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How HBO Sports Changed Its Playbook

One of the surprises of a new book chronicling HBO’s rise is how important sports programming was in its early years. That changed as the network developed into a prestige television behemoth.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

When naming HBO’s greatest antiheroes, it’s easy to forget Mike Tyson. In 1989, long before HBO created The Sopranos and Game of Thrones, 20 percent of subscribers said they paid for HBO to see Tyson. When HBO executives contemplated giving Tyson a $60 million contract extension, it barely merited a discussion. In his heyday, Tyson was as important to HBO as Cersei Lannister and Tony Soprano.

For his new book, Tinderbox, James Andrew Miller reported on the rise of HBO as a prestige-drama factory. But as Miller was working on the book, HBO abandoned boxing coverage after more than four decades. HBO Sports isn’t the same division it was when Tyson was annihilating challengers with nicknames like “Blood” and “The Truth.” Just as he did in his ESPN book, Those Guys Have All the Fun, Miller put announcers, producers, and executives on the record to find out why.

To understand what made HBO Sports unique, you have to understand its place in the world of TV. For 50 years, game rights have been dominated by well-heeled networks and ESPN. HBO was a TV mid-major. Airing on premium cable without commercials, its boxing and tennis and studio shows (Inside the NFL, Costas Now) felt like bonuses. As far back as the ’80s, HBO Sports had a pleasant, we’re-all-adults-here vibe. (Disclosure: HBO was an early investor in The Ringer. Bill Simmons had a show on HBO in 2016, and continues to produce documentaries for the network.)

One of the surprises of Miller’s book is how much of early HBO was built on sports, rather than movies or TV dramas. “In programming, our primary interest is in live, professional sports,” Charles Dolan, who helped create the network, wrote in a memo before HBO went on the air in 1972. The network’s first program of any kind was a New York Rangers–Vancouver Canucks game called by announcer Marty Glickman. A Paul Newman movie aired after the game.

It was the Fox network’s good luck to rise up in the ’90s when NFL rights were ripe for the taking. HBO arrived at the perfect time to grab boxing. In 1979, ABC wanted to stash a heavyweight championship bout between Larry Holmes and Mike Weaver on a Saturday afternoon. HBO offered promoter Don King a smaller fee for the fight ($125,000 versus an alleged $750,000 from ABC). But HBO promised to air the fight in prime time. The network, Miller notes, scored a coup.

HBO became boxing’s house network, its shadow promoter, its bank teller. HBO carried the Rumble in the Jungle and the Thrilla in Manila during the 1970s. (HBO’s subscriber base was so small that there was little fear of fans ditching closed-circuit showings of the fight to watch it there.) The network unveiled new champs as it now does quality dramas: Muhammad Ali, Marvin Hagler, Sugar Ray Leonard, Tyson, Evander Holyfield, Oscar De La Hoya, Manny Pacquiao, Floyd Mayweather Jr. Without commercials, viewers could hear chatter in the corners between rounds that the TV networks had missed.

HBO liked to brag that it had few relationships with sports leagues that would handcuff its journalists. But as Miller’s book shows, executives spent a great amount of energy throwing money at boxing promoters. That gave Jim Lampley and Larry Merchant’s ringside work on HBO an extra edge. They were acting as in-house bullshit detectors, often in real time.

At its height, HBO Sports made better sports documentaries than just about anybody. It turned out a doc about Arthur Ashe; Dare to Compete, a film about women in sports; and Ezra Edelman’s Brooklyn Dodgers: Ghosts of Flatbush. A second type of documentary (Hard Knocks, 24/7) straddled the now heavily straddled line between journalism and in-house promotion. But even those were very watchable.

HBO Sports had the same relationship with its network that HBO had with its then-parent company, Time Warner. HBO Sports had creative freedom and big budgets when it needed them. I don’t remember much about 61*, the Roger Maris–Mickey Mantle movie directed by Billy Crystal, other than Keith Olbermann correcting its factual errors on TV a few nights later. But it was an ambitious project for the time.

By the ’80s, HBO Sports became an ark for network announcers. Some announcers chafed when bosses told them they can’t criticize the leagues. HBO styled itself as the home of Play-by-Play Man After Dark, where an announcer could sling his network blazer over his shoulder, take out his notepad, and tackle a thorny subject.

Lampley, whom ABC let go in 1987, was hired to be “the Babe Ruth of HBO broadcasting,” one executive tells Miller. Bob Costas and Joe Buck hosted interview shows that offered them more time to talk sports in-depth than they got from their regular employers. Before Tinderbox, I didn’t know that Real Sports, the stately magazine show hosted by Bryant Gumbel, was named after Real Sex.

These announcers’ talk shows were pitched as places for high-minded chat. Often, they were. But because they were taking big swings, or because of the looseness of the format, they produced some of the strangest moments anywhere on sports TV.

In 2001, Vince McMahon snarled at Costas during an interview about the XFL and the artistic direction of pro wrestling. “If he was 6’5” and 295 [pounds],” McMahon says of Costas in the book, “he would deserve to get the shit beat out of him.” The day after the interview, McMahon called Costas and asked if their face-off could be the best out of three falls.

In 2008, Friday Night Lights author Buzz Bissinger appeared on Costas’s show opposite Deadspin founder Will Leitch. Bissinger styled himself as the knight-defender of old-line sportswriting. He stepped in the same pothole that old sportswriters have for generations: by defending the business as it used to be, he offered a vision of a product nobody wants.

On the first episode of Joe Buck Live, which aired in 2009, Artie Lange spewed so much insult comedy that he effectively nuked the show. After the episode, reporters surrounded Buck. One asked, “Joe, do you feel like you just got cornholed on national television?”

During the Bissinger-Leitch face-off, an executive tells Miller, HBO’s lack of commercials actually worked against it. There was no chance for producers and the host to get the show back in order.

HBO Sports would contend that it still has a feisty batting order. It still has Costas, Gumbel, a new show from Bomani Jones, and two versions of the NFL series Hard Knocks. (The new midseason edition started this week.) In January, HBO aired a very good two-part documentary about Tiger Woods.

In Tinderbox, Miller argues that HBO “pulled the plug” on sports—and not just recently. He’s able to trace the decline to 1999, when HBO announced it would stop airing Wimbledon matches after 25 years of covering the tournament. Tennis coverage was prestigious and relatively cheap. To bail signaled that HBO was trying to spend money elsewhere.

The biggest blow for fans—and the one that produced a sense of longing for the old days of the network—was HBO’s loss of boxing in 2018. This is the kind of event that Miller specializes in unraveling, with dueling quotes from the principals. In this case, they are former HBO Sports president Ross Greenburg and the agent (now WWE president) Nick Khan. The short version is that HBO mishandled the promoters, and Showtime, ESPN, and DAZN didn’t. Or those networks offered more money, while HBO flinched. HBO also had a chance to snare the UFC, but Greenburg and others objected. “UFC really could have been something for HBO,” former CEO Chris Albrecht tells Miller.

After sketching all this out in Tinderbox, Miller includes a quote from promoter Bob Arum that nods at another reason HBO put less importance on sports. By the time AT&T closed its deal to acquire Time Warner and HBO in 2018, the streaming era had turned HBO into a different animal. A boxing match with a fighter as magnetic as Mike Tyson is really cool. But viewers watch the match only once.

The problem for HBO Sports is the network doesn’t want Tyson now. It wants the George Foreman of content. HBO wants the kind of shows that live forever and are always available for a comeback.