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HBO Boxing is Dead (And Peter Nelson Dug The Grave)

(Originally Published: September, 2018 @

Peter Nelson, executive vice president of HBO Sports, didn’t kill HBO Boxing all by himself, but he certainly made it so that there was no chance of ever making a deathbed recovery.

When the Harvard graduate and former boxing writer took control of an ailing HBO Boxing in 2016, there was hope that he might bring new energy and fresh insight to the brand. Nelson talked about “story arcs” and about bucking boxing politics to facilitate good matchmaking. The boxing media crowed about finally being able to see what a boxing writer, one of their own, would do when given control of, arguably, the most powerful entity in the business.

Well, the world certainly found out what a boxing writer applying his “expertise” to the boxing business could accomplish.

On Thursday, HBO announced that it was now, officially, out of the boxing business.

In three years at the top of HBO Boxing, Nelson did very little to reconstruct the brand that was once synonymous with big-time prizefighting. Some good fights were put together, but nothing to bring back the viewership lost gradually over 20 years due to bad decisions made by HBO executive predecessors Ross Greenburg, Kery Davis, and Ken Hershman.

If anything, Nelson exacerbated the bad decisions of past execs. He embraced foreign fighters (and had an instrumental role in bringing in Gennady Golovkin, Sergey Kovalev, and a roster of super flyweight talent), often at the expense of showcasing and promoting American fighters. The prominent showcasing of non-American talent was a continuation of Hershman’s decision to let Floyd Mayweather leave for premium cable competitor Showtime and the subsequent purging of Al Haymon-represented talent from its roster.

Dubious matchmaking continued to hobble HBO Boxing under Nelson’s regime as the network rolled along with its misinformed stabs at manufacturing stars that they would shamelessly promote to excess. Rather than matching intriguing talent in good, competitive bouts to allow for natural growth, they fed their hand-picked superstar candidates soft touches and sold them aggressively as true superstars doing superstar things.

The move away from sound, honest matchmaking saw a steady decline in viewership over the years and eventually led to the Nelson era where even the best of the best on the network only drew between 400K and 800K live viewers.

The diminishing numbers and reduced prominence of HBO Boxing to subscribers led to a tightening of the budget and fewer available dates.

Nelson would then lose long-time HBO Boxing partner Bob Arum to a suddenly boxing-hungry ESPN which promised more dates and a more prominent platform to showcase his talent.

Saul Alvarez and Gennady Golovkin being allowed to drift off into free agency after their September 15 PPV battle was a definite signal that HBO would be moving away from boxing, opting to not compete in an increasingly competitive boxing world where networks and streaming services were suddenly pursuing the sport as quality live content.

And now we’re here. It’s the end of an era, 45 years of HBO Boxing coming to an end, and Nelson doesn’t seem too busted up about the whole thing. He seems as dispassionate and aloof after the fact as he did during his reign.

“This is not a subjective decision,” Nelson recently said in an interview. “Our audience research informs us that boxing is no longer a determinant factor for subscribing to HBO.”

“There’s plenty of boxing out there,” Nelson continued. “But what we have not seen is a lot of signature destination fights…Because of our association with boxing, people forget that we’re not a sports network, we’re a storytelling platform.”

Somebody should maybe point out that that Nelson’s job should’ve been to CREATE those “signature destination fights” and BE that storyteller for boxing.

But all of that doesn’t really matter now, does it?

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