HBO is getting out of the live boxing TV business after 45 years of televising some of the biggest events in the history of the sweet science.
With some 1,111 live boxing telecasts under its belt and one more fight telecast scheduled – the Oct. 27 Daniel Jacobs/Sergiy Derevyanchenko middleweight championship from New York – the pay TV service will walk away from the boxing ring at the end of the year. HBO and its pay-per-view arm TVKO/HBO PPV have been the home for some of the most memorable fights for nearly a half a century featuring some of the most iconic and successful fighters of all time, including Floyd Mayweather, Joe Frazier, Tommy Hearns, Oscar De La Hoya, Marvelous Marvin Hagler, Mike Tyson, Manny Pacquiao and Roy Jones Jr.
The influx of new fight distributors including streaming services like ESPN+ and DAZN coupled with declining ratings for live fights – HBO boxing telecasts, which once attracted as much as one-third of HBO’s subscribers, drew about about 2% of the network’s audience according to the New York Times – factored into the network’s decision.
I had a chance to speak to HBO Sports executive vice president Peter Nelson regarding the network’s departure from boxing as well as HBO’s future plans for sports programming.
Why has HBO decided to walk away from televising live boxing events?
We evaluate what we do consistently, and over period of time it's been indicated to us through our research that boxing is no longer a major factor for our subscribers. Our job is to take care of our viewers, and we listen to them. Storytelling is obviously intimately intertwined with our legacy in the sport and we'll never forget our roots. You're going to see a continued presence in boxing from a storytelling capacity, not least of which will be 2019's multipart series on Muhammad Ali directed by Antoine Fuqua that will come out in spring of 2019.
So when you say that it's no longer a factor for subscribers, is that based on ratings or are subscribers are actually telling you they don't want to see boxing on the network?
It's internal research that looks at a variety of metrics with a raft of different methodology in terms of approaching consumer habits and their interests. We've done a critical assessment of where we are and where we're heading into the future. As a caveat I should say that we still remain open to the idea that if there is a large-scale event that transcends the sport that we'd be open to having those conversations.
What role did the influx of new distributors of live boxing events like DAZN play in this decision?
I can tell you that it didn't inform our decision at all. Our decision was informed by where our viewers and our subscribers’ interests lie. We think it's great that there are other places for fans of the sport to find it, and if that creates more opportunities for fighters than we feel great about that.
Are you worried about losing some hardcore boxing fans as subscribers with this move?
From everything that we've seen in terms of our research department's understanding of the data we don't foresee that being the case. We believe that there's a great interest in storytelling in the categories of news and journalism like Real Sports; in reality like Hard Knocks, which is up double digits in viewership this season from last; like the Being Serena series on Serena Williams; in the conversation genre that has opened up for us with shows like The Shop featuring LeBron James; and of course in our documentaries that we produce entirely in-house.
Did the recent AT&T acquisition of Time Warner play a part in this decision?
All of our decisions from a programming standpoint have been made on the basis and the merit of how we feel best aligns with HBO. HBO Sports has made this decision and made the strategic shift based on what our own criteria is and our own definition of success.
You mentioned that HBO would be open to coming back to the sport for a big pay-per-view opportunity. Are there any matches in your mind that could prompt the network to step back into the live TV boxing ring?
I think we'd have to evaluate events on a case by case basis. Boxing is constantly shape shifting, and you can never predict based on what's happening in September what's going to be true in November. We're going to take it in stride and see what the future holds. We're obviously going to be continuing to have conversations; if there's a mega event to be had we would hope to be considered as one of the homes of it.
What is the legacy of HBO Boxing?
The legacy will continue to be defined as a living breathing part of what we've done and where we're going. I think the storytelling aspect of what HBO Sports has always been known for is intimately entwined with what we have done in the past in terms of humanizing fighters; in terms of allowing viewers to empathize not just with them but with the communities from which they have arrived on the scene from. As we look ahead that will continue to be true in the stories that we look to tell as we try to bring forth to our viewers stories that enrich their own lives and their view of the world.
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R. Thomas Umstead serves as senior content producer, programming for Multichannel News, Broadcasting + Cable and Next TV. During his more than 30-year career as a print and online journalist, Umstead has written articles on a variety of subjects ranging from TV technology, marketing and sports production to content distribution and development. He has provided expert commentary on television issues and trends for such TV, print, radio and streaming outlets as Fox News, CNBC, the Today show, USA Today, The New York Times and National Public Radio. Umstead has also filmed, produced and edited more than 100 original video interviews, profiles and news reports featuring key cable television executives as well as entertainers and celebrity personalities.