LAS VEGAS — HBO continues to produce compelling television and win Emmys by the dozens, but none of that has been enough this year to improve the boxing content it delivers its subscribers.
There is a compelling fight on Saturday at the MGM Grand Garden that pits the two best super lightweights in the world. Terence Crawford will meet Viktor Postol in a battle of unbeaten fighters for the WBC, WBO and linear 140-pound titles.
For the many people who subscribe to HBO primarily to watch boxing, however, there is some bad news: This fight isn’t part of your HBO subscription.
If you want to watch Crawford-Postol, you’ll have to fork over at least $50 and perhaps as much as $60 to see it in high definition on some cable and satellite systems.
It’s a lot to ask, particularly in a year when HBO Sports’ boxing offerings have been so substandard. There have been eight boxing broadcasts on HBO Sports so far in 2016. The outcome in the main event in nearly every match was highly predictable and were one-sided affairs in which the B-side didn’t have a chance.
The one exception was the June 4 show headlined by a potential Fight of the Year match between Francisco Vargas and Orlando “Siri” Salido.
But look at the other seven: Sergey Kovalev vs. Jean Pascal on Jan. 30; Crawford vs. Hank Lundy on Feb. 27; Luis Ortiz vs. Tony Thompson on March 5; Andre Ward vs. Sullivan Barrera on March 26; Gennady Golovkin vs. Dominic Wade on April 23; Vasyl Lomachenko vs. Rocky Martinez on June 11 and Kovalev vs. Isaac Chilemba on tape delay on July 11. Going into the matches, none of the B-sides had a realistic chance of winning. The Lomachenko-Martinez fight had better prospects than most, but because Lomachenko is so dominant, he figured to rout Martinez (which he ultimately did).
In the seven HBO main events other than Vargas-Salido, there were 138 scored rounds and the B-side won 20 of them. That’s an abysmal 14.4 percent rate, which indicates the utter mismatches the network has largely delivered this year.
Top Rank, which promotes both Crawford and Postol, offered the fight to HBO Sports, which said thanks, but no thanks. In past years, it was the kind of fight that HBO Sports would have pushed a promoter to deliver. Instead, they passed and forced Top Rank to put it on pay-per-view. Clearly, there are budget cuts at HBO and boxing isn’t as important to the network as it once was.
The problem with putting the fight on pay-per-view is that it’s going to be almost entirely missed. It will be lucky to exceed 100,000 sales and may struggle even to hit that mark.
Whenever two gifted, undefeated boxers with a claim to a world title meet in their primes, it’s not only a treat for the fans, but it also helps build the profile of the winner. But the winner here is going to get almost no boost because so few will see the fight.
Promoter Bob Arum has said Manny Pacquiao plans to return to fight in the fall and that Crawford is among the potential opponents for him if that does occur. Crawford didn’t get the April fight because Top Rank mistakenly assumed that a rubber match with Timothy Bradley would be a hit with the fans. The clear choice then should have been Adrien Broner, with the rising star Crawford as the alternative.
So instead of fighting Pacquiao, Crawford dominated Lundy, a tough guy but one who is nowhere near Crawford’s level. It did little to improve his profile.
The problem with this is twofold: One, it’s unfair to ask consumers who already pay a monthly subscription to HBO for boxing content to have to pay again to see a fight like Crawford-Postol. And secondly, it makes it more difficult to build a fighter into a star.
The success that fighters such as Floyd Mayweather Jr., Pacquiao, Oscar De La Hoya and Mike Tyson have had on pay-per-view has created a mistaken impression that pay-per-view is where the money is and where one can build a profile.
But none of those fighters were stars on pay-per-view to begin with, and only made big money from it after they’d been exposed to the audience for years on other avenues. Tyson, for instance, fought a lot on ESPN in his early days, getting a wide audience, and then on HBO before he came a pay-per-view superstar. Fans were familiar with him and knew what to expect when he made the transition.
There won’t be the upside for the fighters on a show like Crawford-Postol, where sales are expected to be moderate, at best. And that makes it more difficult to use a good win as a springboard to something bigger.
Boxing is a sport that desperately needs stars, and it’s losing more than it is gained. Crawford, in particular, has a chance to be a star, but it’s not going to happen if the public doesn’t get a chance to see him against quality opposition without reaching into its pocket.
Sources at HBO say this isn’t a decline in interest on the network’s part, but rather a reaction to tight financial times and some obligations the new sports regime inherited.
But if HBO goes through another year with dud after dud like it has so far in 2016, will its loyal subscribers who have doled out that fee month after month for years to see top fights remain subscribers?
It’s a good question, and one that can have ominous long-term repercussions for the sport if the answer is no.