With Squalor, Mostly: Ross Greenburg Departs HBO

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After more than a decade as president of HBO Sports, embattled Ross Greenburg, a Brown University graduate who started at the network as a production assistant in 1978, is finally moving on. Under his unwatchful eye, HBO boxing lost anywhere from 40% to 60% of its late 1990s audience and resembled the corporate equivalent of the Minotaur lost in its own labyrinth.

How strange did things become while Greenburg—along with his cohort, Kery Davis—ran the show? HBO boxing is perhaps the only business model in the world where supply and demand is irrelevant. Even a lemonade stand will go belly-up if no one wants to buy a cup from little Susie on the sidewalk. For years, the HBO boxing philosophy could be boiled down to a simple if flabbergasting formula: throw extraordinary sums of money to fighters who cannot sell tickets, produce viewers, or perform consistently in the ring. No matter what cheerleading media members say, fans have spoken clearly about Chad Dawson, Andre Berto, and other fighters whose snouts were entrenched in the Greenburg-Davis trough. Simply put, they were of little interest to subscribers.

When HBO boasted about drawing 1.5 million households for Victor Ortiz-Andre Berto, you knew things were SNAFU. Four or five times as many people watch the Yule Log than saw Ortiz-Berto, but why quibble? What is significant about Ortiz-Berto is that these two fighters combined for 15 HBO appearances prior to facing off against each other. Yet their showdown—on a free preview weekend, no less—produced numbers similar to those of Julio Cesar Chavez Jr. in his first HBO appearance against anonymous Sebastian Zbik. Chavez and Zbik, however, did not need 15 infomercials on HBO to earn viewers. In the end, under these bizarre circumstances, nothing mattered but what two HBO suits told you or what internet authorities jabbered on about in an echo chamber apparently designed in 2007.

If you think it is a coincidence that HBO ratings started to drop dramatically when Greenburg and Davis took over, you are probably a member of a Fantasy League boxing team or sleep with an Excel spreadsheet printout of your P-4-P list by your side. Less than a year after Greenburg took over as president, HBO subscribers were treated to a double-header featuring Hector Camacho Sr. and Hector Camacho Jr.—one of the most embarrassing shows ever produced by a premium network.

Yes, there were terrible mismatches under previous HBO Sports president Seth Abraham—including George Foreman-Jimmy Ellis, Riddick Bowe-Jesse Ferguson, Terry Norris-Bret Lally, and some early Gerry Cooney blowouts—but most of these set-ups featured bona fide attractions, and HBO was rewarded with knockout ratings.

In 1989, Abraham explained the importance of stars to HBO in an interview with KO Magazine: “There are basically three types of boxing fans. There’s the boxing fan, who will watch any fight. He’ll watch Mitch Green and Mike Tyson in a street fight at Dapper Dan’s if he knows the time of the fight. Then there is the sports fan, the guy who will come to a Tyson fight but not a Michael Nunn fight. The third audience is made up of people like my mother, who won’t watch any fight. They are not fight fans, period….We must appeal not just to Audience One, but also Audience Two. There are good fighters out there who simply can’t reach that second group of fan.” Ross Greenburg, on the other hand, focused much of his energy on fighters who had difficulty connecting with just about anybody. He also made certain these HBO prodigal sons were often in mismatches.

Unfortunately, not many can see the difference between letting an established attraction fight a C-level opponent and letting a complete ratings/gate bust do the same….repeatedly. And Ross Greenburg was one of those who could not catch on to this fact. “Sugar Ray Leonard fought Bruce Finch in 1982,” Greenburg told Thomas Hauser in 2008. “It was a crappy fight, and Al Haymon didn’t have either guy.” Greenburg was referring to charges of favoritism regarding Al Haymon, but the fact that he failed to see the difference between Leonard being a bona fide crossover superstar and a Haymon client like Andre Berto—who once drew 972 paying fans to hometown title defense—says more than enough. Sugar Ray Leonard could abuse poor Bruce Finch because Leonard captured the imagination of the public and drew astronomical ratings no matter who he fought.

Over the years, Greenburg also fostered odd relationships with neophyte promotional firms and shadowy advisers, handing out dates like a capo de tutti capi handed out favors—or worse. Not long after assuming his role as head of boxing, Greenburg made his first misstep, one that was a harbinger of things to come. Incredibly, Greenburg handed Lou DiBella 15 blank dates over a three-year period as part of a severance package when DiBella left HBO in 2001. How any network can give blank dates to a man who had never promoted a fight in his life and who did not have a single fighter under contract is beyond comprehension.

Lou DiBella, in fact, was the first Golden Boy Promotions—an attempt to cut out traditional promoters in order to smooth the way for HBO to make fights with an ease alien to nearly all pursuits in boxing. In 2002 Greenburg gave Golden Boy Promotions a monthly show on HBO Latino. When “Boxeo De Oro” was canceled, Greenburg gave blank dates to Golden Boy as compensation. A second exclusive output deal with Golden Boy outraged many in the industry for several reasons, not the least of which was the fact that GBP had already failed miserably during its first free reign. Things between Golden Boy and HBO looked awfully cozy, with Richard Schaefer, CEO of GBP, even going so far as to refer to HBO as his “partner.” And HBO reciprocated in outlandish ways, like paying for delayed rights to execrable Golden Boy pay-per-views, including the Shane Mosley-Sergio Mora debacle.

In addition, Greenburg admittedly was bent on pursuing certain key demographics, namely African-American viewers. But this aim was another wild goose chase, since the presumption that African-American viewers want to see Chad Dawson perform Swan Lake in the ring (or Andre Berto play whack-a-mole with Freddy Hernandez and full-time policemen) is asinine. Everyone wants to see exciting, competitive fights, not just Mexicans, or Caucasians, or Puerto Ricans. Period. Who on earth was HBO hoping to lure with Chad Dawson? After all, Dawson once drew fewer than 800,000 households to watch a title defense on HBO, and he drew fewer than 3,000 fans combined for two fights against Antonio Tarver.

Things really began to go south in 2007, when the lowest ratings ever for a fight—Joe Calzaghe-Mikkel Kessler, which drew about 1.6 million households—revealed that HBO was at rock bottom. Soon both Boxing After Dark and World Championship Boxing were polluted by c-level fighters like Ray Austin, Norberto Bravo, Stefy Bull, Michael Trabant, Gary Lockett, Cosme Rivera, Willy Blaine, Brian Minto, Harry Yorgey, and Freddy Hernandez. For every good fight HBO put on, there were two or three others that belonged on Fox Sports or Rotten.com. Reason gave way to madness, quality control disappeared almost entirely, and the fact that ratings continued to slip was not viewed as an indicator of larger trends. One blunder followed another—including the loss of Manny Pacquiao to rival Showtime—until Greenburg finally announced his resignation yesterday.

“That’s who I am,” Greenburg told Richard Sandomir of the New York Times regarding his documentaries and sports shows. “I create programming that makes people laugh and cry.”

He might as well have been talking about boxing on HBO under his tenure.

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Tags: Al Haymon GOLDEN BOY PROMOTIONS HBO Ross Greenburg

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