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HBO Boxing Is Dying…Is PETER NELSON To Blame? Part 2

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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.

 

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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

Editor/publisher Michael Woods became addicted to boxing in 1990, when Buster Douglas shocked the world with his demolition of the fearsome Mike Tyson. The Brooklyn-based journalist Woods has covered the sport since then, for ESPN The Magazine, ESPN.com, ESPN New York, RING, and he was editor of TheSweetScience.com from 2007-2015. Woods is also an accomplished blow by blow and color man, having done work for Top Rank, DiBella Entertainment, EPIX, and numerous other organizations.

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