2011 is starting off with an in-ring whimper, in my view, but a business bang. The news that Manny Pacquiao's May 7 fight with Shane Mosley will not be with HBO PPV, but instead with Showtime PPV in association with CBS, has really shaken up the perception of HBO as basically the default No. 1 promoter in boxing in the United States.
"There were a lot of warning signs on Pacquiao, but HBO missed them because the guys there don’t have their ear to the ground. By the time they woke up to the problem, it was too late. And there’s an arrogance. It’s like, ‘We’re HBO. We can buy what we want. We’re too big to fail.’ But when they can’t get what they want by throwing money at people, they have no idea how to deal with the situation. Look how helpless they were when they tried to make Mayweather-Pacquiao."
"Ross [Greenburg] and Kery brought this on themselves,” says Arum. “They’re not bad people but they’re in the wrong jobs. Ross is a producer, not a television executive. Kery has no feel for boxing and cares less. And they don’t treat people with respect. Look; I know what HBO has done for Top Rank over the years. If Ross had treated me differently, it would have been very hard for me as a matter of personal loyalty to bring Manny to Showtime and CBS.
--Bob Arum (Thomas Hauser's piece at SecondsOut.com)
While technically HBO is not a promoter, of course, the fact is that without TV, who really is a major promoter? And Bob Arum's Top Rank and the Oscar de la Hoya/Richard Schaefer-led Golden Boy Promotions may be able to do a lot of things, but they can't really televise without networks backing their play, and to get those networks to back their play, they have had to have one of two things:
1. The right connections, or
2. The right fights.
The idea has been rumbling for a while now that it's a lot more number one than number two. For those who think HBO took some hard stance on the quality of Pacquiao-Mosley and declined to pick up the fight, you're kidding yourselves. Go back to Shane Mosley's last fight with Sergio Mora, which was carried by HBO PPV. After a miserable main event between the two that ended in a groan-worthy draw, HBO commentators Jim Lampley and Larry Merchant were on live, high definition TV in my living room, all but begging me not to give up on Shane Mosley as an attraction. They tried to convince a friends-and-family paying audience of diehard boxing fans that they hadn't actually just seen what they did, that Shane Mosley was still the fighter who provided so many highlights and great fights for the network, and that Mosley deserved another super fight.
Well a super fight came. Golden Boy is not in Mosley's corner anymore. Sugar Shane left the firm, where he was a shareholder and one of the original Big Four of the company with Oscar, Bernard Hopkins and Marco Antonio Barrera, to strike out on his own and land a fight with Pacquiao, promoted by Top Rank. He did that because he had to, as the two biggest American promotional companies in existence (and it's not close with the rest of the lot, either) are back to their childish cold war and not pitting their fighters against each other, as was the case for years. Between October 2007 and the summer of 2009, we saw some fun stuff. It was a nice couple of years of the companies working together.
HBO is now in a position where they do not have the sort of major fights that are going to draw interest. I know a few of you believe that they're better off with this, but trust me, they're not seeing it that way privately, even if someone says they are publicly. They do not want to miss out on a Pacquiao fight. Manny Pacquiao could be fighting Barrera for a third time in his next outing and it will make more money than anything currently on the HBO schedule. That's a cold, hard reality. I know diehard boxing fans are interested in Tim Bradley-Devon Alexander, maybe in Sergio Martinez-Sergiy Dzinziruk, and that some of you can live without Pacquiao-Mosley and Cotto-Mayorga.
That's a fine stance to have as a hardcore boxing fan, but the hardcore boxing fan is not truly the target audience. Todd duBoef of Top Rank has taken a great role in the company and started to do some things where he's truly looking to expand the boxing audience. How do you do that? With more exposure to the mainstream. And another reality is, HBO seems lazy about a lot of things these days. Like the quote above, there seems to be a belief that they're HBO, the No. 1 game in town, and Showtime or anyone else can dabble in boxing, but when time comes, the stars all come here, and the biggest fights all come here.
For years, it has been true. It's not anymore. Even if you want to talk about fights purely for fight fans, does the current HBO lineup really beat what Showtime has on tap? Their bantamweight tournament is going to produce two more good fights (Agbeko-Mares, Darchinyan-Perez), the Super Six has Ward-Abraham and Froch-Johnson in the semis, they've got Lucian Bute under contract strictly to fight the other top 168-pounders in the world, and before he can, they'll pay to have him fight the likes of Brian Magee. This is an investment with a clear objective in mind, and one that seems reasoned and logical. We're not talking about HBO's heavy investment in Andre Berto, which has gone nowhere, or HBO's heavy investments in the likes of Victor Ortiz, Alfredo Angulo, Cristobal Arreola, etc., all of which also really went nowhere. They got one money fight out of Arreola (Vitali Klitschko), and are now refusing to deal with Angulo, and have watched Ortiz's bubble burst after overpaying for weak fights.
With Pacquiao off to Showtime and Mayweather on the sidelines, HBO's top draw at this point is probably Juan Manuel Marquez, and if my hunch is correct, that's not going to last the year, either. But my hunch depends on something else, and this can't be ignored. As much as I might sound anti-HBO and rah-rah-Showtime right now, there is a big hurdle to jump.
They have to convince the public at large to care about Pacquiao-Mosley.
I think they can. You've probably gathered recently that my opinion of the public at large is not incredibly high. This is an American public that makes things like "American Idol," "Real Housewives" and the Kardashian sisters big stars. This is an American public that is happy to accept mediocrity or worse as long as it's presented with good production values. You can convince them that Snooki is interesting. A highlight reel of Manny Pacquiao isn't going to be hard to get over. And if you think that the general public doesn't crossover to sports in that way, then I say look at the stunningly popular New England Patriots of the last decade, LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, and UFC. The last one could be crucial, and this is not a real knock on UFC or its fans, but when you ignore the apparent MILLIONS of people who claim they've been watching since UFC 1 (which explains the great financial success of the UFC over its formative years, of course), you come to the conclusion that the company was eventually marketed right by very smart guys, and that's when it became a commercial force. There's no reason boxing can't have at least one fighter who can again create a legitimate legion of fans, and not just pique the interest of SportsCenter twice a year.
Manny Pacquiao can be that fighter, that ambassador for boxing. And if Showtime and CBS are impressed with the results of their Pacquiao-Mosley grab, then finally, an ambitious set of TV people are going to get behind boxing again. HBO seems to have boxing because HBO has always had boxing. Showtime seems to have turned a corner behind Ken Hershman where they have boxing because they believe in it, and they've also shown support for mixed martial arts with Strikeforce, which I think is important. Clearly, that network sees something more than HBO does in boxing right now. I think that's obvious to anyone paying attention.
This could also serve was a wake-up call at HBO, and could potentially be the nail in some coffins over there. With Showtime/CBS apparently ready to present real competition by actually grabbing fights featuring major names, HBO could do any number of things. They could panic and heads could start rolling, which leads God knows where. They could do their usual and throw money at the situation, offering an essentially unmatchable sum of cash for the next Pacquiao fight, and maybe work out some deals with Turner Sports to expand the scope of their boxing coverage. Or they could possibly start scaling back and regrouping, which in the long run might be the best thing. And that might also mean heads will roll.
Right now, the opening shots fired in this new war have been big blasts from Showtime. You might not think much of the competitive potential of Pacquiao-Mosley or Cotto-Mayorga, but you can't ignore the possible long-term effects of those fights going to Showtime instead of HBO, or instead of an independent Top Rank-produced pay-per-view. Showtime has announced that they're here to be the No. 1 boxing network in America, and not just little brother anymore. That's a big, big first step.
And if you don't believe that a fight like Pacquiao-Mosley can be the major change, I again point you to the Hauser article at SecondsOut, where he notes that in 1979, it was ABC passing on Larry Holmes v. Mike Weaver that gave HBO a big opening to take the lead.
To be quite honest, this is the most exciting thing that has happened in boxing in quite a long time. This isn't just a fight. This is a landscape-changing event that affects all future major American fights.