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Wednesday June 27, 2007 10:28 PM PST

 

PETER PRINCIPLE ENDANGERS HBO BOXING

By Michael Swann

Ross Greenburg, the president of HBO Sports, is unquestionably a genius at what he does best. And he is unquestionably at his best as an executive producer. When it comes to programming, there is none better in the business, not now, possibly not ever. And he can support that argument with his collection of hardware collected throughout his career at HBO - several dozen awards, including sports Emmys, CableACEs, Peabodys, Golden Eagle Awards, and others.

He has been the man behind such groundbreaking sports series as Inside the NFL, Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel, and Costas Now. Thanks to Greenburg, HBO is the undisputed champion of sports documentaries with classics such as “When It Was a Game” (1991), “Fists of Freedom” (1999), “Nine Innings From Ground Zero” (2004), and highly acclaimed profiles of icons such as Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle, Johnny Unitas, Babe Ruth, Arthur Ashe, Bill Russell, and many more. He was also the executive producer of the 2004 theatrical release of “Miracle,” about the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team. And this list is barely scratching the surface.

Most recently, HBO is showing a documentary of the tragic career of the racehorse Barbaro.

According to Broadcast and Cable, Greenburg was born in 1955, and graduated from Brown University in 1977. Mentored by his best friend’s father, football legend Frank Gifford, he did summer freelance work for ABC and CBS Sports. In 1977, the days of three networks and before ESPN, he wrote HBO’s Tim Braine, the only person in the network’s sports department, and was hired as a production assistant. Six months later, Greenburg was producing boxing events.

Greenburg rose swiftly at HBO Sports, becoming a producer in 1979, vice president and executive producer in 1985, and senior vice president and executive producer in 1995. Then in September 2000, HBO named Greenburg president of HBO Sports.

Greenburg’s Time Warner bio praises his eye for talent, hiring the likes of Frank Deford, Bryant Gumbel, Bob Costas, Jim Lampley, and others. His first hire, ironically, was Larry Merchant, 29 years ago. As VP/executive producer, Greenburg’s innovations included adding Punchstat, a precursor to Compubox, Harold Lederman as an unofficial scorer ringside, microphones in the fighter’s corners and translators for non-English speaking boxers. He was highly respected in the industry, and once turned down a more lucrative job at ABC as executive producer because, according to an industry source familiar with the workings of HBO, he didn’t want to be governed by suits and enjoyed the creative freedom that HBO offered.

So it’s fair then to state that Greenburg was, and is, a brilliant executive producer. The concern here is his woeful performance as president, particularly as it pertains to boxing.

When Greenburg took over as president, the boxing program began its slow slide. The industry source we spoke to said that Seth Abraham, who preceded Greenburg, was very committed to boxing, totally hands on, and was a major reason why HBO prospered, along with Greenburg for his production and Merchant for his groundbreaking integrity in the booth.

Abraham and Greenburg worked in tandem for 22 years as HBO Sports prospered. During the Abraham years, boxing was the central focus, according to our source. Further, Abraham had Lou DiBella as senior vice president and matchmaker, and he also served Abraham as advisor. The source said that Greenburg does not have anyone of that quality. DiBella had Abraham’s back, fought promoters tooth and nail over the quality of the product, and created Boxing After Dark. Greenburg is working with a smaller budget, and has Kery Davis as a successor to DiBella, but hardly his equal by any means.

In any event, a knowledgeable source opined that Ross wanted to make his own imprint when he took over for Abraham. The website imdb.com lists 36 items on Greenburg’s filmography. 24 of the 36 have been since the year 2000. While enjoying success with documentaries and TV movies, Greenburg had taken his eye off the ball and HBO boxing already had one foot on the banana peel.

At the same time, Showtime had a huge resurgence beginning in 2005, and for the first time HBO felt the heat of competition in boxing. It was at that time, according to HBO sources, that Greenburg decided to be hands on again and announced big plans for 2006 and beyond. The results have been mixed, at best. Any retailer will tell you that it is much easier to get a new customer than it is to regain a former customer.

As good as his instincts are in programming, Greenburg seems bedeviled in the role of top dog. First, he loses control of the ship with HBO boxing, causing their flagship sports program to flounder. Then, he has this public relations blunder regarding the contract of Larry Merchant. Apparently for as long as two years, this man who was praised for his eye for talent plotted the replacement of the 76 year old Merchant with Max Kellerman, hoping for a younger demographic. You would have thought that he would have learned a lesson from the ill-fated KO Nation boxing series. Those shows offered up and comers in a hip-hop -MTV /WWE motif, complete with dancing girls and a deejay.

One begins to wonder about this “eye for talent.” It’s one thing to hire an established Bob Costas or Bryant Gumbel, but if Kellerman is a diamond, it’s still in the rough.

By the way, before Chris “Bottoms Up” Albrecht was dismissed after creating a drunken disturbance with his girlfriend outside of the MGM Grand after the Mayweather -De La Hoya fight, we were under the impression that the UFC was going to begin broadcasting on HBO in August. Everyone knows that Greenburg was against the idea and Albrecht forced it on him. Is the UFC still coming, or did it go out the window with Albrecht? I’m a boxing guy who is Switzerland on the MMA issue, but it might be interesting to see if Greenburg follows his gut on that one now.

Wasn’t it, after all, Greenburg who once said, “We’ve sowed all of our acorns in boxing and we’ve found a sport that we can basically call our own and can be a significant force in the industry.”

I read some time ago that Greenburg nixed a proposed July 7 rematch of the 2004 fight between Wladimir Klitschko and Lamon Brewster. Brewster stopped Klitschko then with a combination of a lucky punch and a weak chin. Then he won a couple of fights before suffering a detached retina and losing to Sergei Liakhovich in an entertaining fight in 2006. Brewster has not won a fight since 2005 and has had three eye surgeries. So on July 7, Klitschko-Brewster meet anyway. Who’s minding the store? Is this a flip-flop?

Maybe not. Brewster’s advisor is none other than Al Haymon, who has forged an unusually close relationship with the network, said to be friendly with Time Warner Chairman of the Board and CEO Dick Parsons, or so I hear. Haymon is also particularly close with Kery Davis. Haymon has a host of clients in the boxing and entertainment world - Floyd Mayweather Jr. , Jermain Taylor, Antonio Tarver, Beyonce, Mary J. Blige, Chris Brown and a host of others. He may be the single most influential “advisor” in the sports/entertainment field.

Haymon is an “advisor,” not a “manager.” For reasons I can’t quite comprehend, some fighters choose to have a manager to negotiate their deal and an advisor to tell them if it’s a good one or not. For that reason, Haymon is only listed on boxrec.com as the manager of one fighter - Librado Andrade, and that was put up by Wayne McCullough when he was training Andrade. A reliable boxing source said that Andrade split with McCullough after the Mikkel Kessler fight, at Haymon’s insistence.

All reports are that Haymon avoids the limelight and stays behind the scenes while controlling the most powerful boxers in the game. I have not found a single interview on the media shy mogul. I have no objections to Haymon making money for himself and his clients, but an “advisor” with too much juice with a network can’t be a good thing for the fans.

So I pose this as a question. Did Kery Davis deliberately or unintentionally empower Haymon as a defacto matchmaker for HBO while Greenburg was asleep at the switch? Or perhaps I should put it this way - Did Haymon sign so many of the top fighters because of his talent and integrity or did his unprecedented access to HBO motivate fighters to come to him?

Greenburg’s lack of attention to the HBO boxing scene has cost them, and dearly. With a fraction of HBO’s budget, Showtime manages to match entertaining bouts on the first Saturday of every month, and their ShoBox program with a budget of $50,000 often outshines BAD with a budget of $300,000.

The HBO formula of corralling the big stars and then showcasing them against inferior opponents just isn’t going to cut it anymore. Fans want action and entertainment for their subscription and PPV dollar. When these long term contracts with their stars are up, they would be well advised to let them go. The fighters, promoters, and the managers would be back soon anyway, because HBO holds the cards and the cash. No promoter should ever be given a blind date. Make them present the match for approval before they get the green light.

Let’s hope that Ross Greenburg is up to the task of cleaning up the mess that lurks in the house of HBO.

Finally, I would be remiss not to recommend Thomas Hauser’s brilliant piece on seconds out.com this week, “Larry Merchant and HBO.” It’s the definitive piece on the subject.

 

Michael Swann can be reached at mswann4@aol.com.
 
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