Can 'Free' Boxing Free Boxing?

HBO hopes less PPV means more fans

With the sport of boxing and the U.S. economy both taking a beating, HBO is shifting its strategy and relocating many of its big fights from pay-per-view (PPV) to its network.

HBO Sports chief Ross Greenburg hopes the move to make more top-tier fights available to HBO customers will infuse some life into the sport.

"The sport needs more eyeballs," he says. "It's ironic, but while in bad times you'd expect the sport to suffer, it could actually trigger the opposite effect."

In 2008, HBO Pay Per View offered eight events, bringing in $190 million in revenue based on 3.7 million buys.

But as the economy worsened, buy rates began to drop. Even midsize events that were projected at 300,000 buys were dipping below 200,000. A big December fight between PPV king Oscar De La Hoya and Manny Pacquiao did garner nearly 1.3 million buys, but sponsor rebates may have padded that figure.

HBO's shift means satellite and cable providers will have fewer pay-per-view boxing events in 2009. The network probably won't do its first PPV bout until May, a proposed fight between fan-favorites Ricky Hatton and Pacquiao. By May of last year, HBO had already done four events.

"It's tough to get people excited about dishing out 50 bucks every month in this economy," Greenburg says. "Everyone overreached in 2008; there were too many pay-per-view events."

The first example of HBO's strategy is its World Championship Boxing airing of the Jan. 24 bout between "Sugar" Shane Mosley and Antonio Margarito, which Greenburg says would have absolutely been on PPV last year.

Making matters worse for the sport and its PPV numbers has been both a terribly subpar heavyweight division—traditionally a huge PPV draw—and the aging of many other stars.

PPV money-printer De La Hoya was humiliated by Pacquiao in what should be De La Hoya's last big fight, while Floyd Mayweather Jr. has retired—at least for now.

All of this comes at a time when mixed martial arts outfits like the Ultimate Fighting Championship have continued to garner momentum, though Greenburg says he thinks the sports have "two different audiences."