HBO Boxing Boss Ken Hershman Looks Back, Forward

Ken-Hershman

The interview got off to a rough start, because I missed my call time.

My excuse was good, as excuses go: I was cleaning out the cat litter box.

That’s why I missed my 1 PM phoner with HBO boxing boss Ken Hershman, but after doing that bit of housekeeping, I put on my journo cap, got out my keyboard, and checked in to see what the lay of the land was in the mind of Hershman, and see if I could get a sense of how 2015 might play out.

I say “might” because as far as fool’s errands go, planning much beyond the next bout in this fight-game sphere can and is often proven to be a waste of time. The landscape shifts, allegiances sprout and crumble, fighters hook up with confidantes who tell them they should be making X amount more, so why not sit on the sidelines and make ‘em beg for your return, etc etc.

Hershman didn’t disagree with my theory on “the best laid plans,” and then we both marveled that it’s been so long since he came over to HBO, from across the street, Showtime, to steer the boxing ship.

 “It’s gone pretty quickly, “ he told me. “Looking back, it’s amazing that it been that long already.”

Hershman’s start date was January 2012, and oh yes, has time passed and has that landscape shifted. Floyd Mayweather was the man back then, the one, along with Manny Pacquiao, who was going to spur smiles among the suits who run the show at the premium cabler…or cause frown lines to cement that much more, as balance sheets don’t read like the folks who live and die, to an extent, by those figures.

Hey, while I’m on the subject, before we take a look back, what say we take a peek at the future…Floyd’s got two fights left on his Showtime/CBS deal…would you, Mr. Hershman, consider making a run at “Money,” do a sequel with him, bring him back into the HBO fold after his mega-deal with the Sho crew runs its course?

Hershman wasn’t too keen on “projecting into the future” regarding Floyd, which circles us back to what we said about the best laid plans. But he did state that he saw Floyd at the WBC convention in Vegas earlier in the week, and they interacted amiably. “There was a long relationship between Floyd and HBO, and I understand his business decisions, and we’ll cross that bridge if and when it appears,” he said. “I’ve got nothing negative to say about Floyd. But we have to move forward with my model, our model…and when the time comes, he’ll have choices to make.”

As for the year which has almost called it a day, Hershman looks back with contentedness, he told me. “I think it was a tremendous year, and we were are firing on all cylinders, and we are well positioned to go into 2015.”

I’d say so; no, they aren’t in the Mayweather business, but I sometimes think that has to feel like it’s as much or more trouble than it’s worth. (Though the current boxing boss Stephen Espinoza is unfraid to state publicly that is not so, that the financial arrangement they all hashed out serves all parties well, and he has said that Floyd’s off-the-field shenanigans are basically immaterial to how he and the Sho crew view Floyd the fighter.)

Hershman told me he’s comfortable having gotten into a flow where he’s working with promoters and fighters who are on the same page. That “minimizes surprises,” what I referenced earlier, those speedbumps that derail even stable vehicles.

“What we’ve seen is the blossoming of a Terence Crawford, the explosive growth of Gennady Golovkin, and events like the Juan Manuel Marquez-Mike Alvarado fight,” and other marquee matchups of that ilk.  “The key to long-term success (as an executive) is to never get too high, or too low. You roll with it, and you stay true to the brand and the principals you support. Then, you can navigate through anything pretty well. We did a pretty good job in 2014 navigating.”

This year in boxing was an upheaval year, more than most, with the Golden Boy splintering setting a tone of instability and uncertainty for the most of the year. Oscar De La Hoya proved himself a hard-nosed promoter, as he was a fighter, when he did what capitalists do, use his leverage and a robust marketplace to get the best deal he could for his pugilistic building block, Canelo Alvarez, as he ushered him across the street from Sho to HBO. They have a multi fight deal in place, which should result in the red-headed Mexican re-debuting on HBO in a most splashy tangle, against Puerto Rican icon Miguel Cotto, in May. That’ll be a PPV outing, and I touched on that model some with Hershman. He reiterated what he’s said more often of late, that he wants HBO subscribers to get great bang for their buck, and to use the PPV mode quite selectively.

Thinking back, here are some of the marquee names who fought on HBO this year: Manny Pacquiao, Miguel Cotto, Wladimir Klitschko, Gennady Golovkin, Sergey Kovalev, Terence Crawford, Timothy Bradley Jr., Carl Froch, Sergio Martinez, Bernard Hopkins, Juan Manuel Marquez, Vasyl Lomachenko, Brandon Rios, Mike Alvarado and Ruslan Provodniknov, as well as relative newcomers David Lemieux and Nicholas Walters.

HBO gave us the two most anticipated, arguably, scraps of the year, in the Miguel Cotto-Sergio Martinez clash in NYC, as well as the light heavyweight faceoff between Sergey Kovalev and Bernard Hopkins in AC.

“The Canelo signing for us was a pivotal signing,” Hershman said. “I’m so happy to be attached to him, and looking forward to Canelo delivering in 2015 mega-events, on HBO, and not only on pay-per-view.”

If you are a numbers freak, this stat might speak to you, if you are one who monitors the rivalry between HBO and Sho:

In 2014 HBO World Championship Boxing events – total program- (978,000 viewers) outperformed Showtime Championship events (593,000 viewers) by 65%.

Also, in 2014 HBO World Championship Boxing main event fights (1.2 million viewers) outperformed Showtime Championship main event fights (734,000 viewers) by 58%.

Interestingly, the Boxing After Dark prime time main events actually outperformed Showtime’s flagship Championship Boxing main events by 32% in 2014.  Additionally, HBO Boxing has delivered the top 13 bouts on cable television in 2014 to date. The top three, to date, were HBO presentations:

-Chavez Jr. vs. Vera II —  1,390,000 million viewers (1,531,000 peak viewership)

-Hopkins vs. Kovalev   —  1,328,000 million viewers (1,397,000 peak viewership)

-Golovkin vs.Rubio      –   1304,000 million viewers (1,323,000 peak viewership)

“We have a tremendous array of talent and mostly the best in class in virtually every weight division in which we’re active,” Hershman continued. “Yes, we had a great year.”

My friends at Sho would tell you they ain’t chopped liver either.

They will note their average viewership went up in 2012, and 2103, and basically stayed stable in 2014. They’d argue that momentum-wise, they like their trending better than HBO’s…and would note that HBO is on in about 28 million homes, versus 22 million or so for Sho.

That aside, Hershman likes his first quarter of 2015, too, he said. He sees Martin Murray as a viable challenger to Gennady Golovkin—-me, I see Murray and think “timberrr,” but hope for a competitive square-off—–and looks forward to that Feb. 21 tussle.

The third Rios-Alvarado tangle promises fierce trading, and Sergey Kovavel is now must see TV, so people will be circling his March 14 date with Jean Pascal. Add to that Wladimir Klitschko’s return to the US, in April, in Brooklyn at Barclays Center against Bryant Jennings, and the potential Cotto-Canelo waltz…

“We’re fully stocked with extremely talented fighers,” Hershman told me. He also pointed to up ‘n comers, like Crawford, Walters, Felix Verdejo, and a couple others, guys in the Top Rank stable, who will be appearing more on HBO Latino. “The world is their oyster,” he said. “There is no shortage of attractive fights and fighters. Of course, we’d love to have every single attractive fight and fighter…but we don’t struggle to find marquee matchups.”

Hershman is a top dog, so there are always pups nipping at his heels. You get a corner office and generous paycheck, and there will be talk about your performance, and the possibility of a severing of your tenure. I asked him how long his deal is with the company. “I work at the pleasure of the company,” he answered. “I will be here as long as they want me, and I am enjoying my gig, which I am!”

He wouldn’t furnish me any inside dope of the 2015 budget; I ask not to be a nosy nelly, but because a robust budget means we fans get, presumably, better bouts. “We never talk budget,” he said. “But HBO’s commitment to boxing has been fantastic. Boxing has been stellar for them, and I expect that to continue well into the future.” He said he thinks the sport “over-delivers” for the cabler, and is a potent driver in subscription adds.

As befits an executive who wants to maintain a sane and stable brain in this shark tank of a business climate, Hershman came off as chill, seeing big picture, with an upbeat bent. “That’s not to say there are no challenges. We need the judging to be more consistent, and the number of titles and sanctioning bodies (isn’t ideal). We’ve got a ways to go. But I’m an optimist, I believe in the strength and vitality of the sport.”

Amen, as do I.

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