NEW YORK, N.Y.— Less than one month into his new role as the head of HBO Sports, Ken Hershman expertly and artfully handled something that his predecessor, Ross Greenburg, never felt comfortable with during his 10-year stay at the position, which many consider the most influencial job in boxing: Talking to the media in an open forum.
Hershman, who took the job late last year after 19 years with Showtime – the last nine overseeing its sports programming – was genial, candid and open about the direction he would like boxing to go on HBO during a light Q&A session before a handful of invited media at a 14th-floor conference room of the network’s building at the corner of 42nd Street and Sixth Avenue.
The former head of Showtime Sports covered a variety of topics that included the possibility of the window closing on a Floyd Mayweather-Manny Pacquiao showdown and his relationship with promoters.
Because some of the biggest events that can be made in boxing depends on how well the top promoters can work together, as well as with the network, one of the early questions posed to Hershman was how well will he be able to work with Top Rank head Bob Arum and Golden Boy CEO Richard Schaefer.
“I’ve been working with both organizations for many, many years, and I think we have a positive and productive relationship that’s certainly gone through ups and downs just like everyone else in the industry,” Hershman said. “With Top Rank, they have tremendous talent for what they do, and tremendous passion for what they do, which syncs up perfectly for our passion with what we do here and I expect we’re going to do a ton of great business.
“Golden Boy has a tremendous amount of great fighters and they do a really solid job, and I expect we’re going to have a really, really positive relationship with them.”
Hershman hinted that he’d like to see some “cross-pollination” between the two promotional giants, since Top Rank and Golden Boy have recently set up fights involving only in-house fighters.
“I hate to see sort of unnecessary personal issues getting in the way of fights being made because it’s hard enough making fights in a perfect world with everyone getting along, so that just adds to the burden,” Hershman said. “But I think it will happen, because those things ebb and flow in time, just like any other relationship, and we’ll have that eventual breakthrough and they’ll realize it’s in their business interest as well.”
Hershman wants to dismiss any thought that there will be any favoritism on his watch as HBO Sports head, carrying over the same policy he held while he was at Showtime. Hershman stressed that it’s important to be transparent in his decision making.
“It is a big challenge that you face, certainly at HBO, being the leader in boxing television in this country,” Hershman said. “Not everyone is going to love every fight. That’s okay. I don’t love every fight. There are fights that you inherit that for a whole bunch of different reasons you have to do in the real world that you don’t want to do. As long as you’re transparent, open and honest with the community that’s offering these shows, and if they believe everything is well thought out and there’s a strategy, I believe they’ll understand. You can never make everyone happy in this sport, and if that is what you’re intending to do, then you’re not going to be successful.
“Boxing promoters are very sophisticated. They’ve been around a long time, a lot longer than me and they know when they’re being dealt with fairly and they know when they’re being snowed. My approach has always been, whether it’s pleasant news or not-so-pleasant news, which is often, is you just have to tell like it is and be honest. They’ll either accept it, or they won’t. But at least they know where they stand. I’ve had countless conversations with people where things didn’t go the way they wanted it to go, but they accepted the reality of the situation.
“My job is to put on the best boxing on HBO as possible. I think it’s pretty simple. I always tell everybody I work with and all the promoters, I’m not in the boxing business, I’m in the TV business. I leave that to them. It lets them do what they do best, and it lets me do what we do best. I try to stay out of the politics as best I can, and try not to get steeped in all of the machinations of the chess board and find good fights at the right price and hope the rest works itself out.”
While at Showtime, Hershman said he was always impressed by HBO’s size and resources. He said his management style will need to adjust to a bigger organization and operation, which will include about 80 people under him, and working in finding the right philosophy that will work at HBO.
“Obviously, the first stop for everyone was HBO,” Hershman said. “But they couldn’t accommodate everything and they would often leave things on the table that I thought were perfect for Showtime. We were able to take advantage of that, but now I think it’s going to be different.”
Hershman said he wasn’t in any position to create a ShoBox series at HBO, but he did stress that he likes the developmental platforms that build young fighters.
The fact that HBO wanted to make a change in its hierarchy, Hershman pointed out, shows the cable behemoth still is very much committed to boxing. As he put it, HBO is very “dedicated to making the ‘category’ succeed.”
Hershman said HBO’s subscribers like the network’s boxing product, and the ratings have been up double digits in the past year. The growth trends are in place to continue growing boxing, “But there is a strong, strong commitment here to boxing that’s never wavered, and I don’t expect it to under my tenure in the future,” Hershman added.
Right now, the future looks somewhat stagnant, because, Hershman mentioned, everyone is waiting on what Mayweather and Pacquiao will do, and where their possible superfight stands. The decisions of “Money” and “Pac-Man” has caused a logjam.
“We’re waiting on them to sort of figure out where everyone else falls, so once those decisions are made, I think they we’re able to get a better sense of guidance where to go, because right now, the opponents for those two fighters change daily, if not hourly, and everything else is being held up,” Hershman said.
And how important is it that the fight everyone wants to see is finally made?
“I’m over it, I don’t think it’s imperative. I don’t think it’s going be anything that the sport needs (to save it), or anything like that,” Hershman said. “I would love to see the fight as a fan, but it does get in the way of fights being made, because you do wind up being stalled for weeks, months while everything gets sorted out.
“Ultimately, I think Floyd Mayweather is a first-ballot Hall of Famer, undefeated, and he’s accomplished amazing things in his career. If he fights Manny Pacquiao tomorrow, it’s not going to define anything really about his greatness one way or the other, in my view. The same thing holds true with Manny, who’s accomplished more in more weight classes than any fighter in the history of boxing. They don’t need each other to have their legacies established firmly as two of the greatest fighters in the history of the sport. But I would love to see it happen as every fan would.”
The anticipation of the fight has been grating on the fans. Hershman equated it to the movie Groundhog Day, when every time Mayweather or Pacquiao fights, the topic of the other is broached and it becomes a never ending dance.
“I do believe there is a sell-by date by which this is just going become not what it should be, which is the biggest boxing event in history,” Hershman said. “I hope by the end of this year we see these guys in the ring together, if not, maybe early next year. But after that, it’s going to start to be less and less relevant. I think the best strategy for us is to stay out of it and just do good business. One thing that I’ve always preached is that we’re in the TV business, and now the HBO business, not the pay-per-view business. I have to put the best fights I can on HBO. That’s the single most important mission for me.”