It has been a tumultuous year at HBO. From the loss of Floyd Mayweather, to the decision not to do business with Golden Boy Promotions, to the rise of a legitimate competitor in Showtime, HBO has been forced to be a bystander for some major events in boxing. Yet during that same time the network has birthed a rising star in Gennady Golovkin, invested heavily in top international fights and continues to see steady, one-million plus viewership for its big shows.
With the network entering a busy final quarter that will see nine live events on HBO or HBO Pay Per View in the next two months, HBO Sports President Ken Hershman sat down with SI.com to discuss the state of boxing at the network.
SI.com: It's been an interesting year for HBO. How would you characterize it?
Ken Hershman: I would say it has been a fantastic year of exciting fights, building new stars, putting established stars in key events and delivering week in and week out what our subscribers demand, which are the best fights on television.
SI.com: You have been on the job a little under two years now. Has it been more challenging, less challenging or as challenging as you expected?
Hershman: It's been a great challenge. I don't think of it in terms of more or less. I think the business remains a challenging business. Boxing has always been difficult, but that's what makes it fun and exciting. That's what makes you want to get up every day and come to the office. It's never the same and there is always something new to tackle. And at the end of the day, if things come together and the fights work, you get to see great results. You are going to have your setbacks but you have to keep an even keel and keep going forward.
SI.com: Your predecessor, Ross Greenburg, heard about how HBO plays favorites. You are hearing it, too. Most recently promoter Lou DiBella was quoted as saying, "the unfair playing field continues" at HBO. How do you respond to that criticism?
Hershman: I'm not even sure what that means. We have worked with 11 different promoters this year. We have introduced a number of new fighters. We have gone above and beyond as far as the number of bouts we have ever done. We have gone all over the world. Honestly, I don't know what that means. The facts belie that. We're happy that we're interacting with the promoters who are supplying the events. We can only do so much, and not every situation is going to work out to a promoter's satisfaction or to HBO's satisfaction every single time. But we are operating above board and with transparently with everyone and we are doing great things as a result.
There are more promoters working at HBO than ever before. As long as you deliver content that we are excited about, that fits into our strategy and that we think we can get behind, there is an open door here. And that's been proven this year more than ever.
SI.com: HBO played an instrumental role in building Floyd Mayweather and Canelo Alvarez into the stars they are today. Was it difficult to sit on the sidelines for an event like that?
Hershman: I guess it was difficult, but to me [the success] was a reflection of the state of boxing, and that works to HBO's benefit, as the leading platform in boxing. At the end of the day I think a rising tide raises our ship higher than anyone else's. We'll take that as we move into the fall season and see if we can build some momentum.
SI.com: As someone who ran Showtime Sports for eight years, are you surprised by the investment they have made in boxing?
Hershman: No. Again, I think the more attention for boxing, the more people watching and enjoying boxing is a great thing for us. It's great for the sport. That's a positive for everyone.
SI.com: At Showtime, you liked to load up on fights in the fourth quarter of the year. You are doing something similar this year. Why do you like that strategy?
Hershman: In some respects it was a function of injuries and setbacks that pushed a lot of content to the fourth quarter. But I also think it is nice to be able to string together big events back to back, to use one to throw to the next. Pay-per-view opportunities are available on limited dates so you have to put events around those dates to help support the pay-per-view. That added to the number of events that are falling in the fall.
SI.com: The biggest star you have built in your time here is Gennady Golovkin. What do you see from him in the next couple of years?
Hershman: I think Gennady can be a huge star in boxing. He has all the elements that you look for. First, he's a fantastic fighter with a terrific style, very aggressive in the ring and never takes a step back. Number two, he's willing to fight at a range of weight classes against any and all comers. And when he says it, he means it. That's very different from a lot of fighters who say, 'Yeah, I'll fight him, just not next.' And he's very likable. He has an outside-the-ring persona that people will gravitate to. Now he just has to deliver, and we have to deliver in terms of his opponent selection. I think the world is his oyster.
SI.com: HBO has a strong track record for building stars. Is there a plan to build Golovkin outside of the ring?
Hershman: I think we do that with a lot of the fighters we work with consistently. We do have a long history of building stars and we do it not only by putting them in the biggest fights on the biggest television platform available for boxing today, which is HBO, but by a lot of the support program we do around them. Whether it is Two Days, 24/7, Face Off, as well as our support digitally, we do a lot of outreach into the community to try and get beyond the sports pages with these athletes. We have a long track record of success. Gennady will fit into that, as will Terence Crawford, [Adonis] Stevenson, [Sergey] Kovalev, Mikey Garcia, Ruslan Provodnikov. All these new faces will benefit from that effort.
SI.com: Has finding opponents for Golovkin been as difficult as his promoter, Tom Loeffler, has suggested?
Hershman: It is particularly difficult. He's not the only one it's tough to find an opponent for. When you have fighters of the caliber that we have, you often find that people don't want to take that chance. Gennady is on the top of that list. But Andre Ward suffers from that. So the hunt is on. We like when people step forward, as Curtis Stevens did. We're proud that Curtis was willing to take that challenge on and we're looking forward to a great fight on November 2.
SI.com: You have shown a willingness to invest in European fights, despite the fact that they get lower ratings in the live broadcast than U.S.-based fights. Why do you like to invest in international fights, and will we see more of that next year?
Hershman: For me, it's about buying the best fights. Carl Froch-Mikkel Kessler was a legitimate Fight of the Year candidate. We were happy to put it on. And we look at the live ratings, and they might be lower, but when you pair it up with the ratings on the rebroadcast when paired with another live fight, it comes out essentially to the same place.
If the content is right, we are going to be buyers. That means if it fits into our strategic plan in terms of the weight classes we have a lot of activity in and we like the matchup. I don't know if you are going to see more or less. We are going to be opportunistic.
SI.com: You have made a big investment in Andre Ward, first at Showtime and now here at HBO. What is it about Ward that you seem to believe will make him a big star?
Hershman: I think Andre is clearly one of the best fighters in the world. He is a commentator for us, he is very articulate, he is smart, he's a great ambassador for boxing and HBO. In the ring, there are a number of amazing fights for him that we are looking forward to that will help elevate his status in the sport. Next year should be a breakout year for him. Whether he ever becomes a pay-per-view star, I don't know. I never make those prognostications. Years ago I never would have predicted Manny Pacquiao would become a pay-per-view star. You just never know where they come from.
SI.com: Earlier this year, you made a decision not to do business with Golden Boy. Was the thinking behind that decision as simple as Golden Boy was taking all of HBO's stars across the street to Showtime?
Hershman: No. It wasn't quite that simple. For me it was about whether there was a business model that synchs up with our business model and right now, it doesn't. I don't think anything has changed on that front. That's how we feel.
SI.com: Do you expect any changes in this relationship in 2014?
Hershman: We'll see. I never say never. I never close the door. But right now, nothing has changed.
SI.com: It was assumed that when you severed ties with Golden Boy, you also severed ties with Al Haymon. You made a deal for Edwin Rodriguez, an Al Haymon fighter, to fight Ward. What is your position on doing fights with Al Haymon-advised fighters?
Hershman: You can look back to our statement. That's really all I want to say about it.
SI.com: There has been a raging debate about the health of boxing. What's your opinion on its health?
Hershman: I think it's very healthy. It has done very well for us. I think it is doing very well globally. When you look at our schedule, we are going to have a sold-out venue in Montreal on Saturday night, a sold-out venue in Los Angeles; we would have had a sold out venue in England had [Tyson Fury-David Haye] progressed. Our ratings are very strong. We're up double digits on our Boxing After Dark programs. We are going to see our World Championship Boxing ratings get back to where they were as we get into these [Julio Cesar] Chavez and [Miguel] Cotto fights. The fights have been terrific and the fans are reacting.
So I think boxing is very healthy. But at the same time, it's a niche sport and it is going to be a niche sport. It is not going to be a mainstream, on-network-television-getting-15 million-viewers-on-a-Saturday night sport. I think any expectation of that is unrealistic and unfair.
SI.com: You are bringing back Legendary Nights on October 19 with a look back at the Arturo Gatti-Micky Ward trilogy. Are there any other programming plans in the works?
Hershman: We're always looking at ways to bring value to our subscribers, to boxing fans, and the Gatti-Ward trilogy were spectacular events in the history of HBO. And it's well timed to correspond to the 10-year anniversary of the third fight and Arturo's induction into the Hall of Fame. We don't have anything specific on the board for another Legendary Nights but we are always talking about it and exploring it.
SI.com: I know this has been asked before, but you were a proponent of MMA at Showtime. Are there any plans to incorporate MMA at HBO?
Hershman: No, not currently. We are all full up with what we want to do. We have more content, more hours on television than we have had in years past. We're enjoying this run and not looking past this.
SI.com: I want to follow up on your relationship with Golden Boy, because it is constantly talked about. Is there anything else you want to add to your position on what the relationship will be like in 2014?
Hershman: I get asked about it all the time, too. Nothing has changed.