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Boxing’s Biggest Battle: HBO vs Showtime

By Sean Crose

If you look carefully enough you’ll be surprised that things took this long to come to a head. The war between HBO and Showtime should, by right, have been going on since the second half of the 1980s, when Showtime first stepped onto the boxing scene. In fact, Showtime’s virgin foray into the fight game could hardly have been bigger or better. Marvelous Marvin Hagler, the single most popular and lucrative boxer on the planet at the time, faced off against thunderous number one contender John “The Beast” Mugabi.

It promised to be some kind of fight, and indeed it was. Mugabi was tough. Real tough. Hagler finally finished the Ugandan off in the eleventh round, but later admitted that he’d have been in serious danger if Mugabi had somehow gotten to his feet after hitting the canvas. How scared the HBO camp must have been that evening – and how thrilled the folks at Showtime must have felt. Everyone must have assuredly believed that things were about to heat up in the world of broadcast boxing. Thing is, they didn’t. Not really.

Until, that is, this past year.

For Golden Boy Promotions, the top promotional company in the sport, now no longer works with HBO. It works with Showtime, as do some of the biggest names in boxing – names such as Mayweather, Broner, and Hopkins. It may have taken twenty-seven years, but things have finally heated up between Showtime and HBO. And, at the moment, at least, there’s no telling who the winner of this broadcast war will be.

If there’s ever a start to such things, the beginning of the current HBO-Showtime conflict may have been when Manny Pacquaio went over to Showtime in 2011 for his fight with Shane Mosley. HBOs brass reportedly felt that embarrassment had disrupted the natural order of things enough for them to show Ross Greenberg, the President of its sports’ division, the door.

According to the New York Times, Greenberg was the winner of 51 Emmy’s and 8 Peabody Awards during his 33 years with HBO. In other words, he wasn’t someone who was easy to replace. HBO found the perfect candidate, however, by doing what HBO always did. It simply stole talent away from Showtime. For Greenberg’s replacement was none other than attorney Ken Hershman, the man who had been running Showtime’s Sport’s Division since 1992.

By leaving Showtime for HBO, Herschman had done what many big name boxers had been doing for years. For HBO, not Showtime, was where the big boys went to play. It was more prestigious, had deeper pockets and was never, not once, looked upon as the poor cousin to any rival. Showtime was about to level the playing field, though. Showtime was about to hire Stephen Espinoza.

As a partner at Ziffren, Bittenham LLP., Espinoza was one of the top sport’s attorney’s in the world. He was also the primary lawyer for Golden Boy Promotions. By convincing Espinoza to take the helm as general manager for Showtime Sports, the network brought on a player who not only knew the ins and outs of boxing as well as anyone, they had brought on someone with deep ties to the biggest promotional enterprise in the fight game.

Things then began to move rapidly. According to Espinoza, Showtimes’ boxing ratings went up around 15% in 2012, a remarkable achievement when one considers Showtime had only brought Espinoza on board in late 2011. That was only the beginning, though. For, in early 2013, a veritable earthquake hit the world of boxing when Floyd Mayweather himself left HBO for Showtime. By March, HBO and Golden Boy had parted ways.

To say HBOs losses this past year are Showtime’s gain would be to understate the obvious.

Still, HBO is nothing if not a formidable foe. It has more money for its boxing events than Showtime does. It also has a lot more viewers. Probably most telling, however, is the fact that HBO is bringing fresh faces onto the scene. Casual fight fans may not have heard of Gennady Golovkin, Adonis Stevenson or Sergey Kovalev until recently. They know who they are now, though, thanks to HBO. For Golovkin, Stevensen and Kovalev are exciting fighters, fighters people want to watch on a Saturday night. HBO knows this, which is why you will most likely be seeing more of them in the future.

It’s good to keep in mind that although Showtime has done wonderful things since Espinoza was hired, HBO has still soundly won the battle for viewers this year. Showtime may now have the gloss, but unless it can deliver the grit, it may well see similar results next year, too. Time will tell.

Who knows? This broadcast war may only have just begun.

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