher Report's Lead Combat Sports Writer and the author of Total MMA: Inside Ultimate Fighting. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes were obtained firsthand.

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