In 2007, a major push by HBO to get the UFC on its schedule in an effort to appeal to a younger demographic took a massive hit as then HBO CEO Chris Albrecht was arrested for domestic violence and was forced to resign. At the time the UFC on HBO story had gained huge momentum and UFC president Dana White was constantly giving the impression that the deal was all but done.
Unfortunately, Albrecht was one of the people pushing the idea of embracing MMA while HBO's president of sports, Ross Greenburg, had fought tooth and nail to keep boxing as the only combat sport on the schedule. Prior to the Albrecht firing, Thomas Hauser had been detailing the struggle between Greenburg's vision for the network and the seemingly done UFC deal:
Within the boxing community, HBO warrants closer scrutiny than Showtime because it's the standard-bearer for the sport. Sources at HBO say that Ross Greenburg (president of HBO Sports) opposed the UFC deal as vigorously as possible. He did everything in his power not to televise mixed martial arts. But in the end, he had no choice.
During an interview last week, Greenburg declined to comment on the matter beyond acknowledging, "I wouldn't say that I'm a big fan of UFC. But when I started at HBO, I wasn't a big fan of boxing either. I recognize the fact that UFC appeals to a fan base and demographic that boxing doesn't have right now."
With Albrecht out of the picture, Greenburg's opposition to broadcasting UFC events was a big part of the deal heading to the graveyard rather than the planned 3 UFC events airing on HBO in '07.
Today a story ran on Boxing Scene saying that Greenburg will be gone from the position within the week.
I immediately started reaching out to contacts who confirmed the Boxing Scene story, also confirming that the announcement would likely be made on Monday. I was also informed that Senior V.P. of Sports Programming Kery Davis would be gone in the very near future as well. Also in my talks with various sources in and around HBO was talk that production would undergo "big changes."
Under Greenburg and Davis, the product had stagnated and HBO had their share of embarrassing moments. A(n admittedly important) fight between Timothy Bradley and Devon Alexander in February was pushed by HBO with massive investment only to draw horrible ratings and only drawing slightly over 6,000 fans when hoping for somewhere around 15,000. It was a moment of violent disconnect between the network and what interested the casual boxing fan.
An inexplicable desire to bend to the wills of Golden Boy Promotions and boxing manager Al Haymon led to tons of safe fights for big stars and schedule that didn't hold interest at many points to the casual fan.
But there is likely nothing that represented as big of a nail in the coffin of the men in charge as Manny Pacquiao bailing on HBO for Showtime. An uninteresting schedule, money poured into fights like Bradley/Alexander and losing the biggest star in the sport was not a recipe for longevity for the men in these positions.
What does this all mean?
Well, for starters, it means that HBO realizes that it needs a change. The game that they're playing is not working. HBO bragging about 1.5 million viewers tuning in for fights like Andre Berto vs. Victor Ortiz isn't bad, nor is it the sign of a dead sport. But it certainly is a sign that the sport has declined from the Lennox Lewis vs. Vitali Klitschko days of drawing over 7 million viewers on the very same network in 2003.
Given the significant advantage in overall subscribers held by HBO of Showtime, Showtime's ratings for boxing events aren't that far behind. A fact that likely has to do with Showtime's push to get exciting fights and fighters on their air as often as possible while taking chances with new and innovative concepts like the Super Six World Boxing Classic. The Super Six had plenty of problems in execution but it was a risk that you'd never see from an HBO network that had spent years offering up fights like James Kirkland vs. Brian Vera and putting Andre Berto across from Michel Trabant and Miguel Rodriguez.
But the real question to MMA fans is "does the departure of Greenburg represents an opening for the UFC or another MMA promotion to find their way to the HBO airwaves?" Showtime has proven that a synergistic relationship between boxing and mixed martial arts can exist. If HBO still values capturing a new (and younger) audience, MMA should still represent an appealing option.
But what interest would Zuffa have in getting in bed with HBO four years removed from the failed '07 deal?
The UFC continues to negotiate a new deal with Spike TV, a negotiation process that has gone worse than expected for the promotion. Spike countered the recent live UFC on Versus 3 card with a replay of an old UFC Fight Night and managed to best Versus in the ratings. The victory put Spike in a very powerful position. The potential of getting in bed with HBO as well as Versus would provide the UFC with the most valuable thing in these negotiations, viable options other than Spike.