“The Czar” Moves Across the Street
By Steve Kim, MaxBoxing (Feb 8, 2012) Doghouse Boxing
Ken Hershman
Last week, I had my first chance to talk to Ken Hershman since he took over the post at HBO Sports after his lengthy tenure at Showtime. There he served as the network’s boxing “czar” since 2005, coming up with such innovations as the “Super Six” modified round-robin, super middleweight tournament and helped to make the historic rivalry between Israel Vazquez and Rafael Marquez come to fruition. A couple of months ago, Hershman was tabbed to replace Ross Greenburg, who resigned under pressure last summer after HBO’s boxing franchise declined steadily under his decade-long leadership. Hershman officially stepped into his new gig on January 9th.
The former Executive Vice President and General Manager of Sports and Event Programming for Showtime is now the President of HBO Sports. I can't lie; it's going to take some time getting used to his new title. He admits as much.
“It's an adjustment but it's one I'm proud to make and I keep looking at my HBO I.D. that I wear proudly. I'm thrilled to be here and I'm humbled by the opportunity,” he told Maxboxing last week from his offices at HBO, where he spoke proudly of even receiving his official HBO stapler. 
In a way, this is like Theo Epstein becoming the general manager of the New York Yankees aka the “Evil Empire.” Hershman chuckles at the analogy, saying, “I have to say everyone here has been so welcoming and excited to have me that I don't feel like this is anything but just a new opportunity and a new challenge with an amazing group of people. It was a little odd; I'd say the first couple of days but after that, it's an office; it's people. It's boxing and it's sports television and we're off to the races here and everything is pretty much as I expected.”
During his days at Showtime, Hershman spoke of being more or less a counterpuncher, reacting to what his rivals did (which was invariably wrecking their yearly budget by May or June) and then systematically putting together his own schedule. But programming HBO is not the same as programming Showtime, given the network’s stature within the business. Let's face it; in Major League Baseball, the G.M. of smaller market teams will construct a team much differently than Brian Cashman of the Yankees, whose resources are much vaster.
Hershman agrees, stating, “I do think it's going to be different. I think the way we structure what we do here and how we go about it, I think is going to be different for sure. I don't know exactly how. I can't sit here today and tell you after working here just 14 days but I definitely do sense that as the market leader, the category leader in boxing, it is going to be different and we're going to have to react differently.”
Naturally, with that comes added scrutiny and pressure. At HBO, there's an expectation of creating the sport’s defining moments. When the general public thinks of big-time boxing in the United States, the three letters they usually come up with are H-B-O. But Hershman seems to relish the past standards that he's in charge of restoring.
“Well, I always felt there was tremendous scrutiny of everything that we’re doing and I fully expect there to be as much scrutiny here,” he stated. “I'm prepared for it and I welcome it and I think that- as I've always said to you - what you guys do is an important part of the sport. It's important to keep everyone honest and working for the betterment of boxing. We never set out to put on bad fights. We never set out to put on things that we think are going to stink out the joint. Sometimes it happens but it's a tough sport. It's not easy to make every fight you want to make. But knowing you guys are out there, I think it is a helpful part of it and I expect you to be as vigilant in my role as you were in my prior life.”
One of the major reasons why the previous regime failed was a perceived inequality in terms of fair treatment. Exclusive output deals alienated longtime content providers and other unexplained alliances, leaving the network beholden to the likes of Al Haymon thus causing its product to suffer in the 21st century. When asked if he will establish a more level playing field under his reign, Hershman answered, “I don't think it'll ever be perceived by people who aren't getting as much business as they want as a level playing field. But my approach to the business and the people in the business is to be open and honest and I view things as a shop that's going to be open to everybody's suggestions and ideals and we're going to program the best way we see fit and try to be as upfront and honest as to why we're doing what we're doing and be transparent. And we hope that it's successful. 
“But I don't envision it being any different than when I was across the street, that everyone will have a voice here and we'll look at all the options and then we'll pick what we think is best for the network.”
There is a belief throughout the industry that Hershman was tabbed for this position due to his ability to do more with less. With HBO supposedly cutting its boxing budget (still believed to be around $30 million), they needed someone to bring sanity to this process- a form of market correction where they would no longer just merely bid against themselves.
Regarding this, he says, “From my standpoint, I believe that with my skill set, it was the right fit at the right time. Whether that's attributable to managing budgets or picking the right fights or how I interact with people or whatever it is that attracted them to me, I'm happy to be here and hopefully, I'll have a nice successful run at this.”
But Hershman is here for a reason- and it's because there was a systemic breakdown overseen by those who preceded him- meaning he inherits some toxic assets in the form of deals he has to live up to, agreed upon while he was at Showtime. “That's the nature of any new position. The company didn't stop because I wasn't here. I will happily deal with that is before me but I have to say I'm looking at the beginning of the year. I'm pretty stoked about the line-up and I think the guys did a great job and I'm looking forward to every one of these shows,” he said.
HBO's first show took place this past weekend from San Antonio, Texas, featuring Julio Cesar Chavez Jr. and Nonito Donaire. On February 25th, they have a doubleheader that sees Devon Alexander facing Marcos Maidana and Adrien Broner taking on Eloy Perez. On March 17th, Sergio Martinez defends his middleweight championship against Matthew Macklin (with Donovan George opening things up versus Edwin Rodriguez at the Theater at Madison Square Garden). A week later, Erik Morales and Danny Garcia do battle in Houston with James Kirkland and Carlos Molina kicking off the broadcast. And things are inching closer to having Brandon Rios face Yuriorkis Gamboa on April 14th at the Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas.
Much of this schedule was put together by the likes of Peter Nelson and Kery Davis before Hershman took the helm. When asked if Bernard Hopkins- Chad Dawson II was the initial event he pulled the trigger on, he responded, “I don't know if I'd characterize that as the first major decision. I think that there were a lot of plans on the board that were presented to me. A lot of things in were in the works and a lot of things that frankly came up as soon as I got here just by the nature of the timing of things and we've been handling it all in the ordinary courses.” Last year, Hopkins was inked to a three-fight deal with HBO and this upcoming bout on April 28th is the final fight on that pact. “I don't know if there's been any major announcement or decision that I've had to make. We're trying to map out the year and figure out what fights we want to put on, what fighters we want to be involved with and what the strategy is going forward and that's going to take some time to sort of work itself through.”
So will things like the “Super Six” concept have a place at HBO? It was certainly a novel idea that pleased the hardcore followers of the sport but failed to connect with the general, mainstream audience. HBO is about stars and big events. The downside of that is that oftentimes, it's been about individual fighters and not fights.
“I think there's room for innovation, for sure. I'm not sure exactly what kind that will be,” admitted Hershman, who also invested a good amount of coin on the smaller weight classes while at Showtime, “but I think that the tournament overlay on top of these regular fights adds a lot of excitement and interest for sports fans and I like it. It's fun in the right setting and right weight classes, so we'll be opportunistic if that comes along and if we can pull that off, I would like to do it.”
So begins Hershman’s new adventure but in looking back, he admits he will miss the people he worked with for nearly two decades. “Obviously 19 years on a personal level, absolutely it was difficult but it was the right time in my career to make that move and bring a new challenge to my professional life. It doesn't affect the affection and respect for anyone I worked with and I will maintain those relationships forever.”
Once the conductor of “The Little Engine that Could,” Hershman is now in charge at HBO Sports and while you can expect the same quality documentaries (like the recently produced “Namath”) and other highly regarded programming like “Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel,” the overwhelming responsibility of this job relates to boxing. It's the only live sporting event they televise. And you can win all the Emmys you want while rubbing shoulders with A-list celebrities at the premieres of your Yankee features. It's the fights that many of you subscribe for- and nothing else. Greenburg never understood that and in the process, his disdain for the business and the people in it manifested itself in the decisions that were disastrous for this proud franchise.
Hershman understands this importance of HBO to boxing- and boxing's importance to HBO.
“I think HBO's got a singular place in the sport. It's certainly the leader in televising boxing in this country, so it certainly has a significant place and it's one that we need to respect and we need to cultivate and make sure that we live up to whatever that brings with it and do the best job possible for the health of boxing and the health of HBO.”
I asked Hershman if he could play the role of diplomat and broker peace in the “Cold War” between Top Rank and Golden Boy and make some match-ups between their clients.
“I don't know if I could,” he admitted. “I think that is certainly an issue for the sport that I wish wasn't there but hopefully, it's temporary and that we can get a lot of great fights between these two promotional outfits. But it's not anything that I think is unique to those two individual firms. There's been issues between promoters and promotional outfits all throughout my tenure. We've got to navigate through them and put people in a position where they feel comfortable that they're getting a fair shake and hopefully, that leads to some great fights.”
Here's a column I wrote not-too-long-ago on the hiring of Hershman by HBO:
I heard the Chavez-Marco Antonio Rubio broadcast did a very strong number for HBO this past weekend (around a 3.6). Say what you want about Junior; the guy brings eyeballs to the TV and puts butts in seats...I noticed a few new wrinkles to the HBO broadcast, such as more behind-the-scenes footage during the fight (like Donaire inside Chavez's dressing room after his fight) and shots of the broadcast crew...I have to say, Jim Lampley's new glasses caused quite the stir...Larry Merchant's line on wanting to “roll out a roll of toilet paper” after Donaire's squatting exhibition made me laugh. Merchant's gonna Merchant...Speaking of the “Filipino Flash,” according to his wife, Rachel, after seeing a specialist on Tuesday, there is no fracture of Donaire’s left hand...The March 30th edition of “Friday Night Fights” on ESPN2 will have Hank Lundy facing Dannie Williams. I really like this match-up...Say what you will about Ricky Williams but the guy had a productive NFL career...If Kobe Bryant wins a sixth ring (which I admit doesn't seem likely) with the Lakers, is he the franchise’s greatest player?...What a tough loss for the Clips’ Chauncey Billups…Congrats to Cortez Kennedy on his induction to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. I'll always remember him for his role on the ‘89 ‘Canes defensive front, which is among the all-time greatest, leading Miami to a national title...

More of Steve's recent work below his contact info...
I can be reached at k9kim@yahoo.com and I tweet at www.Twitter.com/stevemaxboxing. We also have a Facebook fan page at www.facebook.com/MaxBoxing.
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