Licensing, Boxing, North America

At Large: HBO boxing suffers KO after missing latest gravy train

SportsPro editor-at-large Eoin Connolly reflects on HBO’s decision to end its live boxing coverage after 45 years in the fight game, and what it says about the future of entertainment media.

by Eoin Connolly
At Large: HBO boxing suffers KO after missing latest gravy train

Somewhere deep down the kind of YouTube rabbit hole that steals viewers away from reality for hours at a time, there is a tranche of videos that recalls the pivotal role of one network across decades of US boxing.

Legendary Nights is a series of 20-odd-minute programmes commissioned 15 years back by HBO. As the name suggests, it documents some of the most memorable broadcasts in what was then 30 years of coverage. It is a rich seam of nostalgia, a treasure trove of great performances and compelling narratives that shows the sport at its most thrilling, its most inspiring, its most dispiriting and its most bizarre. 

The variety astounds. Marvelous Marvin Hagler appears in his epochal contests with ‘Sugar’ Ray Leonard and Thomas Hearns. So too do Oscar De La Hoya and Alexis Argüello. There are recollections of the richly gifted Meldrick Taylor’s cruel late defeat to Julio Cesar Chavez, an overmatched Gerry Cooney’s racially charged meeting with Larry Holmes, and the redemptive miracle of a 45-year-old George Foreman’s recovery of the world heavyweight title, 20 years after he surrendered it to Muhammad Ali in Zaire. 

Mike Tyson’s surreal 1990 loss over breakfast in Tokyo to colossal underdog James ‘Buster’ Douglas is in there. So too is the night 12 years later when the ‘Baddest Man on the Planet’ was banished from the elite for good by a merciless Lennox Lewis in Memphis. 

45-year-old George Foreman’s recovery of the world heavyweight title is a standout moment in HBO's boxing history

In January HBO celebrated 45 years in the fight game, leading the pay-per-view charge through a period that bridged unrecognisably different ages in mass media. Its first show was headlined by Foreman’s infamous two-round pummelling of the great Joe Frazier in Jamaica. Since then its aesthetic and on-air team have become familiar to viewers around the world. But now its reign is over: at the end of September, HBO confirmed that it will phase out live boxing by the end of 2018. 

In terms of its appeal to audiences, boxing is not as important to HBO as it was even a couple of years ago. Ironically, that is not because the sport is foundering but because it is flourishing. Where once it set the agenda, HBO’s relevance has waned in the past few years. Showtime decisively changed the balance of the US market back in 2013 when it signed the biggest draw of the decade, Floyd Mayweather Jr, to a long-term deal that has yielded a series of nine-figure pay-per-view promotions. HBO has had a piece of just one of those: Mayweather’s record-breaking 2015 win over Manny Pacquiao.

Where once it had leveraged its financial advantage to sign that litany of great names above, HBO has haemorrhaged top talent since Mayweather’s defection. Influential promoter Al Haymon has taken his business elsewhere, and deals with the likes of Saul ‘Canelo’ Alvarez have drifted to a close, while WBC heavyweight champion Deontay Wilder fights on Showtime. British stadium-filler Anthony Joshua has also slipped HBO’s advances and will now appear on OTT streaming service DAZN in the US as part of a comprehensive deal signed by his representatives at Matchroom. That partnership could be worth up to US$1 billion and was given blanket promotional coverage during Joshua’s recent knockout win over Russia’s Alexander Povetkin at Wembley. 

Matchroom’s boxing chief Eddie Hearn has raised concerns about the over-proliferation of pay-per-view cards, and new models could emerge in the years to come. In that respect, HBO leaves a complicated legacy. Yet its departure probably says as much about developments in wider entertainment media as it does about how fans will watch major bouts.  

Anthony Joshua has slipped HBO’s advances and will now appear on OTT streaming service DAZN

After being buffeted by the effects of time-shifted viewing, original programming is on the rise once again as video-on-demand matures. Services like Netflix and Amazon Prime Video have created a thriving international market for it and a company like HBO, as both an originator and distributor of premium scripted entertainment, is well minded to prioritise efforts in that space – particularly as its live sports activities beyond boxing have always been fairly limited. 

Other pay-TV groups have made similar moves in an increasingly competitive sector. In the UK, for example, Sky has diverted resources freed up by losing bids for major sports rights back into projects that it can carry itself and sell on elsewhere. With live boxing gone, HBO Sports will now be characterised by the type of marquee programming and documentary filmmaking that is not only of a piece with the rest of the network’s output, but is also an increasingly significant part of the sports content ecosystem.  

There is some poignancy to HBO’s final bell, a reminder in a time of flux that here, too, was a disruptive player that courted excitement and controversy in equal measure. But it has also set a powerful example – one that those coming in to change the industry today would be thrilled to emulate.