Over the last week, the boxing world has been in a state of mourning upon hearing the news that HBO, which has been broadcasting the fight game for more than 40 years, will no longer be offering boxing as part of its regular programming.
The writing had been on the wall for some time. While HBO ruled the boxing landscape in the 1990s thanks to the bankability of major stars, including Roy Jones Jr., Lennox Lewis, George Foreman, and many others, in recent years its product has declined precipitously as the major promoters have all found homes with other networks. Over the last few years, HBO was left to hype increasingly unattractive fights as its stable of available boxers declined steadily.
As a result, much of the sadness over HBO's exit from the sport seems to be an expression of nostalgia for a time when HBO, particularly with its longtime announcer Jim Lampley, brought a cachet to boxing that was often lacking from other media outlets. Nonetheless, I have to admit that I don't share in the sense of loss that many of my fellow boxing scribes have expressed in recent days. Prior to HBO Boxing's demise, in order to keep track with all the big fights happening around the globe, one needed a subscription to Showtime, HBO, ESPN+, and DAZN, along with a host of smaller subscriptions. This in addition to the cost of basic cable (or its streaming equivalent), as well as the exorbitant sums demanded for pay-per-view bouts (though thankfully there have been fewer of those in the US this year). To put it mildly, this is less than ideal for a sport that has struggled to maintain visibility in the face of the relentless drumbeat for the NFL, college football, and the NBA. Contrary to what some mainstream sportswriters have argued, boxing is not, at present, in decline. The fight game has an expanding number of attractive fighters and bouts on its itinerary, and while its popularity has seen better days in the US, it remains ascendant in much of Europe (witness the massive crowd Anthony Joshua pulled for his fight against Alexander Povetkin a couple of weeks ago). Between Vasyl Lomachenko, Mikey Garcia, Erroll Spence, Terence Crawford, and Deontay Wilder (to name but a few), boxing arenas in the US have no shortage of impressive, talented, and charismatic fighters to put on the screen. Now is the time that boxing should be reaching out to broader audiences to remind them of the fundamental beauty, passion, and drama of the sweet science. And, thanks to the increasing visibility of companies like Premier Boxing Champions, Top Rank, and Golden Boy, more fights are being broadcast on network television and basic cable than I can recall in the last 25 years. This is a moment where boxing seems to be adapting to the changing media landscape. HBO Boxing, as good as it once was, was an impediment to that, as it proved reluctant to allow live streaming of its boxing cards, thereby increasing the cost of entry for new boxing fans looking to fall in love with the sport again. To be sure, for much of its run, HBO Boxing did important work to keep the sport relevant in the United States, and its broadcast team delivered some of the iconic play by plays of legendary fights. If you want to see the network at its best, take a look at its call of the first Arturo Gatti-Mickey Ward fight, when Lampley, Larry Merchant, and the late Emanuel Steward delivered commentary and analysis that matched the unparalleled drama unfolding before them. Let us remember HBO for nights like that, and for chronicling an important chapter in modern boxing history. But as for the future, I believe the sport has evolved beyond the HBO model, a development that should be celebrated rather than regretted.