This past Friday night I got sucked into watching the replay of the first Kelly Pavlik-Jermaine Taylor boxing match on HBO. It was late, I’d been drinking, and there was fighting on TV. I’d seen it before, but I figured why not watch it again.
It really got me thinking about what an excellent job HBO does when it comes to sports broadcasting. They do a great job at most things, actually, which anyone who has ever seen The Wire or Deadwood or Rome already knows. But they’re especially good at packaging and broadcasting sports, perhaps because they tend to treat their sports audiences the way they treat the audience for their dramas.
In other words, HBO knows that sports fans are smart. At least, they know we’re as smart as any other TV viewing audience. When it comes to a combat sport like boxing, they don’t play up the violence. They focus instead on high production values and intelligent commentary (at least, that’s the case when George Foreman is talking and Jim Lampley is quiet).
But reflecting on all this late at night just made me sad. With all HBO’s talent and resources, why aren’t they doing MMA yet?
As most of you know, the UFC’s potential deal with HBO recently fell through, and depending on which rumor you believe, it probably had something to do with the UFC’s notorious unwillingness to relinquish control of their production. To an extent, that’s understandable. The current UFC owners built the brand at a time when the slightest misstep could have sent it spiraling into the abyss. They had to make sure everything was done exactly as they wanted it.
But if this attitude is really what derailed their HBO deal, someone over at the UFC should be kicking himself right now. No one, but no one does a better job than HBO. Take it from Jay Larkin. After years of working on boxing with Showtime, he’s someone who should know, and he had this to say on the subject in a recent interview with Sam Caplan:
“All I can tell you is that if an MMA company has an opportunity to be on HBO that the deal would have catapulted MMA in the minds of the consumer (and) in the minds of the media that covers it. To fall apart over issues of production to me is hilarious because nobody produces better than HBO. Believe me, I competed with them as a producer for two decades and nobody produces better than HBO.”
That sums it up perfectly. The fact that HBO isn’t doing MMA right now while Showtime is airing Elite XC dancing girls and mid-level rappers and Tank Abbott as a main event is just disappointing. HBO could take this sport to a new level. Forget the claims that it would legitimize MMA (suggesting the sport isn’t legitimate at present, which is inaccurate). What it would do is give us an event on a grand scale, something with true attention to precision and craft.
At the same time, it’s also sad for HBO. They seem to be pinning a lot of their hopes on a boxing renaissance that I don’t see on the horizon. MMA could be every bit as big a success for them as it could be for the sport.
Eventually, I think they’ll realize that. They didn’t get to where they are thanks to an inability to spot trends. I just hope that they aren’t holding out for the UFC to concede control, because there are plenty of organizations that could thrive with HBO’s resources and experience backing them.