A Q&A with Peter Nelson: Part one
By virtue of his position, Executive Vice President of HBO Sports Peter Nelson is one of the most important and influential figures in boxing. The Harvard-educated Nelson is essentially the one who brokers deals to bring boxing content to the network. While his role has other responsibilities, the quality of the fights he green-lights defines how well he is doing his job.
There was a time when HBO was the proverbial 800-pound gorilla, as it dominated the landscape. But for the past few years, HBO has seen its supremacy challenged and Nelson, who first came to the network in 2011 and quickly moved up the corporate ladder, is often the target of derision from promoters (namely Bob Arum of Top Rank) and fans on social media, as he deals with the ascension of rival Showtime and such dynamics as the Premier Boxing Champions, which have complicated matters.
Many observers now question the overall commitment of HBO Sports to boxing and if Nelson is the right steward for this position. UCNLive.com spoke to Nelson last week about a myriad of issues related to the network’s boxing program.
UCNLive.com: As you look back at the year that was 2017, how would you describe it for your boxing franchise?
Peter Nelson: I think we delivered on fans’ expectations whenever and however possible. We saw one of the biggest fights of the year – and certainly the most anticipated fights of the year – in (Saul) “Canelo” (Alvarez) and (unified middleweight champion Gennady) “Triple G” (Golovkin) not only come together, in boxing terms for a mega-fight, in timely fashion, as well as set up a story for a rematch.
You saw fights like the “SuperFly” event come together just a couple of weeks prior to that. We saw upset after upset, especially towards the end of the year. You saw (WBO junior middleweight beltholder) Sadam Ali vanquish a retiring Miguel Cotto and Mickey Roman defeat a fading Orlando Salido and you even saw a (WBO middleweight titleholder) Billy Joe Saunders make his United States debut on the enemy turf of David Lemieux, give him a master class. So I think you saw a lot of activity. I think the sport as a whole rose to the occasion in 2017 and I think we are proud to say we played a role in that, including the consensus “Fight of the Year,” (IBF/WBA heavyweight titlist) Anthony Joshua vs. Wladimir Klitschko.
UCNLive.com: As you look at the landscape of the sport, ESPN now partnering up with Top Rank, you have the PBC situation with Showtime. Is this sport, in your view, more divided than ever?
PN: Well, we pride ourselves on working with anyone and we’ve proven that again and again and I think, if you look back at the course of 2017, more promoter partners worked with HBO than almost anywhere else you can find in the sport and, so for us, we believe that great fights get made when people are working together and not against one another. And that’s just going to be the overriding philosophy here for years to come.”
UCNLive.com: Was that hard to navigate; did it throw you for a loop when Top Rank, which I think had been the main content provider for your network for at least 20 years, maybe 30, decided to uproot its whole business to a rival network? Did that surprise you in any way?
PN: We saw great fights be delivered in the second half of the year from (K2 Promotions’) Tom Loeffler, from Golden Boy (Promotions), from Matchroom (Boxing) USA, from a variety of other promoter partners from around the globe, including Mr. (Akihiko) Honda, and we believe that great fights come together when the fighters themselves decide that want to rise to the occasion and they want to challenge themselves in fights that carry stories that are going to propel them in moments of adversity to deliver to fans, again and again. Those are the fights that we’ve tried to set up.
And we see that in the beginning of 2018, with fights we’re doing with Golden Boy, Tom Loeffler’s new venture 360 Promotions and Kathy Duva and Main Events.
UCNLive.com: Last year with the situation with Klitschko and Joshua was a broadcast that was shared between HBO and Showtime with some compromises. Can that become more or less the norm moving forward, in similar situations, involving fighters who have associations with an individual network?
PN: There’s precedence for it, obviously beyond Joshua-Klitschko. It’s been done for pay-per-view, a couple of times, with (Floyd) Mayweather (Jr.)-(Manny) Pacquiao and (Lennox) Lewis-(Mike) Tyson. That said, fights really have to rise to the occasion with the public demand, to be there, to make arrangements like that, to truly make sense. I think everyone who works in the sport wants to see the sport succeed and, I think those who, do recognize that the big fights are what draw people in and politics are what pushes people out. And whenever possible, where the big fights can be made, we do our best to help facilitate them.
UCNLive.com: I asked this question of your counterpart at Showtime (Stephen Espinoza) last week: I propose that maybe networks such as HBO and Showtime, when they are aligned with a fighter, basically bid on the broadcast rights for certain fights. Whoever bids the highest – gets the rights to that fight. Would you be in favor of such a process?
PN: I think it’s circumstantial for the reason that, oftentimes, if you’re involved with a fighter for a long, extended period of time, there’s a certain amount you’ve done together in order to build up as a franchise and a brand, that fighter’s career. So the perennial issue is that you want the big fights to happen. At the same time, if you spent a lot of time, energy and resources to invest in a fighter’s career in order to take them to that pinnacle moment, you, as a network, have an obligation to your own subscribers to make sure you’re delivering the big event to them.
And so it’s understandable, on each side, why it can be a hotly-contested event and a hotly pursued aspect of a multi-fight and so I can get that and understand that frustrations, sometimes. At the same time, I think the aftermath that happens usually behind-the-scenes, which is the development of the fighter, over time, isn’t often taken into account, when the big fight emerges and frankly wouldn’t emerge without the support of networks like HBO and Showtime.
UCNLive.com: As we’re now into 2018, I get asked this question a lot, whether it’s on my shows or on Twitter, social media or from people who just come up to me: How committed is HBO Sports to boxing? How important is that franchise, in today’s day and age, to your company?
PN: Our audience research shows that boxing, for a strong segment of our subscribers, is a must-have commodity and, from that respect, as well as others, we’re wholly committed to the sport, as we’ve been for 40 years-plus and, again and again, we’ve seen that, as we get to the end of the year, people reflect back on the year and I start getting these same type of questions.
But when we get to the end of the year, people reflect back on the year HBO Boxing has had, again and again, the answers shows up: “Fight of the Year,” multiple contenders for that category, multiple contenders for “Fighter of the Year,” even for “Prospect of the year” are showing up, not only on our network but also on the events, as a whole, that are promoters partners who work with us. So we believe the sport is as vibrant as ever. You see various networks, in boxing, as a testament to that.
We don’t look to absolutely buy everything but we look to buy the best fights we can possibly make in the category.
Steve Kim can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and he tweets (a lot) at twitter.com/steveucnlive. He also shares photos of stuff at instagram.com/steveucnlive and can also be found at tsu.co/steveucnlive.