More Than a Game

From boxing to baseball, HBO's Greenburg finds the essence of sports
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Ross Greenburg spent his childhood in the stands watching sports heroes. His adult life is dedicated to telling their stories on screen.

Greenburg, president of HBO Sports, has filled his office shelves with 30 sports Emmys, 21 CableACEs, six Peabodys and other awards collected during his 27 years at the country's largest pay-cable service.

“He has a keen eye for great stories,” says Chris Albrecht, president of HBO. “Simply put, Ross is one of the best sports programmers in the business.”

While he has executive-produced such news shows as Real Sports With Bryant Gumbel and TV movies such as 61*, about Roger Maris' single-season home-run record, his innovations in sports television are most apparent in documentaries.

Beginning with When It Was a Game (1991), about the golden days of baseball, he later made Fists of Freedom (1999), about the display of black gloves at an Olympics medal ceremony in 1968, and Nine Innings From Ground Zero (2004), about the impact of baseball on the nation's recovery after 9/11. Many experts credit his work with the resurgence of the sports documentary.

“He looks at things with a jeweler's eye,” says Steve Sabol, president of NFL Films, a friend and colleague of 25 years. “To call him a television executive is a woefully inadequate description.”

Says Sean McManus, president of CBS Sports, “He's a great storyteller, and he realizes that all the technical wizardry available is not the important element of his trade. The important element is bringing out the story and really focusing on the individual.”

A Father's Influence

Greenburg's middle-class family moved from his home town of San Antonio in 1956 to Scarsdale, N.Y., where their backyard bordered the 15th hole of Winged Foot golf course. He recalls sitting in Shea Stadium with his father and brother watching Joe Namath electrify the crowd. When he was 13, a friend offered him a ticket to Super Bowl III. His mother said he could go and, upon learning it was in Miami, helped his father scrape together the cash for him to see the Jets defeat the Baltimore Colts in one of sport's biggest upsets.

The self-motivated youngster pushed himself to earn A's in school, and he excelled at football in high school until failing eyesight struck. Refusing to wear eyeglasses for fear of looking “nerdy,” he saw his young football career fizzle.

His academic record earned him a spot at Brown University. The political science major was influenced by the issues and unrest of the 1960s. “I just needed answers to some really harrowing questions. I think that was most significant in impacting who I am.”

He was influenced by his father—“the most honest, decent man I ever knew”—and found a willing career mentor in his best friend's father, football legend Frank Gifford. Gifford found summer freelance work for Greenburg with ABC Sports and CBS Sports, which solidified Greenburg's decision to pursue a career in sports television.

By September 1977, his hopes for an ABC staff job were dashed. With only three broadcast networks at the time—and no ESPN—he looked to cable and sent a blind letter to HBO. It passed hands to Tim Braine, the only person in the sports department. He hired Greenburg as a production assistant, and six months later, the 24-year-old was producing boxing events.

An ability to relate—and negotiate—fueled Greenburg's success in the aggressive world of professional boxing. His first fight was Sugar Ray Leonard's twelfth. “There's a joyful side to [Ross], and there's another side”—a tough negotiator, recalls Leonard's trainer, Janks Morton Sr., who negotiated agreements with Greenburg. “He's one of the first people I totally respected.”

Team Player

By 1985, Greenburg was tapped as VP and executive producer of HBO Sports, where he oversaw several major changes, including installing Punchstat (a technology that counts punches), an unofficial scorer ringside, putting microphones in the fighters' corners and using translators for non–English-speaking athletes. When Greenburg was named president of HBO Sports in 2000, the network had produced more than 400 fights, and his enhancements had become standard.

In 2001, Greenburg tapped Bob Costas for newsmagazine Costas Now. In addition to presenting sports events in a dramatic and entertaining way, Costas wanted to do a different type of sports journalism. Says Greenburg, “Every great talent has a certain passionate area that they want to dive into.”

At HBO, Costas says he learned “the quality of the work isn't just a consideration, it's the consideration.” Three Emmys later, the working relationship is “as close to idyllic as it can get.”

Greenburg deflects praise to the members of his production team, such as Rick Bernstein, senior VP/executive producer, HBO Sports, who has worked closely with him on numerous documentaries. “I hate using the pronoun 'I,'” says a visibly uncomfortable Greenburg.

He is constantly touched by the accomplishments of the people in the stories he follows. The 2004 theatrical release of Miracle, about the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team, moved him when he saw lines of people outside of theaters.

“In college, you say, 'I want to change the world,'” says Greenburg, reminded of a segment from Real Sports that freed high school football player Marcus Dixon from prison, “I think we've had a little piece of changing a lot of people's worlds.”

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