HBO Boxing Is Dying…Is PETER NELSON To Blame?
The exit from the boxing sphere from former lead dog HBO didn’t hit like a ton of bricks when word dropped on Friday, Sept. 27.
Probably not coincidentally, the news hit the wires while many adults were transfixed with the drama in the Senate, as the judiciary committee alternately grilled and massaged Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, as he proclaimed his fondness for beer and, veins in face abulging, declared that the woman who braved death threats to tell the committee that he tried to sexually assault her when they were teens was not telling the truth.
While partisans took sides on that scrum, boxing fans were told that HBO would not be presenting live boxing anymore. They had a date set for Oct. 27 and then, maybe, nothing apart from that.
Peter Nelson, at the helm of the department since 2016, told the NY Times that research showed that subscribers were not so much in love with boxing as they were. Boxing doesn’t move the subscriber needle, he said, and the company would be better suited in putting its eggs in other baskets.
As we said, the news came as no surprise; it didn’t take an FBI agent to discern something was up when Main Events said that HBO took a pass on televising a Sergey Kovalev v Eleider Alvarez rematch. Not in December…and not in January, when maybe there’d be budget money freed up. Not in Neveruary, it turned out, when some weeks later we heard that after 45 years, HBO Boxing as we knew it would be no more.
But, we were told, HBO will put out a Muhammad Ali documentary next year!
If you were in the camp that lamented this development, you may have reacted quizzically…HBO thinks there is a market for another Ali doc? Does that program move the subscriber needle?
Naturally, enquiring minds pondered and are still asking themselves how we got here. Normally, we’d try to reach a reasoned conclusion, and then wait for Thomas Hauser to help us reach a point of clarity. But Hauser had been hired by HBO as a consultant back when Ken Hershman steered the ship, and that arrangement held up while Nelson took the rudder. So, while Hauser touched on the HBO exit and the reset in the space, with DAZN and ESPN the new gorillas in the jungle, he didn’t take a deep dive into how we got here.
Some folks had said for a few years, when it was stated that the fare Nelson was purchasing from Top Rank, before they latched on the ESPN train, Roc Nation, Golden Boy, Main Events, Tom Loeffler and Joe DeGuardia—is there a bigger Joe DeGuardia fan than Peter Nelson?—wasn’t A grade. Shoot, they said that in Hershman era too, and Ross Greenburg heard hooting during some of his 2000 to mid 2013 reign…
This isn’t often enough the best fighting the best, it was whispered and then screamed in the direction of Nelson. And when it is, subscribers are told to reach again into their pockets, and pay a PPV fee to watch topmost tier fights…or, at least, fights that it was determined would warrant a PPV charge. Too often under Nelson, that bar was a low one; Canelo Alvarez in showcase fights, man, shouldn’t they change their tag line, the grousing went, to “The best fights are on HBO PPV?”
And then, apart from that, the fights that Nelson bought that appeared on regular HBO, way too many were clearly designed as showcases. No, not rigged bouts, but ones in which it was pretty clear to those in the know, that the A side would get the W, unless fate intervened. 13 of 19 main events were showcasers in 2016, the first year at the top for the Harvard grad with the passion for art history, who was barely known in the industry for his fightwriting. He’d been able to convince Vanity Fair to post a bunch of boxing articles, and that spoke for his ability to persuade. He looked a good part, he wore a suit well, and…maybe he possessed a super keen eye for talent and ability to fashion deals that he’d kept hidden in his work as a journalist. I mean, did he interview really well, that crossed my mind as a wondered why HBO picked Nelson. (Disclosure: I sat down for a breakfast meeting with Nelson not long after his hiring. I was following up on discussions I’d had with HBO in the Hershman era, when I’d gotten on the same page with Bill McCullough, a “Real Sports” and boxing producer-director type who wanted to get me doing some interviews with a bit of an edge, a departure from the old school and staid buttoned down HBO way. Then McCullough went to Go Pro, and the momentum languished. I pitched some ideas to Nelson and company and nothing came of it.)
By April 2016, that curiosity grew louder in my head; why was Nelson buying fights like Luis Ortiz against Tony Thompson? And he had the checkbook, what good did GGG facing sad sack Dominic Wade do the cabler? And OK, Andre Ward was a favored son, he worked for HBO…but letting him fight Alexander Brand, no, that wasn’t the way to attract subscribers. By this time, I wondered, and asked people at HBO….what’s going on?
Are they staying in the space?
Why was this new face brought in here…to do what? Reinvigorate? Bring a youthful verve to the mix…inject a Gen Y sensibility to the product?
But you want to be watching good fights, so maybe you err toward optimism. I did…It was also the politically correct thing to do, to be quite candid. And you note that you enjoyed the drama in Joe Smith wrecking Bernard Hopkins’ retirement bash…but looking back you understand that was a fluke, that this fight was another Nelson-bought showcase.
Or was it…people would say that Nelson inherited some past their prime products, and deals. He wouldn’t be inclined to tell you that; for a media man, he was ludicrously averse to sharing with media anything meaningful on a regular basis. Sometimes he would, but his protectors in HBO’s PR department guarded him with a Secret Service-man’s zealotry. And when he spoke often he’d offer terminology that was apparently de riguer in his sphere, but wasn’t dumbed down enough for regular Joes. Lou Dibella was a Harvard guy who didn’t come off like that; Nelson was one who did. And that I suppose helped land Nelson the job and keep it.
In 2017, maybe Peter Nelson would get his legs, and put his stamp on the fare, was my thinking.
He showed acumen in putting the Vargas and Berchelts and Salidos and such on the docket. He knew these sorts of hitters had throwback hearts, wouldn’t put on “skills pay the bills” efforts. They rewarded, usually, watchers who decided to give ole boxing a try. But again, showcases were too often the norm.
Why was the 36 year old paying premium prices for fights not even close to 50-50 tossups?
He’d help build them up, and once they go good and popular enough, he’d usher them to the PPV department. Time and again and yet again, he stuck to the business model which was: place showcases on HBO, and rather than reward subscribers, ask they pay up to get the truly premium fare. To be fair, he didn't invent that concept…but he didn't re-invent, or tweak the regular order of business…and thus we are where we are today, with HBO being out of the boxing business. And we wonder, will Nelson be rewarded for this act…where will he land, if he leaves HBO…will another corporation see what he did, and look at it from a “McKinsey stance,” believe that he “did the right thing” by the corporation, as a good CEO does when he strip mines a property, firing hundreds of staffers in order to leave the remaining body “leaner” and “meaner” and more profitable…but at reduced efficacy?
Nelson gave no hint of the plummeting to come when he spoke to ESPN's Dan Rafael when hired:
“The quality of HBO Sports programming is mirrored in the profound talents creating it, both those who work with HBO and those who work within it, people for whom I have deep admiration and with whom I'm excited to collaborate,” Nelson said.
“We're an experienced team on every level. This is not a one-man operation. It's a collaborative effort, and I'm honored to be chosen to lead the team.”
By 2017's end, there was a showcase which was an accidental hit; Miguel Cotto was upset by Sadam Ali in NYC, and again, drama was conjured. Accidentally.
But hey, better to be lucky than skilled, right?
Maybe in 2018, Nelson would be able to make moves within a changing sphere, and he’d use his horse-picking chops at filling up the schedule to fill the gaps left by Bob Arum’s move to ESPN. Arum was no Nelson fan, he savaged him as being half as bright or less than he thought he was. But Bob was no stranger to verbal volleys at those who’d not seen things his way. We’d let Nelson have a little more time to prove his worth….
A showcase for Lucas Matthysse against Tewa Kiram made him look bad at the start of 2018, and then another showcase for Sergey Kovalev….and was he trying to curry favor with Eddie Hearn to land Anthony Joshua, is that why he paid for Dillian Whyte against bouncer-brawler Lucas Browne?
Danny Jacobs, Nelson signed him to an exclusivity deal, and then had him fight Luis Arias, and then Maciej Sulecki, in showcase scraps? Why pay multi-millions or whatever and then not demand he go in tough?
Jaime Munguia was now being lauded as the next big thing on narrative heavy shows, and the blowback on social media was now persistent and intense. And some of the boxing media was now weighing in, and not in a kind fashion.
And then came the AT&T crew…the Justice Department was seeming to give the OK to the merger, the swallowing up of a mega corp by a more mega corp. Now we heard that AT&T wanted, wait for it, more money from ole HBO. They weren’t paying heavily for prestige and the library. Game of Thrones, give me more of that…boxing, not so much. Jaime who? The incoming ATT guy, John Stankey, in July told the assembled HBO old guard that, “You will work very hard, and this next year will — my wife hates it when I say this — feel like childbirth. You’ll look back on it and be very fond of it, but it’s not going to feel great while you’re in the middle of it.” His analogy was errant, for the boxing bunch. Birthing was not an accurate description of what was to come.
After Nelson couldn’t lure Joshua into the fold, that was probably the death blow. Or maybe the program got softened up, and was susceptible to a final dagger thrust when Al Haymon consolidated talent in his PBC fold…and Hershman and then Nelson chose not to walk across that aisle and try to mix Haymonites into their fold. Also, boxing aside; HBO hasn’t been hitting home runs like they did back in their days. Bill Simmons’ trajectory hasn’t gone as hoped when the ex ESPNer hopped onboard in the summer of 2015.
“We are excited to bring his unique vision to bear on an array of new programming initiatives under the HBO Sports banner in 2017,” Nelson said in a statement when Simmons’ talk show was axed in November 2016. Nelson had a knack for not acknowledging downsides and disappointments, and layering shop-talk lingo, luxuriating in “virtuosity” and promising “linear” this and that, which must’ve played well in the corner office suites. At times, I appreciated his masterpiece theater type presentations during press conferences, but when not in the mood, found too much of his chatter heavy on style, but lacking substance.
My three cents: You want to be fair and equitable, and not look at this HBO self defenestration like a Brett Kavanaugh looks at his world…through filters of auto-focus. Kavanaugh said he thought allegations levied against him were lobbed because of payback from the Clintons and warned that what goes around, comes around. He forever disqualified himself from being seen across the board as an impartial arbiter of law. My point here is that outside looking in, you want to consider all aspects of the business, and not simply look to lay blame at the feet of Nelson. But until Nelson chooses to sit down and take questions, and engage in some of the transparency he asked for when he worked as a journo, it follows that the post-mortems done on HBO boxing will be aiming microscopes on him, and his decisions.
Summing it up, Nelson wasn’t graced with a glory days budget…but his choices of purchases with the money he had to work with, in retrospect, don’t indicate that he was a sharp and judicious choice-maker.
And thus, is it any surprise that over the last couple years, audience enthusiasm waned…and it was decided that now, not enough subscribers and potential subscribers mentioned boxing as a reason to get HBO…or not cut the cord?
This all seems, in retrospect, like a self fulfilling prophecy. I wondered in 2016 if Nelson, who started out writing for the HBO website, and then was elevated to be a programming director in 2013, was brought in because he was seen as having an impressive outward facade but even more so because overseers figured he’d be malleable if and when they decided that HBO needed to reboot. I still wonder that now, even more.
Here is a list of all the main events that HBO ran while Peter Nelson ran the show. Atop each year is the number of shows they put on, and in parentheses, how many were PPVs.
2018 11 (1 PPV)
Sept. 15, 2018
GGG v Canelo 2 (PPV)
Sept. 8, 2018
Juan Francisco Estrada v Felipe Orucuta
Aug. 4, 2018
Sergey Kovalev v Eleider Alvarez
July 21, 2018
Jaime Munguia v Liam Smith
May 12, 2018
Sadam Ali v Jaime Munguia
May 5, 2018
GGG v Vanes Martirosyan
April 28, 2018
Danny Jacobs v Maciej Sulecki
March 24, 2018
Dillian Whyte v Lucas Browne
March 3, 2018
Sergey Kovalev v Igor Mikhalkin
Feb. 24, 2018
Srisaket Sor Rungvisai v Juan Francisco Estrada
Jan. 27, 2018
Lucas Matthysse v Tewa Kiram
2017 20 (4 PPV)
Dec. 16, 2017
Billy Joe Saunders v David Lemieux
Dec. 9, 2017
Orlando Salido v Miguel Berchelt
Dec. 2, 2017
Miguel Cotto v Sadam Ali
Nov. 25, 2017
Sergey Kovalev v Vyacheslav Shabranskyy
Nov. 11, 2017
Danny Jacobs v Luis Arias
Nov. 4, 2017
Dmitriy Bivol v Trent Broadhurst
Oct. 21, 2017
Jezreel Corrales v Alberto Machado
Sept. 23, 2017
Jorge Linares v Luke Campbell
Sept. 16, 2017 (PPV)
GGG v Canelo Alvarez
Sept. 9, 2017
Srisaket Sor Rungvisai v Chocolatito Gonzalez
August 26, 2017
Miguel Cotto v Yoshihiro Camera
July 15, 2017
Miguel Berchelt v Takashi Miura
June 17, 2017 (PPV)
Andre Ward v Sergey Kovalev 2
May 20, 2017
Terence Crawford v Felix Diaz
May 6, 2017 (PPV)
Canelo Alvarez v Julio Cesar Chavez Jr
April 29, 2017
Anthony Joshua v Wladimir Klitschko
April 8, 2017
Vasyl Lomachenko v Jason Sosa
March 18, 2017 (PPV)
Gennady Golovkin v Danny Jacobs
March 11, 2017
David Lemieux v Curtis Stevens
Jan. 28, 2017
Francisco Vargas v Miguel Berchelt
2016 19 (5 PPV)
Dec. 17, 2016
Bernard Hopkins v Joe Smith
Dec. 10, 2016
Terence Crawford v John Molina
Nov. 26, 2016
Vasyl Lomachenko vs Nicholas Walters
Nov. 17, 2016 (PPV)
Sergey Kovalev v Andre Ward
Nov. 12, 2016
Luis Ortiz v Malik Scott
Sept. 17, 2016 (PPV)
Canelo Alvarez v Liam Smith
Sept. 10, 2016
Chocolatito Gonzalez v Carlos Cuadras
Sept. 10, 2016
Gennady Golovkin v Kell Brook
Aug. 6, 2016
Andre Ward v Alexander Brand
July 23, 2016 (PPV)
Terence Crawford v Viktor Postol
July 11, 2016
Sergey Kovalev v Isaac Chilemba
June 4, 2016
Francisco Vargas v Orlando Salido
May 7, 2016 (PPV)
Canelo Alvarez v Amir Khan
April 23, 2016
GGG v Dominic Wade
April 9, 2016 (PPV)
Manny Pacquiao v Tim Bradley
March 26, 2016
Andre Ward v Sullivan Barrera
March 5, 2016
Luis Ortiz v Tony Thompson
Feb. 27, 2016
Terence Crawford v Hank Lundy
Jan. 30, 2016
Sergey Kovalev v Jean Pascal 2
Peter Nelson’s response on Oct. 5 to ESPN’s Dan Rafael when asked to dig down some on HBO’s exiting the arena, and getting out of the boxing sphere after 45 years, will stand as a superb summation of his handling of media during his three years at the helm of the cabler.
“Our mission is to use sports as a lens into socio-economic, political and cultural issues. I think humanizing individuals, creating empathy around different communities, allowing that to cross-pollinate for people in a way that allows them to contextualize themselves and the world around them. That’s the heart of what we strive to do.”
Where’s the past tense, Peter?
Isn’t “did” the right term?
Now, it wouldn’t be right to simply gape at that statement and dismiss it out of hand as gobbleygook corporate speak, would it? But the temptation is there, if you judge by the responses to the quote on Rafael’s Twitter timeline.
The writer termed the quagmire of language “pure gibberish,” and there wasn’t one defender of the head of boxing in the Twitter responses.
Maybe we should try and take a step back, and see if there are bits and pieces of truth and meaning hidden in the ten cent vocabulary show…
I think Nelson communicated more clearly than we’ve heard recently or at all what the HBO brand design is. If you look at their documentary roster, indeed, that “lens” of “socioeconomic, political and cultural issues” is front and center. Most of it skewing to a left and hard left crowd. Bill Maher owns Friday nights, and “Pod Save America,” from Obama admin stalwarts is being promised for next week. Want to watch funny stuff? Then HBO suggests you tune in to Michelle Wolf, and Sarah Silverman, both aligned with far left causes and politicos. Now, to be clear, that aligns with my POV, so it works for me.
But is BOXING aligned with that POV? It has been, or it had been, and probably the biggest reason it isn’t moving forward is because it is a small pond sport, and isn’t ever going to attract the masses of eyeballs that allows for superlative data collection, which AT&T will be rubbing their hands together gleefully as they ponder their acquisition.
So why doesn’t Nelson just say that…or a version of that?
One fight game perennial who is acquainted with the corporate lingo and playing field told me that me that maybe we all shouldn’t be so hard on Nelson. OK, so many of the fights he bought sucked…but none of us know how much he was following orders. None of us know how badly he was knee-capped, budget wise. Fair enough; I wouldn’t expect the man who is pulling in that paycheck which hinges upon him following orders and putting a brave face on the matter to come clean with NYFights and admit that his overlords pulled the rug out from under him and made it very difficult to compete with the Showtimes and ESPNs. (Nelson didn't want to chat on the record with NYF to help us truly contextualize his reign.)
But the talk of “cross pollination” and “contextualizing”…it comes off as disingenuous, as an attempt to divert from reality with tricky wordplay. I could picture a Jared Kushner, clad in a super slim tailored suit, dimples aflairing, offering up similar theme and tone, while we stare and wonder if he fears every knock at his apartment door is to be followed by, “FBI…open up.”
Now, that’s not to even half hint that Nelson is to be compared with Kushner.
C’mon, boxing is just boxing, we aren’t trafficking in matters of world import like Kushner is. But that comparison, in terms of a figurehead who looks a good part and whose actual track record might not merit there station in life, well, that case can be made.
When Nelson was hired, we were told his book in collaboration with Freddie Roach would be available at better book sellers everywhere. Years later, we are still waiting.
A reviewer on Amazon says that Roach told him that a fire at the co-author’s home impacted the manuscript. I requested Freddie clarify the status of the book and messaged an interview request to his assistant, but was told that he was busy working with a fighter. Hey, maybe there is a logical explanation why the promised book never came about, but at the least, this asterisk side note on the Nelson record is curious.
I touched base with a Wild Card Gym insider to seek more clarity on the book and the man. The LA fight factory run by Roach was where Nelson immersed himself in the sweet science. For over a year, he lived with Roach, on Freddie’s property, and picked his brain about the fight game, because he wasn’t a boxing lifer. Art history was more his thing, and then he got the boxing bug. The insider told me that at the gym, Nelson sat, and watched, didn’t mix all that much. People wondered who he was. He struck some as arrogant and aloof. But he did ask questions of those in the know, and, the insider said, that continued as he moved up ladders. He’d call lifers and ask them to weigh in on a match he was considering buying; yes, he knew enough to know what he didn’t know. Now, did the top brass at HBO, the Richard Pleplers and Michael Lombardos know that Nelson didn’t have a deep well of comprehension about the intricacies of the sport…that he couldn’t innately comprehend why someone he was impressed by wouldn’t pan out down the line? Only those executives know for sure. By the way, the insider recalls that word around the gym was that maybe a chapter of the book was actually finished. We may never know what the heck happened to that effort.
Yes, that MIA book in the grand scheme of things isn’t a big deal. But as part of a larger picture, it may be resonative…hey, that sounds like a Nelson word!
As we look back and do that post-mortem, it is instructive to look back at the optimism summoned by the press when Nelson’s hiring was announced.
Boxing is now in good hands!
We the media dutifully passed on the talking points, carried the water and handed it out in convenient cups to the readers. We accepted the narrative, we ate up the storyline and re-gurgitated it to readers and listeners. We didn’t do enough of our own reporting and concluding, that’s one of the lessons to learn from the Nelson stint at HBO.
Fast forward to today…Er, Harvard! And out of business…
Boxing after 45 years is over at HBO, and maybe it was a foregone conclusion.
Maybe nothing could have saved the franchise.
But maybe a true visionary, maybe someone with some fresh ideas and concepts and divine deal-making abilities could have re-fashioned the middle aged but still reputable property.
Less theorizing from Peter Nelson on “cross pollination” and “contextualizing,” and more old-fashioned doing, from someone who truly and actually had a deep breadth of knowledge of the sweet science, and not a handsome visage and sweet resume bullet points, might have kept HBO boxing in the fight.