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HBO: The fans are there, they're just waiting for quality fights

With reduced programming and ratings on the skids at boxing's biggest network, marquee match-ups are a must.

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Wil Esco is an assistant editor of Bad Left Hook and has been covering boxing for SB Nation since 2014.

HBO has been the main staple for championship level boxing for as long as I can remember, but the network is currently on pace to hold 20% fewer fights than it did just three years ago, reports the LA Times. Some will argue that the sport is dying, leading major network carriers to shift their focus to other programming. But at least some executives believe the sport is simply in need of better fights on a more regular basis to make up for a lack of true superstars to carry casual interest.

"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."

There's little question that 2016 has been a pretty poor year for the sport of boxing. HBO's fight ratings are down 10% this year and it looks like the need for cross-promotional fights is as important now as it's ever been. No longer are fans willing to shell out for lopsided in-house fights that are convenient for promoters. Fans just want to see the best fight the best. Simple.

Thus in an effort for his long-term vision for boxing at the network, and while operating with a reduced budget, HBO Sports vice president Peter Nelson says his strategy is to maximize value to consumers when deciding on which fights they'll purchase. Nelson insists that they'll put up the money for the right fights -- even if that puts them over budget.

"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."

Yet by and large fans haven't been getting what they want - clearly leading to declining interest in the sport. But is boxing actually losing its fans? Nelson doesn't think so, he believes they're just lying in wait.

"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."

So as HBO is in the midst of planning its 2017 budget, one has to ask: will next year be any different? Boxing, unlike most other professional sports, is so disjointed that bringing together all parties with conflicting interests is simply a herculean task. The networks can't do it themselves - nor can the promoters, managers, or fighters. But it's pretty clear that something has to change otherwise all who are invested in the sport will invariably suffer.

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