Ken Hershman, executive VP and general manager of Showtime Sports since 2003, has now been called upon by HBO to resuscitate its deteriorating boxing franchise. Hershman was named the new president of HBO Sports on Thursday.
For nearly 20 years, since first broadcasting the Marvelous Marvin Hagler-John Mugabi championship bout on a delayed basis in 1986, Showtime boxing struggled to overcome an identity crisis. Hamstrung by an exclusive contract with Mike Tyson that for much of the 1990s also tied them to Don King, Showtime lagged behind HBO like a pack mule would lag behind Seabiscuit.
By 1999, however, King was no longer the only provider of fights to Showtime, and a few years later, exclusive contracts with boxers were eliminated as well. Jay Larkin, with his “No Rights, Great Fights” policy, set the template for Hershman to follow, and Showtime began its rise just as HBO began its descent. Blank dates, output deals, 20-1 underdogs, the dreaded specter of TBA—these are the pitfalls of a startup network or program. But HBO, after more than 30 years in the game, saw itself stumbling around the industry like a drunkard with a two-week supply of canned heat.
For years, Greenburg & Davis made broadcasting fights look like a job for Interpol or the Impossible Mission Task Force. Caught up in a Confuse-O-Rama of quid pro quo, malentendu, and corporate Omerta, HBO found itself mired in shadowy power struggles and self-serving personal agendas that nearly eliminated quality from its telecasts. More and more, HBO began to become matchmakers and de facto promoters, often appearing to use shell companies–formed under the names of some of their biggest stars–to avoid legal liability and to cut promoters from the broadcast equation entirely.
Instead of buying fights on an event-by-event basis, which is what a plain exhibitor would do, HBO began to manufacture events and fighters in order to perpetuate narrative continuity for stories few cared about. Purses were never commensurate with events, and ratings were negligible, for the most part, despite the lavish cash layout. Even in the recent post-Greenburg era mismatches continue to be made, fights are being purchased without participants named, and split-site extravaganzas are being okayed to showcase fighters as unknown to the general public as the identity of The Man in the Iron Mask.
Over the last few years, Hershman has outmaneuvered HBO at nearly every turn, producing fights whose merits, on paper, at least, did not aggravate ulcers or raise the collective blood pressure of Showtime subscribers on a regular basis. Hershman explained his Showtime programming philosophy to The Ring in its February 2011 issue: “I think that we have to be convinced that the fight is first and foremost competitive, great for TV, and that the price is right. I does sound simple, but that’s our formula. We think that if we can stick to that strategy fight-in and fight-out, we’ll put the best fights on TV.”
But Showtime has had its own problems as well. First, there is the curious relationship Hershman has with Gary Shaw, whose promotional company would probably be filing for Chapter 11 if not for ShoBox. Shaw, who delivered big fights to Showtime only a few years ago, has seen his stable of fighters depleted recently, but still manages to keep a grip on Showtime dates. Then there was the first—and, apparently long-forgotten—super middleweight tournament, staged by Shaw in 2007, which was so dreadful that a winner was never crowned. In the mismatch department, Andre Ward-Shelby Pudwill has to rank right up there with some of the worst HBO ritual sacrifices. Pudwill—God bless him—is as tough as Kevlar, but he might very well be the least skilled fighter ever to appear on a premium cable network, with Jimmy Ellis and Brett Lally vying for the top spot. In addition, Showtime decided to air its own ringside analyst, Antonio Tarver, in a deplorable heavyweight bout a few months ago.
Although seeing HBO filch from its only competitor carried an initial shock, it was the only move that made any sense. This is, after all, a specialized field, and a nationwide manhunt would probably turn up only a few qualified candidates: Hershman and, perhaps, Doug Loughrey, of ESPN. Other than Loughrey and Hershman, you would have to go through a time portal to transport a few relics, many of them with baggage of their own, to the present: Russell Peltz, Brad Jacobs, Kevin Monaghan, Bob Yalen, and Alex Wallau. But most of these names would only work on a boxing platform; Hershman has developed other sports programming for Showtime, including Inside Nascar and Strikeforce MMA cards.
Nothing less than a complete philosophical turnaround will allow HBO to free itself from the Gordian knot of the Greenburg-Davis years. Given the number of grifters and hucksters involved in boxing, it is impossible to run a regular program smoothly. With millions of dollars at stake and a sinister cast of promoters, managers, trainers, and advisors already tightening up their three-card Monte skills, Hershman must keep the same perspective he had at Showtime and make sure that the new scale of his responsibilities does not overcome him.
World Championship Boxing and Boxing After Dark have needed smelling salts for years, and with Hershman now in the corner, perhaps HBO boxing can be revived for another round or two.
“The same things that frustrate me are the same things that frustrate the fans and the media,” Hershman told The Ring. “It’s the inability to make fights that everyone wants to see.” Let’s hope that Hershman is a little less frustrated from now on. Ditto for the rest of us.