Thursday, August 31, 2017

On Top Rank, ESPN and HBO

I.

Last Saturday, boxing played a featured role for three of the largest North American media companies. Showtime (owned by CBS) presented the Floyd Mayweather-Conor McGregor pay per view (PPV), which will wind up being one of the top-two PPVs of all time. ESPN (Disney) made a significant announcement, entering into a four-year agreement with Top Rank to broadcast a minimum of 16 fights per year. HBO (for now owned by Time Warner) televised a live boxing card headlined by Miguel Cotto, who was once one of the biggest stars in boxing.

The day presented an interesting juxtaposition. From my perspective it seemed that one of the companies was busy dominating boxing's present; another announced a bold foray into the future, while the third remained stuck in the glories of the past. Clearly, HBO didn't win the "wow factor" of the day. Now, of course, one can always cherry pick dates and times to present facts in a certain way, and it should be noted that HBO stands to televise a very successful PPV on Sept. 16 between Saul Alvarez and Gennady Golovkin. The network also has an impressive junior bantamweight card on Sept. 9. 

Still, one can't avoid the current trajectories of the boxing business. For decades, HBO was the gold standard of the sport. Featuring the biggest names and many of the best fights of the past 30 years, HBO was the dominant force in American boxing. Its overwhelming success in building and promoting boxing stars essentially forced its competitors out of the PPV business. In short, HBO was the boxing glamour network. 

Recently, change has been afoot in boxing. Floyd Mayweather's migration to Showtime created an important beachhead for that network. And although HBO still averages higher boxing ratings than Showtime does, by many measures Showtime's performance and, perhaps more importantly, its commitment to boxing have made it a significant player in the sport. It's not that Showtime is a newbie in the fight game, but now the network has the relationships (specifically with influential boxing manager Al Haymon) and the corporate commitment from CBS to provide a truly compelling boxing product.

II.

Top Rank's decision to partner with ESPN wasn't made in vacuum. Over the years HBO has routinely slashed its boxing budget. According to multiple sources, HBO's boxing budget in the 1990s was routinely north of $60M. One former executive at HBO said that one year it surpassed $80M. Today, rumors in the industry place that number closer to $30M. On the surface, that's a quite a drop, but it's even worse than it appears at first glance. 

Let's assume that HBO's budget in 1997, 20 years ago, was $60M, a nice easy number to play with. Sixty million 1997 dollars would equate to $91M 2017 dollars using an average inflation rate of 2.17% (which was the average inflation rate in that 20-year period). So in essence, HBO's $30M commitment today is a third of what it was in the late '90s. That's quite a steep decline. 

I must state that the purpose of this piece isn't an anti-HBO screed. HBO runs a business. A very profitable one. According to Time Warner's 2016 annual report, HBO made $5.89B (yes, billion) for that year including a profit of over $1.9B. HBO now makes up 20% of revenue for Time Warner. 

So it isn't that HBO is some sort of failing enterprise. On the contrary, it has become one of modern media's true success stories. One must remember that 25 years ago, there wasn't The Sopranos, Sex in the City or Game of Thrones. Back then, HBO essentially was a movie channel that also had live sports, specifically boxing. Without the existence of much original programming, boxing was a major draw for the network. 

In time, HBO achieved such staggering success with its original programming that boxing played more of a subsidiary role. It should also be noted that boxing ratings aren't what they were two decades ago (however, hardly any programming matches its ratings from past generations, when there were far fewer media and entertainment choices). 

Over the last two decades, a gradual downward spiral has occurred regarding HBO's boxing ratings and its corresponding budget. HBO World Championship Boxing once routinely topped two and three million viewers per telecast; now the series doesn't consistently crack one million. It's a chicken-and-egg scenario. Was the drop in ratings a rejection of the sport by HBO subscribers or did HBO's reduction in its boxing commitment erode the quality of its product, leading to poorer ratings? The answers to these questions are challenging and complex but the realities of HBO Boxing's ratings and budgets are clear.

In addition to the gradual whittling away of its boxing budget, other economic headwinds are hurting HBO's commitment to the sport. In October, 2016, AT&T made a successful offer to buy Time Warner. The deal, valued at the time of the announcement to be over $85B (source: Wall Street Journal Oct. 22, 2016), is still under regulatory review by various government agencies. Although both parties hope that the deal can be formally approved by the end of 2017, there are still some significant hurdles before the acquisition is finalized. 

So what does the acquisition mean for HBO Boxing? Here's more from Time Warner's 2016 Annual Report in a heading that describes the business risks of the AT&T-Time Warner acquisition on page 23:

"[P]arties with which the company has business relationships may delay or defer certain business decisions, seek alternative relationships with third parties or seek to alter their present relationships with the Company."

In short, Time Warner realizes that business-as-usual may be interrupted during the acquisition. Certain business units may not see their budgets grow as the company waits in limbo. Other important aspects of the company's operations, such as content acquisition, partnerships, capital expenditures, marketing and hiring, could also be curtailed during this period.

Thus, as Top Rank needs television dates for its stable of fighters, HBO, for a variety of reasons, might not be its ideal partner at the present time. Who knows what will happen to HBO Sports if AT&T assumes control of the company? Do the new owners retain the existing executives at HBO or do they install new people? Will AT&T believe that boxing helps HBO's position in the marketplace? Will boxing even be a part of HBO's programming? In this current climate, Top Rank's search for a safe haven makes perfect sense. 

III.

ESPN has had a mercurial presence in boxing over the decades. In the '80s and '90s, the network partnered with Top Rank on a successful weekly series. At one point in the '00s, ESPN broadcasted live boxing twice weekly. It has long been said in the boxing industry that if ESPN wanted to dominate the sport, it could. But for some reason, the network never wanted to. Over the years, ESPN faced a similar downward spiral with its Friday Night Fights series, devoting fewer resources to programming and seeing a precipitous decline in its ratings. 

Despite various ebbs and flows, the network has always kept a toehold in boxing. However, in the latter years of Friday Night Fights, ESPN essentially quarantined boxing to its Friday night ghetto. The network didn't do much to publicize the series. Start times were often juggled and significantly delayed. Rarely was boxing integrated with SportsCenter or other ESPN programming. In conversations with former ESPN executives, boxing was seen as difficult to attract advertisers even though its ratings had been more than respectable. 

Over the last few years, ESPN has shown a renewed interest in the sport. Al Haymon's PBC series flipped the business model of boxing. In the past, ESPN had to acquire content; now Haymon & Co. were paying ESPN to broadcast fights. However, that marriage was short-lived. The quality of PBC cards on ESPN lacked consistency. Eventually Golden Boy Promotions approached ESPN with a new deal that featured a series of club level fights and access to its bigger fighters for promotional appearances on the network. Through the first year of their new agreement, the ESPN/Golden Boy deal seems to be satisfying both parties. 

The Top Rank/ESPN pact further grows the network's boxing programming. Top Rank insists that the deal will include its biggest fighters, such as Pacquiao, Lomachenko and Crawford. In addition, Top Rank will be sharing its valuable fight library with ESPN, which will certainly become a nice plum for ESPN Classic and the new ESPN stand-alone streaming service that begins in 2018.

The network and its related properties have access to the general sports fan that is unsurpassed in the current media landscape. Highlight and debate shows provide a constant reinforcement of the top sports stories of the day. After ESPN's successful broadcast of the controversial Pacquiao-Horn fight, the network spent dozens of hours in the subsequent days debating the Horn victory. That type of publicity is hard to duplicate in any other media setting.  

ESPN is clearly the North American sports leader but recent media trends have shattered its bulletproof position in the Disney empire. More consumers continue to "cord-cut," giving up their cable packages. Acquisition costs for sports leagues have become astronomical, cutting into ESPN's margins. The network executed a significant round of layoffs early in 2017. 

IV. 

Watching HBO's broadcast of Cotto-Kamegai, it struck me that an end of an era has occurred in boxing. This isn't to say that HBO Boxing is on its deathbed or that the network will no longer be a factor in the sport. However, there exists the very real possibility that HBO will televise fewer and fewer big fights in the coming years. This is our loss. 

No network has a better broadcast than HBO. The network has always treated boxing, on-air, like a valuable property. Its commentators are well researched and prepared. HBO broadcasters never thought of boxing as a moonlighting or secondary gig, a sport to call in the downtime between other higher-profile endeavors. No, Jim Lampley, Larry Merchant, George Foreman, Emanuel Steward, Max Kellerman and Roy Jones were always right where they wanted to be – in the thick of boxing, calling big fights for passionate fans. 

And it's not just the on-air talent. HBO Boxing was such an innovative enterprise. Its advances in the presentation of boxing are too numerous to list fully, but here are some: the incorporation of punch stats; the use of translators to describe the conversation in the corners; the integration of an unofficial scorer – not just to announce the score itself but why a fight should be scored the way it is; the graphics that demonstrate where punches are thrown among the head and body. Honestly, there are a dozen of these innovations that now have become a basic vocabulary for fight fans. HBO Boxing didn't just televise the sport, it also educated generations of their viewers. On Saturday's broadcast, HBO incorporated a new statistic – how often a fighter was advancing vs. retreating. What a fascinating concept, one that has many implications in how we view fights and their scoring. 

In addition, HBO Boxing has the best production values. Its deep focus and high definition cameras are unmatched to my eyes. Its lighting makes the presentation look truly cinematic. Camera angles and cuts are expert. 

But there are also simpler pleasures in the HBO broadcast: the way that Jim Lampley will cut out for 30 seconds here or there just to take in the fight, the encouragement of differing opinions from its commentators, the real brotherhood between the HBO announce team. One can tell how deeply all of the players admire each other. These aspects of boxing will surely be missed if HBO plays a reduced role in the sport. The other networks may have compelling fights or boxers, but they don't come close to surpassing HBO's mastery of the boxing broadcast. 

V.

With 16 shows a year from Top Rank and more than a dozen annual dates from Golden Boy, it might be time for ESPN to make some strategic investments in boxing. The quality of its production pales in comparison to HBO's and Showtime's. ESPN Boxing's cameras and lighting don't necessarily do the sport justice. ESPN's producers and directors make some bizarre camera angle choices during fights, often showing an overhead view which serves little purpose. 

In addition, the broadcast seems far too casual. ESPN's lead play-by-play man, Joe Tessitore, only seems emotionally invested in boxing intermittently. His main gig is calling college football games on Saturday nights. He doesn't always exhibit enthusiasm for the fights. Perhaps a better quality product will keep his attention, but maybe it won't. 

Teddy Atlas is an institution, and that has both good and bad ramifications. Atlas has a tremendous perspective on the psychology of fighters. He's great at communicating strategy and analyzing game plans. Occasionally, he'll catch something absolutely brilliant when breaking down video of a fighter, such as a flaw or tendency. In these moments, he is truly unsurpassed. But he also has been over-indulged for far too long by the ESPN production crew. He talks incessantly, often over the action. He can be slow to notice when the tenor of a fight has changed. He falls back on analogies and clich├ęs. Sometimes they are prescient; at other points they can be trite. He also doesn't do well with disagreement or countervailing opinions. These are major shortcomings. 

In two of the three broadcasts of the Top Rank/ESPN series, the network has featured a studio portion of the telecast that involves Stephen A. Smith. Smith is ratings catnip for ESPN. For good or for bad, he draws viewers in. However, to this point of the Top Rank series, he's been woefully underprepared. He didn't recognize the names of any of Jeff Horn's opponents – including former champions and title challengers. He admitted that he had never seen Miguel Marriaga fight before. This is unacceptable. Yes, Smith certainly brings positives to a boxing program but his lack of preparation undermines his opinions and disservices boxing fans. In no other major sport would a supposed expert gleefully claim that he hadn't watched an opponent. 

For ESPN to succeed in broadcasting boxing, it has to improve. Its on-air talent must display the enthusiasm and expertise needed for the job. Hire a researcher for Stephen A. Smith. Bring in an unofficial scorer that can provide a different opinion from that of Atlas, who often misses action during fights. Invest in better technical equipment. The sound quality needs to be better. The production of the show needs to be freshened up. Work with Top Rank to get better results in these areas; they've been on the front lines of world-level boxing for 40 years. Ask for help.  

More boxing on ESPN is certainly a welcome development. However, there is no guarantee that the Top Rank deal will succeed. Top Rank must continually provide top, competitive matches. ESPN executives must have enough expertise in the sport to provide appropriate quality control. The network needs to find the best avenues to publicize its boxing content among its myriad platforms. Perhaps most importantly, the ESPN/Top Rank partnership must become successful visually, on TV, and not just economically. These are real challenges for both parties.

ESPN has the resources to broadcast a top boxing product. But is the will there? Is this a money grab for the network or the beginning of a successful and sustained foray into the top levels of the sport? Color me intrigued.

Adam Abramowitz is the founder and head writer of saturdaynightboxing.com 
He's a member of the Transnational Boxing Rankings Board.
Email: saturdaynightboxing@hotmail.com 
@snboxing on twitter. SN Boxing on Facebook.   

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