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Ken Hershman Q&A: HBO boss pleased with 2014 and optimistic going forward

17
Dec

Ken Hershman, president of HBO Sports, is more than satisfied when he looks back on 2014.

The premium network did good boxing numbers, averaging almost a million (978,000) viewers for its HBO World Championship Boxing events, which is a reflection of the quality of fights it televised. It had the five largest audiences of the year, according to its public relations department. The biggest was Julio Cesar Chavez-Bryan Vera II, which drew 1,390,000 viewers.

The network also signed to a long-term contract perhaps the biggest young star in the sport, Canelo Alvarez, who some believe will drive boxing after Floyd Mayweather Jr. and Manny Pacquaio are gone.

Hershman discussed these topics and a lot more in an interview with THE RING.



 

THE RING: Let’s start by looking back on 2014. Are you pleased?

KEN HERSHMAN: I’m thrilled. I think it’s been a fantastic year for HBO boxing. We’re really pleased with the level of fights, the level of the audience, the new generation of fighters that we’re starting to develop. The foundation is there for a great 2015, as well. So we’re very pleased.

THE RING: The viewership numbers on HBO seem to be strong but I know you strive for even larger audiences. What steps do you take toward that end?

KH: We’re always looking at that. We’ve sort of launched new kinds of media endeavors. Our digital content is more robust than ever. We’re constantly looking for ways to grow in that area, to generate more awareness among fans. We’re looking at the start times of our shows. Some of them have been a little too late for what we’re trying to do with our audience. We’re going to look at that. It’s most important to put on compelling fights between best-in-class fighters. And I think we’ve been doing that. That’s why the results have been strong.

THE RING: You mentioned that the late start times of your main events – sometimes midnight on the East Coast – are a problem. How can that be resolved?

hershman-posed2KH: Sometimes we just have no choice. There are other things on the network that we don’t control. Maybe we’re up against programming we want to avoid. There are reasons that later is still better than earlier. This is a goal for 2015, though, to start as promptly as we can. And if we have to start late, we want to figure out ways to accelerate through the show as much as we can so the main event comes on as early as possible. We want to be more aggressive on that front next year.

THE RING: One thing that seems to turn fans away from boxing are bad decisions. Do you think that’s just something we have to live with?

KH: Judging a fight is a subjective exercise. I think you’ll always have some level of having to live with it. That being said, it’s really important that this sport be viewed by fans and media as legitimate as possible. We need as much consistency in judging as possible. We don’t control officiating. We have nothing to do with selecting or training officials. Our role can be showing why judging is such a difficult task and what goes into judging a boxing event so that when two judges see the same fight very differently there might be a legitimate explanation. Some might favor defense and ring generalship more than another. Some might favor the harder puncher over the pure boxer. I think we saw a little of that in the (Mauricio) Herrera-(Jose) Benavidez fight this past week. Those who appreciate work rate and controlling the pace saw it for Herrera. Those who appreciate counterpunching, effective aggression – even if there wasn’t a ton of it – favored Benavidez. It’s subjective. It’s important as a television outlet to explain that. We shouldn’t justify a bad decision but at least we can try to explain it. And we allow our announcing team the freedom to express their point of view, which they do. At least the fans get an objective viewpoint.

THE RING: How important to HBO was the signing of Canelo Alvarez?

KH: Hugely important. He’s a major figure in the sport. He’s just 24 years old. I think he’s going to be the No. 1 attraction in boxing for many years to come and a key component in what HBO Boxing is about for the foreseeable future. I can’t underestimate the importance of bringing him back to HBO.

THE RING: We conducted a poll of experts to determine which fighters could carry the sport after Floyd Mayweather Jr. and Manny Pacquiao are gone. The runaway winners were Gennady Golovkin and Alvarez, with Sergey Kovalev at No. 3. Do such fighters have what it takes to drive the sport going forward?

KH: I think they do. Their styles, their personalities in and out of the ring are very, very captivating. I liken it to when Michael Jordan retired from the NBA. Everyone was asking: Who will step in? All of a sudden Kobe Bryant comes along. And then LeBron James. Someone always comes next. I think you’ve identified three super-talented fighters who are super people who can carry the sport in the future very handily.

THE RING: Do you see heavyweights playing a bigger role than they have in the recent past?

KH: I think there’s some excitement building around heavyweights. The proof is going to be the outcomes in the ring. We’re going to go into this with Wladimir Klitschko. He is head and shoulders above everyone else. We hope to stage a number of really compelling fights with him and see what happens. It will be up to his opponents to figure out a way to compete with Klitschko. I think there is the prospect of some really entertaining fights involving the new blood in the division. 2015 should be a good year for heavyweights.

THE RING: Can young stars like Golovkin and Alvarez put up numbers comparable to Mayweather and Pacquiao? Or is pay-per-view a business model that won’t work as well going forward?

KH: That’s hard to answer. I don’t think anyone would’ve predicted that a Filipino who was coming up from 112 pounds would become the second biggest pay-per-view star in the business either. I don’t say “never” to any of this. At the moment, I would really love for these guys to stay on HBO for as long as possible. They’ve been great for our network. Ultimately Canelo will establish himself as pay-per-view worthy. He will be on pay-per-view when the fights warrant it. He’s always expressed a desire to be on HBO. That’s a tribute to our vision of building star power and an audience. I don’t think he can rely solely on pay-per-view at this point of his career. And Kovalev and Golovkin are still opponent driven. They might fight on pay-per-view against the right opponent but I don’t think they need that at the moment. Time will tell.

THE RING: Of course, Mayweather and Pacquiao are still around. And, yes, that leads me to the inevitable question: Will Mayweather vs. Pacquiao happen?

KH: I always answer that question the same way. As a fan, I want to see the fight. As someone in the sport, I can understand the fan and media drumbeat for the fight to happen. I get it. But I’m not going to discuss any of the particulars behind the scenes about what is or isn’t going on. It’s not for me to get into the middle of it publicly. What’s most important is that if it does come to fruition, it will be a mega-fight and we’ll be happy to be a part of it. If it doesn’t, then we’ll have to move on to other fights for Manny Pacquiao. And there are plenty of them out there. I’m going to leave it at that for the moment. And if there is something to report, we’ll talk about it.

THE RING: HBO and Showtime have worked together on mega-fights in the past. Can that work for Mayweather vs. Pacquiao?

KH: That’s something we would have to tackle if and when. Right now I can’t speculate.

THE RING: How much of a boon to boxing would Mayweather vs. Pacquiao be?

KH: I think boxing is very healthy as a worldwide, global sport. You see 80,000 in London for the (Carl) Froch-(George) Groves fight. You see sellouts for Klitschko fights. We sold out Omaha with Terence Crawford and StubHeb Center for Golvokin-(Marco Antonio) Rubio. Boxing is really, really healthy. Obviously we want the sport to grow a new fan base. And maybe that fight would help on that front. I don’t think boxing needs to be saved by anything, though. I think the sport would do fine without it as well.

THE RING: Is the potential battle over May 2, 2015, between Mayweather-Pacquiao and Alvarez-Miguel Cotto a concern?

KH: My experience is that ultimately business wins out. We’re all in this to do good business. Whoever has the best, the biggest event and gets there first, will go forward. And the other will find another perfectly suitable date. I’m not worried about it. That being said, one of the important features of Canelo’s business model is capturing the Cinco de Mayo and Mexican Independence Day holidays. He’s made that very clear and we’re supportive of that. Whatever we can do to help him accomplish that, we’re going to do.

THE RING: Speaking of Alvarez-Cotto, are you confident that the fight will happen?

KH: I don’t know. I’m trying to stay out of that as well to make sure it has the best chance of being made. I think it would be a fantastic fight for both guys. I love it as an event. And, as a fan, I don’t think there is a more intriguing fight out there. I hope it’s going to get done. I know everybody on all sides is working with the best intentions to get it done. I don’t know if it will. In boxing these deals aren’t something that just happen at the snap of a finger. They take time and effort. I think it’s important to give it that space and keep your fingers crossed.

THE RING: Golden Boy Promotions and Top Rank are working together on that fight. How significant do you think they’re reconciliation is?

KH: I think it’s great. You’ve been around boxing a long time. You know all the challenge in front of us in trying to make fights – all the belts, the mandatories, the promoters and managers, the money, the dates, the timing, injuries, just other agendas. There are so many impediments. Any time we can eliminate one or reduce one is a benefit for boxing and should lead to great fights, which we’ve already had.

THE RING: And you’re doing business with Golden Boy again. You must be pleased.

KH: I’m thrilled we have more opportunities to do more big, competitive, fun fights. That fits our business model. It’s been really nice, really refreshing.

THE RING: HBO isn’t working much with powerful adviser Al Haymon at the moment. Is that something that could change?

KH: We’re open to working with anybody who shares our business philosophy. We’ve been very clear for a long time now. We have a shared vision with fighters and promoters and managers who work with us. I guess I would answer your question this way: When we have that collective vision, look what happens: Canelo coming here, Gennady Golovkin building a brand that far exceeds what anyone could’ve imagined for a kid from Kazakhstan in such a short time, Kovalev and (Bernard) Hopkins coming together and Kovalev going on to fight Jean Pascal, Terence Crawford fighting (Yuriorkis) Gamboa in one of the most exciting fights of the year and emerging as a star, Cotto-(Sergio) Martinez coming together. When we invest heavily in a fighter and he invests in us, it works for the long haul. That’s what we’re in the business for. When you have fighters like Manny and Cotto and (Juan Manuel) Marquez and Crawford and Golovkin and Canelo and Kovalev and Hopkins and Wladimir Klitschko, you don’t need to chase anybody for a fight. We’re not in that business. We have tons of best-in-class fighters and a lot of great fights to make. That’s our strategy. We’ve been transparent about that. If a fighter out there, no matter who represents him, wants to come here and build his career and fight in tremendous fights and do it for a long time, great. We’re open to that.

THE RING: Speaking generally, people continue to label boxing a “niche” sport and wonder about its health given the rise of MMA. How do you react to that?

KH: “Niche” isn’t necessarily a bad thing; there are a lot of niche sports out there. What you look at are indicators. Are we getting consistent viewership? The numbers we’re doing are terrific. Does the audience like what we’re doing? What’s the social media reaction? The press reaction? I think what we’re doing is being well received. Fighters are growing and prospering. Fights are being made. Fans are showing up at arenas and in front of their TVs. It seems like we’re in a really good period. The sport feels very healthy to me. I know they (MMA) have challenges in their business like we have in ours. I don’t see that as a bigger sport than boxing. I think the numbers bear that out – pay-per-view numbers and venue numbers. There are some 200 channels, 24-hour sports channels, DVRs, video games, stuff like that. I don’t know if you characterize boxing as a niche sport but I think the sport is doing well – if not thriving.

 

 

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