What we know about Al Haymon: Part IV
THE RING’S Thomas Hauser in this special series sheds light on the powerful and mysterious boxing impresario Al Haymon and Premier Boxing Champions. Fourth of five parts. Read Part I, Part II, and Part III.
On May 20, 2015, NBC Sports Group chairman Mark Lazarus, CBS Sports President Sean McManus, Fox Sports President Eric Shank and ESPN President John Skipper discussed the future of broadcast sports in a forum moderated by Richard Deitsch of Sports Illustrated. During the Q&A portion of the program, Richard Sandomir of the New York Times asked, “For those of you who do and those of you who don’t associate with Al Haymon on the PBC, how do you think that strategy is going to play out in terms of building interest for boxing?”
Skipper’s answer was direct and to the point: “Last time I checked my XY-axis quadrant, it’s not in the right quadrant.”
Sports entities are valued as businesses in significant measure based on their television contracts. Right now, PBC’s television contracts are showing a lot of red ink. Al Haymon is demonstrating that it’s easier to spend money than it is to make it.
As noted earlier, Premier Boxing Champions was built on the premise that there’s a much broader audience for boxing than the people who watch it on HBO and Showtime. But so far, PBC has failed to find it. Whatever Haymon’s master plan was, it’s not working. As Bart Barry of 15rounds.com recently wrote, “Suddenly boxing is ubiquitous on free television, the last era’s Promised Land. And nobody cares.”
Why is PBC foundering?
For starters, as elaborated upon in Part I of this series, Haymon has created an environment in which there are few checks and balances on his power. That means, when he makes a mistake, it often goes uncorrected.
Seth Abraham, the architect of HBO Sports, put together a leadership team that included Ross Greenburg, Lou DiBella and Mark Taffet. There were occasions when Abraham thought one thing and they thought another.
“When that happened,” Abraham recalled several years ago, “I’d go into Bryant Park, sit down with a cup of cappucino, and ask myself, ‘Why do these very intelligent people have a view that’s different than mine?’ And often – not always, but often – I’d come around to their view.”
“Just because you’re the head of a department doesn’t mean that you have a monopoly on brains,” Abraham continued. “Sometimes you have a monopoly on shortsightedness and stupidity. Leadership is about consensus. If you’re the boss, everybody knows that you’re in charge and that you have the final vote. But you don’t effectively manage an organization by fiat or by ignoring the opinions of the people you’ve chosen to work with you.”
The scheduling of PBC’s fights has also been a problem. There’s no continuity. The date, time, and network for telecasts are often a mystery until late in the process. “Even boxing people don’t know when or where Al’s guys are fighting,” says promoter Gary Shaw.
Haymon’s attitude toward the media has further damaged his cause. He has an absolute right to not talk with the media. But his dismissive stance has been counterproductive.
“Most people in sports who don’t communicate with the press have someone who does it for them,” ESPN boxing writer Dan Rafael observes. “Al doesn’t. You can’t get basic facts from PBC, like what weight a fight will be at or how many rounds it will be until they get around to sending it out in some kind of press release. And forget about their communicating with you when you have questions about the larger picture.”
Richard Schaefer, who has been one of Haymon’s staunchest allies over the years, is in accord.
“I would have dealt more openly with the media,” Schaefer says. “A lot of people choose not to talk to the press. Kirk Kerkorian didn’t talk to the press. Jerry Perenchio doesn’t talk to the press. But they have someone who does it for them. If you don’t want to talk to the media and the rest of the outside world, that’s fine. But then you should have someone you trust do it for you.”
Then Schaefer points to another problem.
“I have great respect for Al,” the former Golden Boy Promotions CEO says. “He’s a friend of mine and I admire the way he cares about his fighters. But someone who can put together big TV deals is not necessarily a promoter. I would have promoted much more on site than Al has. He hasn’t done a lot of that and I think that’s one reason there hasn’t been more of a buzz for his fights.”
Al’s biggest problem isn’t that he’s acting like a promoter. … He’s making the fights that he wants to make rather than the fights that people want to see.
During the past year, Haymon has worked with a handful of promoters, Lou DiBella, Leon Margules, Yvon Michel, Tom Brown, Mike Battah and Marshall Kauffman among them.
“Because of the promotional situation,” Schaefer says, “there hasn’t been much continuity and it becomes harder to build the fighters. When Danny Garcia fights at Barclays Center, the promoter is Lou DiBella. Then he fights at Staples Center and the promoter is Tom Brown. Neither promoter feels that he has a long term interest in Danny. And who should the media call when they want to talk about Danny’s next fight? Lou DiBella? Tom Brown? It’s a problem.”
And there’s another problem.
“When you’re working with Al to promote a fight,” says a promoter who has worked with him, “he micromanages so much that you can’t do your job. And the secrecy kills you. You’re watching things unfold and you don’t know how they’re unfolding.”
Despite all the money that Haymon has spent on the production of PBC telecasts, that area too has been wanting. There have been some positive innovations. Haymon eliminated the mob that pours into the ring before and after fights. There are no people inside the ropes shouting, “You da man.” No sanctioning body officials draping T-shirts and phony belts over the combatants. No promoters, managers, commissioners or mistresses jockeying for position in front of the camera.
But many of the gimmicks that PBC experimented with to jazz up its telecasts have fallen flat. The “ref-cam” didn’t show viewers “what the referee sees” because it followed the referee’s forehead, not his eyes. The 36-still-camera-over-the-ring video rig that was supposed to give viewers a moving panoramic view of the action produced visuals that had the feel of a not-very-good video game from the 1980s.
Also, the announcing has been uneven with no continuity from show to show. And for the most part, as noted by Bart Barry, “PBC broadcasting crews have the journalistic integrity of Billy Mays pitching GatorBlade bug bazookas at 3 AM. Their commentary works more like a celebrity endorsement of a product than a description of what happens in the boxing ring. None of them offers commentary to invite even the softest inference of disloyalty to Al Haymon.”
In some respects, the May 2, 2015, megafight between Floyd Mayweather Jr. and Manny Pacquiao also undermined Premier Boxing Champions. There was no PBC branding during fight week. And PBC didn’t have a direct financial interest in the bout. But Haymon was counting on the fight to give his vision a boost. It was an important piece of the puzzle that he was putting together.
On the plus side, some powerful people and institutions made a lot of money off Mayweather-Pacquiao and feel beholden to Haymon. Also, Haymon had thousands of tickets and rooms at the MGM Grand that he could give to PBC investors, sponsors, television executives and fighters. And most important, Haymon could tell investors, “This fight is grossing a half billion dollars. We might be losing millions of dollars now. But stay the course and there will be paydays like this for us in the future.”
But there was a downside for Haymon in the way that Mayweather-Pacquiao unfolded. The fight soured a lot of people on boxing. Viewers felt suckered after buying the pay-per-view telecast and many people became aware for the first time that boxing’s poster boy had multiple criminal convictions on his record for physically abusing women. That made it more difficult for Haymon to attract advertisers for Premier Boxing Champions and, in some ways, left boxing less well off than before.
Haymon’s plans also hit a snag when he lost the ability to work with Schaefer and Golden Boy as the primary promotional vehicle for his fighters. Haymon appears to have coordinated with Schaefer in an effort to buy out Oscar De La Hoya and Golden Boy’s other major shareholders (AEG and the Brener family). But that plan fell apart when De La Hoya refused to sell. After buy-out negotiations failed, Schaefer resigned from Golden Boy. Then, on June 16, 2014, Golden Boy instituted an arbitration proceeding against him, claiming $50 million in damages. The suit was settled for an undisclosed amount and, per terms of the settlement, Schaefer was precluded from working with Haymon on boxing matters for an undisclosed period of time.
In 2015, Bruce Binkow, Raul Jaimes, Nicole Sparks, Armando Gaytan and Araceli Villegas (each of whom had worked previously with Schaefer at Golden Boy) formed a company called Integrated Sports Marketing LLC to coordinate sponsorships, foreign sales, on-site set-ups and drug testing for Haymon. None of them has Schaefer’s overall business expertise.
In the end though, the primary reason that Premier Boxing Champions has fallen short of expectations is the quality of the fights that Haymon has given the public.
The PBC telecasts have had every ingredient imaginable. … The only ingredient they haven’t thrown in is good fights.
One of the benefits that fight fans expected as PBC took shape was that Haymon’s control over an extensive fighter roster would guarantee good fights. The PBC website promises “today’s best and brightest stars in their toughest, most anticipated bouts.”
Brian Kweder, who ran ESPN’s boxing program as it transitioned to PBC, says, “Ending ‘Friday Night Fights’ was bittersweet. We’d had a long run and a loyal fan base. But ESPN is a top sports site and it didn’t compute that we had what was essentially minor league boxing.”
But to date, too many PBC fights have been minor league. Bart Barry puts the matter in perspective when he says, “The PBC telecasts have had every ingredient imaginable. Special ring-walk music, rotating cameras, monster display boards. It’s like they’re making a cake. Flour, sugar, butter, chocolate. Wait! Here’s a chili pepper. Let’s throw that in too. The only ingredient they haven’t thrown in is good fights.”
Looking at year one, the Premier Boxing Champions website lists 55 televised fight cards that were contested between March 7, 2015, and March 5, 2016. Virtually none of these were “must see viewing” or “water-cooler fights.” Some weren’t even credible match-ups.
Haymon has a well-deserved reputation for putting his favored fighters in soft. To be entertaining over the long run, boxing needs competitive fights. In that regard, one promoter associated with PBC notes, “Al’s biggest problem isn’t that he’s acting like a promoter. It’s that he’s not acting enough like a promoter. He has all the control and he’s protecting too many of his guys by putting them in easy. He’s making the fights that he wants to make rather than the fights that people want to see.”
Overall, Haymon’s PBC match-ups have been disappointing on paper and, where it counts most, in the ring.
Matchmaking isn’t rocket science. Fans were looking forward to Leo Santa Cruz vs. Abner Mares. It was the kind of fight that viewers once saw regularly on ‘Boxing After Dark’ when Lou DiBella was HBO’s boxing guru. And there have been other anticipated PBC match-ups. Danny Garcia vs. Lamont Peterson, Amir Khan vs. Chris Algeri and Adrien Broner vs. Shawn Porter come to mind. Sometimes an underdog surprises, as Krzysztof Glowacki did against Marco Huck.
But Haymon has diluted his own product. In Greg Bishop’s words, “He’s saturating the market with borderline unwatchable fights.”
Hall of Fame matchmaker Teddy Brenner once proclaimed, “Fights make fights.”
But on PBC, each fight seems like a one-off. There’s no continuity from show to show and no natural progression toward fights of greater importance. Viewers are consigned to watching what seems like the endless first round of what could have been an exciting tournament.
In sum, for all the money that Haymon has spent, he has delivered an ordinary product. And with multiple fight cards on television week after week, boxing fans have become more discriminating about what they watch. PBC fighters have had a lot of air time over the past year. By and large, they’ve failed to impress.
Years ago, I received an email from a reader. I’ll paraphrase what he wrote:
“I work in a marketing department. And one of the things I’ve learned is that you can package things and market them as good quality whether they are or not. You can sell perfume that smells bad. You can sell clothes that are ugly. The one thing you cannot sell is bad sports programming. Sports fans know whether they’re being entertained or not.”
Premier Boxing Champions isn’t entertaining the public. Certainly not the general public. Too many of its telecasts are like concert warm-up acts. If Al Haymon had promoted concerts that were of the same quality as his fights, he never would have become a giant in the music business.
Hauser is a consultant for HBO Sports.
Thomas Hauser can be reached by email at [email protected] His most recent book – A Hurting Sport – was published by the University of Arkansas Press. In 2004, the Boxing Writers Association of America honored Hauser with the Nat Fleischer Award for career excellence in boxing journalism.