Pressure shifts to HBO Sports as Mayweather-Pacquiao talks intensify

Kevin Iole
Pressure shifts to HBO Sports as Mayweather-Pacquiao talks intensify
Pressure shifts to HBO Sports as Mayweather-Pacquiao talks intensify

In the mid-1990s, pressure began to mount from boxing fans for Showtime and HBO to iron out their differences and make a fight between heavyweights Mike Tyson and Lennox Lewis.

Tyson was under an exclusive deal with Showtime after becoming a star on HBO. Lewis was on a similar deal with HBO, rising to prominence after Tyson bolted the network. For years, their network affiliations kept them apart and prevented a fight that fans were desperate to see.

Even though Tyson was the bigger name, HBO Sports was clearly the more dominant network at the time and thus held the upper hand in talks. It had been successfully doing pay-per-view shows for years, had a larger subscriber base and a much deeper roster of big-name fighters.

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Executives for the networks eventually hammered out an agreement and the fight occurred in Memphis, Tenn., in 2002. It was a joint pay-per-view, but the sides agreed that the replay would be on the network whose fighter won. When Lewis stopped Tyson in the eighth, the replay went on HBO.

Things are decidely in a different spot now as talks to make a hotly anticipated bout between Floyd Mayweather Jr. and Manny Pacquiao seem to be headed toward a positive conclusion. HBO Sports doesn't have the hammer and the true pressure lies on it.

Mayweather turned professional in 1996 and soon became a staple on HBO. But in 2013, he shocked the world when he bolted for a six-fight deal on rival Showtime. Pacquiao has an exclusive deal with HBO.

Stunningly to anyone who has lived through the on-again, off-again talks to make a Mayweather-Pacquiao bout for the last five years, it appears this time that the finish line is in sight and that the dream bout may actually happen.

There is legitimate reason for optimism, though no deal has yet been reached. Still, the bout is closer to becoming a reality than it has been at any point since the holidays in 2009, when talks fell apart over Mayweather's demand for drug testing just as a deal seemed to be at hand.

Unless one of the fighters has a late change of heart, which is possible but seems unlikely, the only barrier remaining would be for Showtime and HBO to finalize a deal.

That would seem simple – just basically dust off the 2002 Lewis-Tyson agreement and revise it – but it is more complicated than that. Literally tens of millions of dollars are at stake. And so while progress between the networks has been made, they haven't finalized their end yet, either.

HBO Sports president Ken Hershman
HBO Sports president Ken Hershman

And this is where the pressure on HBO begins to build. It's no longer the 800-pound gorilla when it comes to broadcasting boxing. The Premier Boxing Champions series put together by Al Haymon is exerting significant pressure on any entity that televises boxing, including and perhaps primarily HBO.

If Haymon can make the PBC work on NBC and on Spike, as well as potentially other networks, it would be a boon to the fan base. They wouldn't have to buy premium cable to get their boxing fix. And if the NBC series becomes truly successful, it could alter the business in such a way that pay-per-view could become a thing of the past.

ABC telecast the rematch between Muhammad Ali and Leon Spinks from the Superdome in New Orleans on Sept. 15, 1978. It reportedly drew a live audience of 90 million, though an ABC spokeswoman told Yahoo Sports it couldn't be confirmed because its record-keeping on audience only goes back to 1991. If Haymon could get his bouts on NBC to do even 10 percent of that number, it would go a long way toward changing the industry.

So, already there is pressure on HBO unlike any the network has faced in years. HBO began to broadcast boxing in 1973 and by the mid-1980s, it had become the sport's dominant broadcast outlet. And despite a few fights appearing on network television in the years since, that hasn't changed.

But the Premier Boxing Champions could easily change that dynamic. It's an issue that, undoubtedly, is getting top priority now at HBO. It needs to raise its game to meet the competition head on. But a primetime show on NBC figures to draw well more than one on HBO, which has less than a quarter of NBC's potential audience. So, if NBC gets good ratings and advertisers gain interest, the Premier Boxing Champions could loosen HBO's vise grip as the sport's most powerful broadcast entity.

That's where its role in the making the Mayweather-Pacqiuao fight comes into play. When Mayweather visited Pacquiao in his Miami hotel suite on Tuesday, the discussion largely centered around a broadcast issue that concerned Mayweather.

Pacquiao adviser Michael Koncz told Yahoo Sports he'd resolved the issue by working with promoter Bob Arum and HBO CEO Richard Plepler.

"We talked to Bob and Richard and got that handled pretty quickly," Koncz said.

But there is no deal in place between the networks yet. It is believed that if the fighters reach a deal, each network will supply two broadcasters, creating a four-man crew. There would be no 24/7 or All-Access series; rather, each network would produce a one-hour preview show on its contracted fighter.

The talks to conclude the networks' side of the deal are being overseen by Plepler and CBS Corp. CEO Leslie Moonves.

CBS President/CEO Leslie Moonves (Getty)
CBS President/CEO Leslie Moonves (Getty)

Moonves and Showtime seem to have the far stronger position. They have the bigger attraction – Pacquiao has agreed to a 60-40 purse split that favors Mayweather, and Koncz admitted to Yahoo Sports that Mayweather is the so-called 'A' side – and so it's going to be Showtime that's in position to make demands.

If HBO doesn't bend to the wishes of Mayweather and Showtime and essentially blocks the show from occurring, it's going to severely cripple its ability to work in the boxing space.

Already, HBO played a large role in the so-called "Cold War" that existed between Golden Boy and Top Rank. Several tremendous fights that could have been made between fighters from each company weren't because the companies wouldn't do business with each other. It was made infinitely harder when HBO banned Golden Boy from its air not long after Mayweather jumped to Showtime.

With the resignation of Richard Schaefer last year as Golden Boy CEO, tensions between Golden Boy and Top Rank have eased and they've agreed to collaborate on shows.

But HBO played a big role in that feud while it was going on. If it plays any kind of role in preventing a Mayweather-Pacquiao fight happen, it's going to draw the wrath of boxing fans.

The appetite for this fight is enormous, and it's why it seems that three million in pay-per-view sales would be an attainable goal. It wouldn't even be a shock if the pay-per-view sales beat the current record of 2.5 million, set by Mayweather and Oscar De La Hoya in 2007, by a million or more.

The fight suddenly appears inevitable.

You can bet there are a lot of executives at HBO who are swallowing hard these days, hoping they can reach an agreeable deal with Showtime to allow it to go on.

Otherwise, it could be Armageddon.

Promoter Bob Arum (L) and Manny Pacquiao (R) are hopeful a fight with Floyd Mayweather Jr. will be finalized. (Getty)
Promoter Bob Arum (L) and Manny Pacquiao (R) are hopeful a fight with Floyd Mayweather Jr. will be finalized. (Getty)


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