NEW YORK -- At HBO, boxing has long generated industry-leading viewership and earnings numbers. With a significantly larger subscriber base than rival Showtime and a long history as the home to many of boxing’s biggest fights, HBO is a boxing powerhouse. This year was no different. HBO delivered the top 13 fights on cable television with its flagship program, World Championship Boxing, averaging 978,000 viewers.
As the calendar turns toward 2015, HBO is well positioned for a strong first quarter. Several notable fights are set, including a rubber match between welterweights Brandon Rios and Mike Alvarado in January, Gennady Golvkin’s middleweight title defense against Martin Murray in February and Sergey Kovalev’s light heavyweight title defense against Jean Pascal in March.
HBO Sports President Ken Hershman sat down with SI.com to discuss the state of boxing on the network.
SI.com: So, this year. Happy, unhappy, something else?
KH: We’re very happy. Our boxing franchise has been firing on all cylinders. We’re executing our strategic plan, which is always a challenge in boxing, at a very high level. We had marquee matchups with marquee fighters. We brought along some new talent, we’re beginning to develop even new young talent and we march forward into 2015 with an exciting array of fights already lined up or close to being lined up. And it’s all happening very organically, which, when you lay a strong foundation, it makes it easier to play out that way.
SI.com: Great. So, Pacquiao-Mayweather…
KH: I’m shocked this wasn’t your first question.
SI.com: I was being polite. Bob Arum is saying there are negotiations happening. Tell me what’s real, what’s not.
KH: What’s real is that the fans want this fight. That is clear. The drumbeat is louder than ever. The fighters and certainly Manny has responded, and expressed his desire for the fight. There are conversations happening. Where those go, I don’t know. This is a very complex set of issues and personalities and agendas that need to be sorted through. I can’t predict if this will happen or not. I understand all the rabid interest and I as a fan would love to see the fight as well. But there is nothing to report substantively.
Frankly, what has to happen is the fighters and their camps have to come to some kind of agreement long before we are going to be involved.
SI.com: This couldn’t get done when both fighters were on HBO. Do you have any indication that Mayweather is more willing than before to do this?
KH: I’m not interjecting myself or HBO into this. I’m leaving that to the fight camps to gauge whether there is serious interest on either side. Since there is so much public demand there is going to be an effort made to make the fight. What issues come up and how they get resolved, we’ll have to see.
SI.com: To clarify: Bob Arum has said there are conversations going on between [HBO CEO] Richard Plepler and [CBS President] Les Moonves. Can you confirm that?
KH: I don’t want to talk about what conversations are taking place. This is a very fragile process, and I’d prefer to let it play out without any public comment. Then, if the fight gets made, great, if not, everyone moves on. We haven’t had the fight for years. Boxing is thriving, let’s keep that momentum going.
SI.com: Are you comfortable with the joint pay per view model?
KH: I wouldn’t rule anything out. We’re open to some accommodation. But we’re a long way from that.
SI.com: Are you optimistic?
KH: I feel like everyone else. I want to see the fight. I understand the complexity of it though. I don’t know if it gets made or not.
SI.com: The well of opponents for Pacquiao is basically dry. Does that concern you?
KH: I think both [Pacquiao and Mayweather] suffer from that. There are not tons of really attractive fights for them. But that has a way of sorting itself out as well. Manny has always wanted to test himself by fighting the best, fighting the most competitive fights. Sometimes it looks a little stark at the moment, but who knows, something could emerge down the road.
SI.com: You are working with Oscar De La Hoya and Golden Boy again. How has that relationship been?
KH: It’s been terrific. There has been lots of communication, lots of working together. We feel it has been a prosperous relationship. It’s going pretty well right now. Oscar shares our vision and our philosophy of putting fighters in tough, of making the most compelling fights.
SI.com: Golden Boy is sort of two companies. There are the fighters there who are aligned with Al Haymon, and the ones that are not. How do you navigate that?
KH: I don’t rule anything out. If you look at [Haymon’s] roster, you can’t rule out any single one of them. The problem continues to be, ‘Is there a philosophy that matches up with ours, is there a way to do this that is responsible for everybody?’ We’re open to that conversation. Things change. Boxing is constantly moving and shifting. We’ll see where it goes. We’re open to it, but we have to fulfill all the criteria we’re looking for. We’re fully stocked. We’re not in need of talent.
SI.com: One of the things Al seems interested in doing is eliminating the pay per view model? What do you think of the pay per view model today?
KH: I think pay per view is a useful tool for particular fighters and particular fights that wouldn’t get made otherwise. I don’t view it as something negative for the industry. I think you can overly rely on it at times, but for the most part I think we have been pretty judicious with how we use it. It’s a valuable tool. But at the same time our focus is always HBO. How do we get the most compelling fights on HBO and not make people pay for them.
SI.com: Canelo Alvarez seems determined to take back those May/September Mexican holiday dates, even if it means going up against Floyd Mayweather. How comfortable are you with that?
KH: It’s going to be his call. We’re here to support Canelo. We did a longterm deal with him and we believe he is going to be one of the biggest stars for the foreseeable future. We’re right there with him. We’re not looking for a fight with anyone, and I don’t want this to devolve into that. He’s an HBO fighter and we are going to do whatever we can to help him reach his goals.
SI.com: You have invested more in Wladimir Klitschko. What is your understanding of his desire to fight in the U.S.?
KH: It was interesting. That was a shared vision as well. It was something that Wladimir expressed directly, that he and his team wanted to come back and re-engage with the United States. We loved that idea. We set about to structure something that recognizes that they have a great business model [in Europe] but that he wants to come here. Hopefully it will lead to some big fights in the States.
SI.com: He does extremely well in Europe. How did you make the deal appealing?
KH: It required us to step up a bit and him to modify his financial expectations and we were able to accomplish that.
SI.com: Do you think the heavyweight division is coming back?
KH: We have a crop of younger guys that are interesting. You have Bryant Jennings, [Deontay] Wilder and [Bermane] Stiverne, Anthony Joshua and a couple of other guys coming along. I’m not sure the problem has been solved. Wladimir is head and shoulders the best in the world and until somebody beats him, it’s all talk. We know that fight fans love heavyweights and we feel very good about where we are headed in that weight class in 2015.
SI.com: Gennady Golovkin wants to be a pay per view fighter. He’s probably not able to carry one yet. How close is he to that?
KH: Selfishly, I never want him to be a pay per view fighter. I want him on HBO as much as possible. He draws enormous attention. I think for a while he is going to be opponent dependent. He is going to need someone who is more mainstream, like a Miguel Cotto. I don’t feel any great rush to push him there. We’re enjoying the ride we are having with him. He’s fighting regularly, he is making great money and hopefully we keep plugging along with it. The greatest challenge is to get someone to agree to get in the ring with him.
SI.com: Bernard Hopkins-Sergey Kovalev. How did you think that fight was going to go?
KH: When the fight was made, I couldn’t believe Bernard took the fight. There was no way a 49-year old guy could beat Kovalev. As time wore on, as I thought more about it, as I talked to more people I started to really go the other way. I started to think maybe Sergey had bit off more than he could chew. He really had never been in with anyone with the sophistication Bernard brings to the ring. I went into the fight thinking Bernard was going to win. Coming out of it, I spoke to Bernard afterwards and asked, ‘How good is Kovalev?’ He said he was the real deal. He said he was a lot more skilled than most anticipated. He has a lot of sophistication to his game.
SI.com: Golovkin has become the kind of fighter you put on HBO regardless of opponent. Has Sergey Kovalev become that guy yet?
KH: I think so. The way he beat Hopkins, clearly one of the greatest fighters I have ever seen, takes him to a different level. His viewership numbers have been great. He is someone who wants the biggest and best fights. Ultimately, you have to work with your fighters. We understand mandatories, we understand the top tier opponent isn’t available. That’s not his fault and he should not step back for that. I wouldn’t worry about the viewership numbers for him or fan reaction, because all of our fighters are looking for the biggest fight possible.
SI.com: Would you do another Hopkins fight?
KH: It’s hard to say no to Bernard. I don’t know if he has made that decision yet. My conversations with him indicate he has not. He’s keeping in shape and he is going to be tempted. But that is going to be his decision and we will have that conversation when he makes it.
SI.com: I feel like this is becoming a regular question: Do you hear anything on Andre Ward?
KH: On the boxing front, he knows and he is working to resolve his situation with the Goossen family. Until he resolves all of that, there is not much to talk about. So no we have not engaged in any substantive conversations about what’s next. But I suspect we will shortly. I know they are having conversations, I know they want to resolve it and I know Andre wants to get back to business. He has had one fight in two years and it’s an issue. He knows it.
SI.com: Whenever he gets back, will you encourage him to move up to 175 pounds?
KH: It’s his decision. I think he has cleaned out 168 pounds. I think there is more fertile territory at 175. But that will require real conversations.
SI.com: The start times are brutal. Main events are often not starting until after midnight. Is there anything you can do about that?
KH: I think it’s a real problem. We have addressed it from a number of avenues, in terms of how we run our production. We have addressed it with our scheduling folks. College football, the numbers have been off the charts and it is something to pay attention to but at the same time we cannot have our events go on that late. It’s not a good thing for us. We’re going to fix it. While there may be one or two here or there that have to go on later than we will like, we will make every effort to fix it going forward.
SI.com: Sounds good. How?
KH: Part of it is that we have had tripleheaders that have gone a lot of rounds. We have to have fights that don’t go rounds. You can make your production more compact. You can keep your features really short. You can move the event along. There are a lot of things we can do.
SI.com: You spent a lot of money in the final quarter. Has there been a bigger financial investment this year?
KH: We never talk about our budgets. What I come back to is that the commitment to boxing on HBO is as strong as ever. It’s as important a feature set for the service as it's always been and there is a lot of momentum and positive feelings for what we do in the building. When we need money and have great fights, the company has found ways to support that, and that’s good. Boxing will be a key programming asset for HBO long into the future.
SI.com: Do you see Terence Crawford becoming a Golovkin- or Kovalev-type star next year?
KH: I think he has that potential. While he doesn’t possess that Golovkin devastating knockout power, he is an aggressive fighter who has shown he knows how to finish. He goes in for the kill. He really wants to entertain the fans. He has already developed a strong fan base in Omaha. He has all the ingredients. I think he is the real deal.