Boxing: HBO Sports’ New Voice

By Joseph Santoliquito Mar 16, 2016
Peter Nelson carries a certain stoicism that belies his age. He is 34, graduated magna cum laude with a bachelor’s degree in Ancient Greek Language from Harvard University in 2004, speaks fluent French and feels as comfortable leaning alone against the wall in the back of a smoke-filled club show taking mental inventory as he does standing behind a podium in a vast auditorium. He now holds one of the most powerful positions in boxing -- and in all of sports, for that matter -- as the new executive vice president of HBO Sports.

Nelson’s patient sagacity led him here, a wunderkind with aegis over HBO’s boxing programming, long a cornerstone of the network, as well as HBO’s many other sports platforms. His vision is to move forward, in an age where TV ratings are spread out and quality sports programming can be found almost anywhere. HBO, however, was always unique, with its sports documentary series, “Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel” and “Hard Knocks” and in the way it packaged its shows. Nelson wants to elevate what has been a high standard to even greater heights.

“There’s obviously a great legacy here in the department and in this company, which we rise to uphold, and I think the quality of the competition being mirrored by the quality of the telecast is always the aim,” Nelson said. “We have people here that do an unrivaled job of it.

“I think for us, boxing has an illustrious history here, and we look to fulfill those expectations that the fans have,” he added. “What you’ve seen most recently is the best fighters on the planet, and many of those fighters call HBO home. I think 20 years ago fighters needed to say that they’ll fight anyone anywhere and thought it was part of the job, but increasingly, people need to articulate that, and that dovetails with our brand. For us, crafting the best matches, like Sadam Ali and Jessie Vargas, [Saul] ‘Canelo’ Alvarez and Amir Khan, with our promoter partners and developing talent, it’s exactly where we want to be with our schedule, and we’re excited about our schedule coming up.”

HBO currently has “Championship Boxing,” “Boxing After Dark” and its pay-per-view arm. The network used to have “KO Nation,” which appeared on Saturday afternoons and featured stars who eventually became superstars, like Floyd Mayweather Jr. Ultimately, it failed to draw a target audience and was cancelled in 2001 due to low ratings. However, the program did serve its purpose as an outlet for giving young, budding fighters, again like Mayweather, an outlet to perform.

“We’ve always kept an open mind when it comes to approaches to programming, though we’ve seen that with PPV, ‘World Championship Boxing’ and ‘Boxing After Dark’ that we’re really able to cover the gamut with what aligns with our brand,” Nelson said. “We do it at a level of the sport that’s expected of the fans watching. As a service to our subscribers, we feel these tiers resonate with what they’re looking to see from an HBO boxing experience.”

Asked if there was anything to help boxing become more popular, Nelson took exception to the thought.

“People have always tried to say that boxing is on the decline, but that’s only until a big fight is on the horizon,” he said. “I think that fight fans are sophisticated viewers of the sport and are engaged at a deep level. That passion resonates out when big fights are made. I think it’s incumbent on people working together in the sport, doing the best things for itself and the fighters rising to the occasion, which is something we’re very pleased with the fighters that are working with us.”

Nelson brought up an interesting topic in terms of political entanglements that hinder big fights from being made. For example, Al Haymon, the biggest powerbroker in boxing, once had a lucrative relationship with HBO. That link was snapped when Mayweather, a valuable Haymon commodity, left HBO for rival Showtime in 2013. Since then, few if any Haymon fighters were shown on HBO. Ken Hershman, Nelson’s predecessor, opted to banish Haymon fighters from HBO because he felt Haymon was unwilling to match them tough. Hershman was also blamed for losing retired pound-for-pound ruler Mayweather over the nine-figure, three-year deal offered by Showtime. With Nelson now in charge, does it mean the Haymon-HBO cold war is over?

“I’ve said it before, we are an open shop, and any promoter that wants to give us a phone call we will take the call, and we’ve demonstrated that again and again,” Nelson said. “Any promoter who is looking to make fights with us, and their business interests align with ours, and be part of what we do here, we’re on board with that.”

Coming from a journalistic background, Nelson says it has certainly aided his experience in the brief time he has held the top spot at HBO. It has enabled him to view the sport from sundry perspectives in selling a fight as a consumer and a promoter. Covering the sport, Nelson knows the tangible commitment involved, from the time fighters take training to time away from their families and other personal sacrifices. Making the fighters human and breathing life into their stories is a high priority for Nelson. Expect deeper vignettes on fighters on Nelson’s watch at HBO. There is an array of platforms, Nelson said, on which those stories will continue to be told.

“Boxing is more than just a sport; it’s the stories behind the sport,” Nelson said. “HBO, above all, is a storytelling network, and having a passion for stories that are within the sport itself is certainly attuned to what the needs of the network are. A lot of these fighters have incredible stories. Their biographies often mirror socio-economic conditions going on in this country and their home countries. They’re often emblematic of bigger, broader issues that are part of larger debates and dialogues. To me, it’s about the angle into the story. No one becomes a professional prizefighter and achieves at the excellent level our fighters do without an interesting backstory behind it. I never encountered a fighter who didn’t have some sort of colorful background and why they started fighting, why they committed to fighting and how they developed professionally. Each phase of that is intriguing in its own mini-narrative. When told big, it’s one of the most fulfilling pursuits as a journalist, I think. People like us that prize writing, the sport has attracted some of the great writers for that very reason.”

Nelson said the addition of Bill Simmons to HBO is a nebulous situation. Nelson says Simmons is a mega-talent, though it remains to be seen what impact, if any, he may have on the boxing side of HBO.

“I didn’t come to HBO from the outside, and I have a tremendous respect for the work that was done here, previous to this role,” Nelson said. “What we work on creatively here is always trying to figure out the best avenues into the stories we’re trying to tell, whether it’s making a fight or the stories behind a fight. Whether it’s ‘Real Sports,’ ‘The Fight Game’ or ‘Hard Knocks,’ we’re always looking for areas to excel. While some franchises are newer and some are older, the passion for all them burns equally bright.

“What you’ll find here is that people really love their work,” he added. “They love the company, the culture and the ethos. I don’t think there is anyone in these offices that doesn’t dive in, and that is pretty much the culture here. From a story standpoint, everyone knows here what has to be achieved. Everyone works on their role with equal veal, and that’s what guides me to serve them. I’ll be honest, I never saw myself in this position [after graduating from Harvard]. The moment that I have enough free time to pinch myself that I’m really here, I won’t be doing my job correctly.”

Joseph Santoliquito is the president of the Boxing Writer's Association of America and a frequent contributor to Sherdog.com's mixed martial arts and boxing coverage. His archive can be found here.

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