With Squalor, Mostly: Ross Greenburg Departs HBO

*****

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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Topics: Al Haymon, GOLDEN BOY PROMOTIONS, HBO, Ross Greenburg

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  • pong

    He never understood that fighters become stars by fighting tough,skilled fighters no amount of pr,sob stories and hype can pave over that fact.the obsession with making stars always seemed odd considering that in boxing the cream tends to rise to the top look at the careers of unheralded star like jmm,bhop etc.also when wolak and Rodriguez fight for 15k each or insulting money to berto and make a fight that outshines his whole career you know something has gone wrong

  • JohnPaulFutbol

    CA,

    Great stuff! Hopefully things will turn around at HBO. I never understood their approach. Good fights are compelling. Why not use your resources to make good/great matchups and let the stars emerge and sort themselves….rather than attempting to use the tricks of entertainment to try and manufacture stars?

  • jclooney1

    Love it!!! Not only do we need better fights at HBO, we need MORE fights! I hate the fact that August never has fights, or months when the Olympics are on! Boxing fans will watch boxing…

  • PhilS

    Great Stuff Carlos. Tom Hauser has railed on Greenburg for years, and I might have this wrong, but I think he was the one who refused to run boxing events against MLB playoffs, even when pointed out that run of the mill college football games have similar ratings to the MLB playoffs.Out of touch, and not a boxing guy at all. I would hope that this will mean the end of the Haymon Boxing Organization.

  • dennis wise

    a brutal yet delightful read. You nail it on supply and demand. There wasn’t any. And fighters took notice, and adjusted accordingly, giving us half-ass’d efforts in the ring.

    your boss is the person who can fire you. and HBO is the boss in boxing- it’s HBO’s decision who gets HBO money. I’d appreciate if Greenburg’s replacement understands this.

  • The Count of Monte Fisto (boom!)

    great piece, Carlos. although I can’t criticize anyone for putting Calzaghe-Kessler together. that was like Bradley-Alexander at the time — the best fight available in the weight class, with two unbeaten champions in their prime. it was a good fight on paper, unlike some of the other debacles in Greenburg’s tenure.

  • JDL

    His pursuit of any demographic by putting on horrible fights is the height of ignorance. A bad fight is a bad fight. Period. I’m Latino and I couldn’t care less what race a boxer is, as long as he’s exciting in the ring. I don’t root for a fighter because he’s Puerto Rican…I root for him because I’ve enjoyed his fights in the past and he’s proven to give you your money’s worth. If he just so happens to be Puerto Rican, well then, great! Ha! Anyway, great article. Glad someone tells it like it is…KEEP TELLING IT LIKE IT IS, C!!!

  • DanielSamTuVieja

    Great writing man, any idea who could replace Greenburg and where does that leasve Al Haymond? Like the Kimster said Greenburg is only half of the cancer that has plagued HBO

  • FunkyBadger

    @The Count of Monte Fisto (boom!) In front of a sold out arena, and the top two fighters in their division. And it was a cracker, for at least 8 rounds…

  • thenonpareil

    @pong

    Hi Pong,

    exactly. Let the people decide who they want to see by matching fighters with more thought to quality. It’s not always possible in a sport as anarchic as boxing, but at least try to do it more often, and if one fighter refuses to fight another, don’t give that fighter a softie as a replacement…tell him, “All right, when you feel like fighting someone acceptable, let us know.” No one goes to a fruit stand and buys rotten apples, for God’s sake!

  • thenonpareil

    @JohnPaulFutbol

    Hi JPF,

    I’m not sure things will turn around at HBO, but let’s hope. For one thing, no television show that loses that much viewership lasts long. To be honest, it’s a wonder they haven’t cancelled boxing alotgether. I mean, hell, they cancelled Deadwood because of poor ratings….

    No matter who takes over the PRESIDENCY at HBO, he will have to deal with backbiting, treacherous sons of bitches and will have to make concessions here and there. In that interview with Seth Abraham I referenced, Abraham admitted having to buy a so-so fight from a promoter in order to get another fight that he wanted. A sort of trade-off. He spoke specifically about buying Chavez-R. Mayweather II in order to get Chavez-Taylor done. But again, this is the point here: it was Chavez, a proven draw and walking legend, not Andre Berto, a proven bust. If you want to bend over backwards for Mayweather Jr. and Pacquiao, of course, it makes business sense…but Devon Alexander? Sergei Dzinziruk? GTFOH.

    I’ve been watching HBO boxing since about 1983 and they always had mismatches, but there was a sense of planning surrounding them; the fighters eventually moved somewhere signifigant. Today, Andre Berto fights 10 times on HBO for what? To go from one overmatched opponent to another, I guess…

  • thenonpareil

    @jclooney1

    Hi Jclooney1,

    Thanks. You know, I used to watch HBO boxing when they had only 10 or 11 shows a year, so they have picked up that pace definitely over the years, but they do tend to have strange gaps in the summer…usually because they blow their budget early–corporate premature ejaculation–and are looking to save money. Good fights, on paper, are not hard to make. Dealing with promoters, fighters, and managers is something else altogether. But if you need to tell a promoter “Go fuck yourself,” you might as well. He’ll be back.

  • thenonpareil

    @PhilS

    Hi phils,

    thanks. Yes, it’s true Greenburg was opposed to going up against MLB in October. Silly stuff, since no one is watching the fights on HBO anyway. Greenburg produced some fine documentaries and the production values at HBO were top of the line, but fights are what matter. It will be harder to make fights going forward, I think, because of how overpaid many of the boxers were. Haymon will still be around because he advises a slew of fighters, but whether he’ll have the pull he’s had in the past is debateable.

  • The Count of Monte Fisto (boom!)

    @FunkyBadger it was Kessler’s best showing, by far. he just couldn’t compete with Calzaghe. there’s few who could, so no shame in that.

  • thenonpareil

    @dennis wise

    Hi dennis,

    I aim for brutal yet delightful.

    Everyone except for a few media cheerleaders and self-important bloggers seemed to understand that no one wants to see the guys they broadcast on HBO. And yet they were overpaid and coddled, which, as you noted, might have affected their performances in the ring. I wish all fighters could be overpaid, but they’re not. Most of them are underpaid. But HBO decided to take a bunch of guys few give a damn about and make them multimillionaires just for the hell of it.

    In the future, the buyer needs to understand that HBO is an exhibitor of events and not a maker of events. For years, HBO has been playing behind the scenes promoter. Some people are too clueless to understand what that means. Besides the ethical/legal ramifications, the fact is that if you have a dummy promoting fights, you’ll get bad fights.

    When boxing was on the networks during the 1980s boom, CBS, NBC, and ABC all had quality control guys buying fights: Mort Sharnik, Ferdie Pacheco, Alex Wallau, and Bob Yalen. They didn’t always buy the best fights, but they knew what they were doing, boxing-wise. Greenburg says he loves boxing, but he rarely proved it.

  • thenonpareil

    @The Count of Monte Fisto (boom!)

    Hi Count–do you mind if I call you Count?

    I hear you re: Calzaghe-Kessler and Funky Badger is right about its peripheral details, things that can’t be said about Alexander-Bradley. I’m not criticizing that bout, just noting that is was the lowest rated WCB program in history up until that point…it has since been superceded by several more HBO fights. Calzaghe, IMO, did not get the right play up by HBO…you just can’t throw a Welshman and a Dane on American TV and just hope for the best. Calzaghe was a good-looking, well-spoken, cocky character with an insane ticket-selling capacity in Wales. He could have been marketed more intelligently, I suspect, but HBO also failed royally in the marketing capacity under Greenburg. I remember when Hamed had his first fight on HBO. In New York, there were posters of him everywhere and huge images of him on the sides of buildings! Today, too many people think sending press releases to sadsackboxing.com is marketing. It’s absurd.

  • thenonpareil

    @JDL

    Hi JDL,

    exactly. I’m Puerto Rican–does that mean I’ll be more interested in HBO boxing if they air Eric Morel bouts? Hell, no. The fact is, that HBO turned away a proven ratings magnet like Miguel Cotto just to keep on showing Chad Dawson and Andre Berto. It makes no sense. They put on some good fights over the last few years and got lots of ass-kissing from folks who apparently don’t understand that that’s their job–to put on quality programming, but too often there was an underlying agenda behind what they chose to show. No matter what anyone says, the proof is in the fact that boxing ratings sank like a kitchen sink in the Atlantic over the last five or six years. Because they were showing garbage.

  • thenonpareil

    @DanielSamTuVieja

    Hi DanielSamTuVieja,

    Thanks and thanks for writing. I have no idea who will replace Greenburg, but it should be made clear that whoever does replace him must be a buyer concerned with qulaity control who understands that the role of any network airing an event is as an exhibitor, not a producer or creator. Haymon will still be around because he advises several fighters who HBO has already mis-invested millions and millions of dollars in.

  • The Count of Monte Fisto (boom!)

    @thenonpareil great perspective. I can’t agree enough — especially about the market of fighters part. HBO seemed to associate have control of a fighter (e.g. under contract) meant that they didn’t have to do anything to actively promote the fighter unless they were already superstars by their own efforts.

  • FunkyBadger

    @The Count of Monte Fisto (boom!) Joe must be gutted about the Super Six, 2-3 years ago he’d have walked through this lot…

  • The Count of Monte Fisto (boom!)

    @FunkyBadger destroyed or out-fought them all. after how he handled Kessler and Lacy, there should be no question of his skills when being compared to the Super Six. Ward might’ve been able to compete for a few rounds, but he ultimately would never be able to keep the pace that Calzaghe set.

  • thenonpareil

    @FunkyBadger @The Count of Monte Fisto (boom!)

    Can you imagine Calzaghe slapping the shit out of Allan Green and Arthur Abraham for 12 rounds? That would have been loads of fun.

  • The Count of Monte Fisto (boom!)

    @thenonpareil @FunkyBadger sounds like Calzaghe-Lacy all over again! although I thought more of Lacy going into the fight against Calzaghe than I thought of Green or Abraham going into the fight against Ward.

  • KyossNozid

    ITS KARMA!!!

    TO HBO AND GREENBURG..

    TSK!

    TSK!

    TSK!

  • thenonpareil

    Dear UKPolitik,

    I have banned you because you have no reading comprehension & because you sound like a bleating wretch.

    Out of a 1500-word article, you fixated over one line: “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”.

    That’s nothing but a fact–not a judgement about Calzaghe, whom I assume you have posters of all over your bathroom–but I can see facts are not your thing. What Cris Arreola has do with all this, I don’t know, except to prove that you might be the village idiot in more than one village. As if Arreola hasn’t been the target of some vivious barbs here….

    Anyway, among the things I don’t do here on TCS–P-4-P nonsense, prospect mongering, calling everyone and everything great, posting about every single thing that happens in boxing, writing poorly, etc.–is nationalism. I don’t care where a fighter comes from or what his heritage is and folks who obsess over that stuff bore me. Oh, by the way, this site is also troll-free. But I guess even a proud troglodyte like you figured that one out by now. Have fun trying to find another site where you can demonstrate–with all your nationalist glory–just how much of an imbecile you are. Cheers!

  • thenonpareil

    @KyossNozid

    Bad juju!