HBO Sports hopes to parlay a soon-to-be-announced documentary on ill-fated champion horse Barbaro, a new boxing series in Sunday primetime and a possible deal with uber-producer Mark Burnett into increased stature—both within and outside the company.
The network will soon announce that it is in production on a Barbaro documentary, chronicling the courageous Kentucky Derby winner whose horrific injuries sustained in last May's Preakness Stakes race led ultimately to his being put down in January.
Barbaro's battle to survive became front-page news, garnering so much attention that it created a backlash, as people wondered why the country grew obsessed with a horse.
“We are going to try to explain why Barbaro became so significant and important to the American public. The entire country rallied around this horse,” says HBO Sports President Ross Greenburg of the project, slated to debut the first week of June.
But first, Greenburg is focusing on a four-part boxing series, building up to the long-anticipated May 5 showdown between the sport's best fighter—Floyd Mayweather Jr.—and its most marketable one, Junior Middleweight champ Oscar De La Hoya. That mega-contest should be the sweet science's biggest pay-per-view event of the year.
Notably, the series' first three episodes will air in prime real estate, following The Sopranos and Entourage on Sunday nights beginning April 15 at 10:30 p.m. ET. They'll feature extensive interviews and behind-the-scenes footage from both fighters' training camps.
“It's the first time an HBO sports product has broken through to get that kind of space,” says Greenburg. “If we can perform, it takes the stature of HBO sports up a notch within the building.”
Burnett a possibility
With HBO's entertainment side searching for its next breakout hit, Greenburg sees an opportunity. “If the series works, we can claim a little bit of space,” he says. “There might be another sports/entertainment product that can work on Sunday nights, and I think the building would be more open to us creating something new.”
Among those possibilities is a collaboration with producer Mark Burnett, who recently met with Greenburg. Burnett has dabbled in sports before, most notably with his boxing reality series The Contender, which debuted on NBC in 2005 before moving to ESPN.
“I am intrigued by Mark. I think there is something down the road for Mark Burnett and HBO to work on,” Greenburg says. “I don't know if it is a permutation of The Contender or some other kind of show.”
One offshoot of that conversation could be a high-profile fight between Sergio Mora, winner of the first season of The Contender, and World Middleweight champ Jermain Taylor.
Also in the works at HBO are a documentary for the fall on college football's historic Ohio State-Michigan rivalry and a feature on the U.S. women's soccer team, already the subject of an HBO Sports documentary. HBO is also continuing negotiations to air Ultimate Fighting Championship events.
For now, though, the sports division is concentrating on the May 5 bellwether fight, which will be marketed through its pay-per-view arm. PPV doesn't attract huge profits for HBO—even for a fight that could draw more than a million buys—but, to Greenburg, the event has less to do with bringing in dollars than with raising a profile.
“This is not about the money, I'll be honest with you,” he says. “The fighters make the millions, let's be blunt. But we will use this to carry over and put a glow over the sports division.”
HBO also has reached an deal with Comcast to offer the first episode of the fight's countdown series via free video-on-demand, not just for HBO subscribers. It begins April 24.