After 45 years as the broadcaster for most of the biggest fights in boxing, as the platform that created modern pay-per-view and as the launching pad for most of the sport's biggest stars for decades, HBO announced on Thursday that it was dropping its coverage by the end of the year.
"Our mission at HBO Sports is to elevate the brand. We look for television projects that are high-profile, high-access, and highly ambitious in the stories they seek to tell and the quality of production in telling them," HBO Sports said in a statement. "Boxing has been part of our heritage for decades. During that time, the sport has undergone a transformation. It is now widely available on a host of networks and streaming services. There is more boxing than ever being televised and distributed. In some cases, this programming is very good. But from an entertainment point of view, it's not unique.
"Going forward in 2019, we will be pivoting away from programming live boxing on HBO. As always, we will remain open to looking at events that fit our programming mix. This could include boxing, just not for the foreseeable future. We're deeply indebted to the many courageous fighters whose careers we were privileged to cover."
The announcement, made by HBO Sports executive vice president Peter Nelson, 37, who met with his staff on Thursday morning, does not come as a total shock. The network's commitment to the sport has clearly waned in recent years and its quality of fights has dropped at a time when there has been more competition from longtime rival Showtime as well as outlets such as ESPN, because of its year-old alliance with promoter Top Rank, and newly created streaming outlet DAZN to acquire the best fights.
Top Rank sought its deal with ESPN in part because it felt neglected by HBO, which a few years earlier cut ties with powerful adviser Al Haymon's loaded stable of fighters. Once it had parted ways with the two biggest content providers in the sport, it made it hard to keep up.
Its Sept. 8 "Superfly 3" card illustrated the depths to which its boxing franchise had fallen when the Juan Francisco Estrada-Felipe Orucuta junior bantamweight title eliminator drew an average audience of only 298,000 viewers, one of the lowest-viewed fights in HBO history.
HBO was the gold standard for boxing on television throughout most of its run, often drawing millions of viewers for its bouts. It has so far aired 1,111 fights, beginning with George Foreman's second-round annihilation of Joe Frazier to win the heavyweight world championship in Kingston, Jamaica, in January 1973. It launched the modern pay-per-view era with TVKO -- which later became HBO PPV -- in 1991, when Evander Holyfield retained the undisputed heavyweight title against Foreman during the second act of Big George's career.
"There have been hundreds of dedicated and remarkably creative men and women who have delivered the best in television production for HBO's coverage of boxing and we are so grateful for their contributions," HBO's statement continued. "It has been a wonderful journey chronicling the careers and back stories of so many spectacularly talented prizefighters.
"We are a storytelling platform. The future will see unscripted series, long-form documentary films, reality programming, sports journalism, event specials and more unique standout content from HBO Sports. We are constantly evaluating our programming to determine what resonates with our subscribers. Our audience research clearly shows the type of programming our subscribers embrace. For HBO Sports, it's programming that viewers can't find elsewhere."
HBO has one more boxing card on its schedule -- a "World Championship Boxing" doubleheader on Oct. 27 from the Hulu Theater at Madison Square Garden in New York. It is headlined by the vacant middleweight world title fight between Daniel Jacobs and Sergey Derevyanchenko, with junior lightweight world titlist Alberto Machado defending his belt against Yuandale Evans in the co-feature.
The network could still schedule additional boxing events in November and December, a network spokesman told ESPN, but it is also possible that the Oct. 27 card will be the final boxing telecast.
The network's exit from boxing will impact its group of broadcasters, including Hall of Fame blow-by-blow announcer Jim Lampley, analyst Max Kellerman -- who also works for ESPN -- and expert analyst Roy Jones Jr.
Though Lampley won't be calling boxing matches any longer, he said he will stay at the network.
"My 30-year love affair with HBO continues, and I am motivated and prepared to support storytelling initiatives in the sports department," Lampley said. "So I will remain in place."
The end of the network's involvement also means that fighters such as Jacobs, Canelo Alvarez and Gennady Golovkin, all with expiring network contracts, will become network free agents who should have no issues finding other suitors for their services.
Alvarez, promoted by Golden Boy, will be the big get as boxing's pay-per-view king. His close decision win over Golovkin in their rematch on Sept. 15 on HBO PPV generated around 1.1 million buys.
Alvarez is just the latest boxing star closely associated with HBO. Others who made their name or who had mega fights with the network's backing include Mike Tyson, Evander Holyfield, Oscar De La Hoya, Manny Pacquiao, Floyd Mayweather, Jones Jr., Lennox Lewis, Bernard Hopkins, Wladimir Klitschko, Miguel Cotto, Arturo Gatti, Erik Morales, Marco Antonio Barrera, Juan Manuel Marquez, Felix Trinidad, Shane Mosley, Pernell Whitaker, Julio Cesar Chavez Sr., Sugar Ray Leonard, Marvin Hagler, Thomas Hearns, Roberto Duran and Larry Holmes.
Jones and De La Hoya appeared more than any other fighters with 32 bouts apiece.