- UFC’S RELATIONSHIP WITH HBO CONTINUES TO EVOLVE

March 2, 2007
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by Ivan Trembow – MMAWeekly.com
An article by the Associated Press has addressed the issue of the UFC’s relationship with HBO Sports, and the Wrestling Observer recently reported on some of the points of contention between the two companies as well.

Zuffa has been in negotiations to air UFC programming on HBO for quite some time. Any potential deal with HBO would not conflict with Zuffa’s Spike TV deal. Zuffa’s deal with Spike TV is an exclusive basic cable deal, but Spike’s exclusivity does not cover premium cable (like HBO and Showtime) or broadcast television (CBS, ABC, NBC, Fox, MyNetworkTV, and The CW Network).

The Associated Press report said, “[HBO executive Mark] Taffet said he isn’t worried about UFC’s rise. The two companies are negotiating over HBO possibly airing a UFC fight. However, there are questions about which company will produce the fight and who will call it — along with some hard feelings. One of HBO’s most well-known ringside announcers is Jim Lampley, who has bashed the sport of mixed martial arts and the UFC.”

In addition, HBO Sports President Ross Greenburg recently told MultiChannel News, “We’re still measuring it, looking at it, and getting comfortable with the UFC.”

The Wrestling Observer has elaborated on the status of the negotiations between Zuffa and HBO, specifically focusing on the disagreements over control, production crews, and announcers.

The Observer reported, “HBO wants full control of the product, and to use its crew and its announcers and cover it like a network broadcast team would cover a major sporting event. UFC doesn’t want to give up its control of the product, wants its own crew to film it, and wants to use its own announcers, who are closer to pro wrestling announcers whose role is to build up the product as opposed to providing detached, objective commentary.”

The Observer added that there are two factors that have made a UFC-HBO deal more likely to happen than it was a few months ago, with the April 21st show from England being the UFC’s target date for its HBO debut.

One factor is that with Showtime having aired the first MMA event on premium cable (EliteXC), and with the event being internally considered a ratings success by premium cable standards, it has led to “both parties [HBO and Zuffa] wanting to get in the game now and speed up working through whatever problems might be there.”

The other factor that makes a UFC-HBO deal more likely to happen is the fact that if Zuffa does not agree to a deal on HBO’s terms, HBO could easily find other MMA promotions that would agree to its terms.

So, even if the terms of the deal are not favorable, Zuffa might still want to sign with HBO, if for no other reason than to prevent any other MMA promotion from signing a deal with HBO. This scenario is not as far-fetched as it might seem at first glance. The Observer previously reported that the IFL had been in negotiations for a national TV deal with the Versus Network when Zuffa bought the WEC and got it a deal to be the exclusive MMA partner of the Versus Network. (This was before the IFL struck a deal with MyNetworkTV.)

Zuffa president Dana White has said consistently over the past year that the UFC would be on HBO “very soon.” This has been said as recently as this past week and as far back as April 2006, when White first mentioned HBO during a radio interview on 1140 KHTK in Sacramento.

An article in January on the boxing web site Seconds Out reported that HBO Sports did not want to air MMA programming at all, specifically saying that HBO Sports president Ross Greenburg had “opposed the UFC deal as vigorously as possible” and was doing “everything in his power not to televise mixed martial arts.”

Seconds Out feature writer Thomas Hauser wrote that HBO Chairman and CEO Chris Albrecht, in an unprecedented move, actually veto’d Greenburg and insisted that HBO would air MMA programming, leaving Greenburg only to negotiate the details of such a deal.

The Seconds Out article added that the veto from Albrecht “represented a marked shift in HBO’s corporate culture… in the past, an HBO chief executive officer would not have ordered sports programming over the objection of the sports department.”

Greenburg was quoted on the record in the Seconds Out article as saying, “I wouldn’t say that I’m a big fan of UFC… but when I started at HBO, I wasn’t a big fan of boxing, either. I recognize the fact that UFC appeals to a fan base and demographic that boxing doesn’t have right now.”

Seth Abraham, who was the president of HBO Sports before Greenburg, went on a now-infamous tirade in the article, and his rather outlandish statements about MMA are said to represent the opinions of some of the hard-liners who, unlike Abraham, still work at HBO Sports.

Abraham said, “I think it’s ridiculous for HBO to televise UFC. When I was at HBO, we had discussions once or twice a year about professional wrestling. We all agreed that it would get good ratings, and we also agreed that it would tarnish our boxing franchise. I feel the same way about UFC. Boxing has a storied history. When HBO attaches itself to boxing, it attaches itself to Joe Louis, Sugar Ray Robinson, and Muhammad Ali. It attaches itself to history, achievement, and glory. UFC has none of those things, and it will tarnish HBO’s boxing franchise. Will UFC get good ratings? Probably, but so would naked boxing.”

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