When people start ticking off things they dislike about boxing, somewhere in the top-ten, saddled in the vicinity of weighing-in the day before a fight, too many belts and weight classes, and routinely questionable judging, pay-per-view sticks uneasily in the craws of fight fans who are workingmen and workingwomen. But if one loves the big fights and wants to see the big fights, what choice does one have but to pony up, or wait a week for the rebroadcast, the rerun, the anticlimactic repeat of that which occurred seven long days before?
For better or worse, pay-per-view is a well-established fact of life. It may sometimes disappoint, but it’s hardly the worst boogieman of them all to haunt the sport.
The genesis of pay-per-view goes back to when boxing was shown on closed-circuit in movie theaters in the 1950s. A cheesy black and white picture with lousy sound created a simulation, an unreasonable facsimile, of being able to watch the big fights as they were happening in real-time. But nowadays, in a digital age rife with high def, pay-per-view is the next best thing to being there, and since HBO is the most successful purveyor of boxing on pay-per-view, I wanted to speak with the man in charge, Mark Taffet, to try to get a feel for what makes him and HBO PPV tick.
Taffet was born in Orange, New Jersey in 1957 to comfortable lower middle-class circumstances. “We lived in a very regular neighborhood,” Taffet told me, “very regular surroundings.” His family was in the restaurant biz, a trait that almost seemed an inheritance. “My grandfather owned a luncheonette in an area called Down Neck in Newark, in the Ironbound section of Newark.”
Taffet’s father owned a series of luncheonettes and delis in those days, so “every few years we were at a different place. I started working when I was four or five years old, selling ice cream cones to customers.”
Those who have worked in or near the restaurant trade know how grueling it can be. The hours are long, waste and theft are endemic, and the pleasure of feeding others is often offset by how demanding and thankless those others can sometimes be.
“Basically,” said Taffet, “the only time I got to see my father was when I worked with him. That’s one of the reasons I started working at such an early age, because he worked six days a week – he was only off Monday – which gave me a 4:00 to 8:00 PM window to see him. It was just enough time to play ball for a few hours and have family dinner together before I had to do my homework for school.” Later, at the age of eight or nine, Taffet worked as a busboy in one of the restaurants, while his mom worked the register.
It almost sounds as though work was a way of life. “That’s what we knew,” Taffet said. “I call them my wonder years.”
Among the wonderful things experienced during those wonder years, sports, and especially boxing, played a large part in Taffet’s education. “My father was a huge sports fan,” HBO's senior vice president for sports operations and pay-per-view said. “He lived, ate and breathed sports… and my father was a big fight fan, so that’s when I learned as a kid about the big fights. And I became, not a fight fan, but a fan of big fights.”
I wondered if Taffet spent time with his dad watching the fights on TV.
“Actually, we talked about them,” said Taffet. “Because in his restaurants the customers used to come in with their newspapers and they would sit and read them, and I remember many times they would talk about boxing. This was in the ‘60s and a lot of the conversations were about Muhammad Ali and the heavyweights, and that was when I really became aware of boxing.
“I remember when there was a big fight, it was a BIG event. It was almost as if things closed down the day of a big fight. And I remember it gave me an impression that was different from baseball, basketball and football. I remember being impressed by the magnitude of a big fight and the attention focused on it and the impression that everything was closing down that day because of a big fight.”
Taffet graduated from Colonia High School in Colonia, NJ in 1975. He was accepted at Rutgers University and graduated in 1979 with a degree in economics, magna cum laude, Phi Beta Kappa, the usual signposts of excellence, before entering Wharton School of Business at the U of P in Philadelphia, PA. “I ventured outside the state line of New Jersey,” he admitted.
I asked Taffet if his interest in business was conceptual, or more of a means to an end.
“I knew it was the field I would enter and make a career out of, but I was very naïve at the time. I’d grown up working in restaurants and thought if you worked hard and studied hard and had those intrinsic values things would work out,” Taffet said, “and it wasn’t until I got to Wharton that I really began to see the breadth of opportunities in the business world.
“In those two years at Wharton I got quite an education, not so much an academic education, but more a social education and career education. But I always had an affinity for numbers, for figures, for quantitative analysis, so that’s what drove me to be a finance major, with some marketing course work at Wharton.”
Taffet’s first job out of school was at General Foods. Taffet described it as “almost like a post-graduate experience, a continuing education experience.” The environment was “formal but comfortable,” but it was in a “slow-growth industry. And I noticed there weren’t a lot of people being rewarded for their efforts. It was just not very motivating for me.”
Then Taffet got a call from someone who had been many levels above him at General Foods, someone who had left the company and signed on with an outfit “called HBO in this hot new industry called cable television.” This man told Taffet that “the growth is tremendous, and there’s a real premium for innovation and creativity and hard work and the ability to reward it.”
Taffet took the plunge in 1984, a “very, very big risk,” given his background and training, and became a manager in the finance department working on accounting and budgets. But “it wasn’t boxing at all. It had nothing to do with boxing or sports,” but that was about to change. In 1990 he was asked by HBO Sports to help develop a model for HBO’s interest in acquiring the rights to NFL football games. Taffet, in his words, “developed a model quantifying the amount of money HBO could spend every year and break even given the increased number of subscribers and the length of time those subscribers would stay with the network.” His bosses at HBO and Time Warner liked what they saw and asked him to apply that model to “the boxing business and the boxing marketplace,” which became the model for HBO PPV’s predecessor, TVKO. Taffet and Lou DiBella were TVKO’s first two employees, and it launched in 1991 with Evander Holyfield fighting George Foreman.
But that too changed when Ross Greenberg became head of HBO Sports. “He came aboard,” said Taffet, “and in addition to the pay-per-view responsibilities that I had, he gave me responsibilities for marketing and operations for the non-pay-per-view product of HBO Sports,” which includes shows like Inside the NFL, Real Sports, HBO Championship Boxing and Boxing After Dark. It was, needless to say, a far cry from working at General Foods. “It was fascinating. I give a tremendous amount of credit, thankfully, to Ross, because he gave me a tremendous opportunity, beyond my pay-per-view concentration, to really expand myself personally and professionally, and it’s something I’ll always admire him for.”
Returning to the subject of pay-per-view, I asked Taffet what he knew of its origins. “The reason pay-per-view works for boxing rather than most other program genres is because it represents a significant improvement over the distribution and viewing mechanism that preceded it. Big fights were seen on closed-circuit television for the most part prior to pay-per-view, which meant having to get in your car, drive to theater where the screen was far away from you, the picture quality and sound was poor, and you had people throwing popcorn and beverages all over you. To offer people an opportunity to sit and watch a boxing match in the quiet of their own home with their friends was a tremendous improvement over what preceded it.”
“In 1991 when we started at HBO pay-per-view,” continued Taffet, “I remember people used to have to line up around the corner to get their converter box the day of the pay-per-view fight and leave a deposit and get their deposit back only when they brought the box back on Monday after the fight.”
I remember those days, and we’ve come a long way baby, but convenience and improvements of all kinds aside, there are still complaints about pay-per-view’s frequency and cost (even though were it not for HBO, boxing would be deader than a doornail).
“I tend to look at pay-per-view as something similar to a multiplex theater,” Taffet said. “If you have a multiplex theater and every screen is filled with available programs, some theaters are full, and some theaters are not so full, and that’s because the public chooses which movies it wants to see and which movies it prefers to skip. And pay-per-view is the same way. It’s available to the public, if they want to buy they can, and if not they exercise their right not to buy and not to watch. That’s the essence of the medium, and that’s what’s it’s for and that’s what’s made it work.
“In an ideal world I would love to see not more than six to eight fights a year or so on pay-per-view. The past few years we’ve seen fights almost on a monthly basis on pay-per-view, and I really believe that for the long-term health of the sport, that’s actually way too many. That’s why Ross Greenberg in 2006 made it our mission to put big fights back live on HBO. We’ve had Rahman vs. Toney, Gatti vs. Baldomir, Taylor vs. Wright, Barrera vs. Juarez, and Klitschko vs. Brock. And we’re closing the year very strong with Wright vs. Quartey and Taylor vs. Ouma.”
“Pay-per-view is best when it delivers big, special, defining programming, events that are not just worth people’s time, but are worth their money.”
Some say that boxing is on the skids, that there’s nowhere to go but down and eventually out, but Mark Taffet does not agree.
“2006 has been a big year for HBO pay-per-view. “It’s our biggest year since 1999,” he said. “It might be our biggest year ever. In 1999 we have four mega-fights. We had De La Hoya-Quartey, De la Hoya-Trinidad, and Holyfield-Lewis 1 and 2. We generated 4 million buys and nearly $200 million of revenue. In 2006, through the November 4 Mayweather-Baldomir fight, we’ve generated nearly 3.4 million buys and that figure will likely increase to 3.7-3.8 million buys after the November 18 Pacquiao-Morales rubber match. And what’s interesting is we’ve done it without a single million-buy fight. Our biggest fight this year so far is De La Hoya-Mayorga: 925,000 buys. But what’s happened is there’s been a regular stream of very competitive, very recognizable fights and fighters and the public has really responded and supported the fights.
“When you see fighters in every weight class, there’s a great story unfolding and a great story to be told. In the heavyweight division, there’s some momentum now and we really believe we’re moving toward closure where there’ll be one recognized heavyweight champ. In the middleweights you have Taylor and Wright, off of a great fight live on HBO, facing Quartey and Ouma, with a potential big rematch down the road – and with Joe Calzaghe looking over their shoulders. The 140 to147-pound divisions have almost merged into one, there’s so many great fighters and matchups to be made there: Oscar De La Hoya, Floyd Mayweather, Shane Mosley, Ricky Hatton, Jose Luis Castillo, Miguel Cotto. And there are the lower weight classes, where you still have the great trio of Barrera, Pacquiao and Morales. So from top to bottom, we are just seeing great, great stuff in every weight class. And that’s why when people tell me boxing is slowing down, I laugh at them because we’re exhausted with exuberance.”
The cast of characters in boxing is legion, the good, bad and ugly and everything in-between, so I asked the affable Taffet how he interacts with so many disparate types while maintaining his equilibrium, and he returned to an old theme.
“Although I had an academically-based education, I got my life education growing up with my family as a kid in restaurants where you had to work with people from all walks of life, all socio-economic backgrounds, all races, religions and ethnicities. And I had to communicate with people, I had to listen to people from different backgrounds, and it helped me tremendously growing up in that environment to work with, deal with, and respect all of the people I work with in boxing today.”