Mel's Diner: Ross Greenburg
May 11, 2007 4:57 AM
Who: Ross Greenburg, president, HBO Sports
When: Saturday, May 5, lunch
Where: Studio Café , MGM Grand hotel and casino, Las Vegas
Dined On: Apologies to my foodie friends, because the eats were truly beside the point of this lunch. We were fed by atmosphere, people!
Ray Stallone from HBO Sports communications department arranged for a great booth at the Studio Café overlooking the jam-packed MGM Grand casino floor just hours before the WBC Super Welterweight Championship fight between Oscar De La Hoya and Floyd Mayweather.
In the run up to HBO’s exclusive live pay per view telecast of the bout, descending boxing fans and throngs of people celebrating Cinco de Mayo created 405 freeway-style pedestrian traffic jams throughout the MGM and the routes to it from other hotels.
Among the people in the MGM crowd was Lennox Lewis’ mom Violet, who stopped by with a friend to exchange warm hellos with Ross.
The Dish: I got to meet Ross Greenburg on a big day at the end of a big week. Or maybe I should say a big six months, since the match up and the four-part behind-the-scenes HBO Sports reality show about the boxers, “24/7,” started coming together in December.
I immediately got the sense he was savoring the magnitude of the day, which HBO and De La Hoya’s promo machine Golden Boy Productions hyped as the one “The World Awaits.”
In addition to all the week-of prep and decision-making, like bumping up the number of cameras from 18 to 20 (with one dedicated to celeb watching), he’d been busy talking to the press. The day before our lunch, I punched his name into the Factiva news search and up popped 55 articles for the previous week alone.
“I woke up at 4:30 this morning unable to sleep,” he said.
Although he arrived in Las Vegas Thursday, and this was Saturday, he attributed the restlessness to a combination of adjusting from the East Coast to West Coast time zone and the sort of fight night jitters he generally only got when he was personally the producer of the telecast.
When I asked him what needed to happen for him to deem the event a success, he said everything was pretty much considered done.
Some 7,000 hours of footage for “24/7” was turned around in a matter of four months, making it practically real-time. The producers had to deal with vast challenges like keeping up with Mayweather’s unusual training schedule. That sometimes meant going for a run at 1 a.m.
But it was worth it.
“24/7” clearly connected with people and raised the profile of the match and the sport, he said. On average, the first two weeks of the show averaged a cumulative 4.1 million viewers, according to HBO.
“From here, it’s gravy,” he said.
Ross admitted his dream was to find out when the PPV numbers come in that the fight has “blown the top off the record.” (His wish came true.)
The fight itself was a hot ticket too. I overheard someone at the airport saying he was offered $25,000 for his $2,000 ticket. Ross said his brother knew of someone who paid $90,000 for four seats.
In fact, Ross, a 29-year veteran of HBO Sports, said the ticket requests he got were unprecedented and included many from the celeb ranks. He expected 200-ish real deal stars to attend.
Ross was scheduled to sit in the third row with HBO Chairman-CEO Chris Albrecht and fight fan and Time Warner Chairman and CEO Richard Parsons. Leonard DiCaprio and Tobey Maguire had seats a few rows behind them. Ross said he was “so proud” for Chris Albrecht and the rest of the network to “take ownership in an event like this. It’s not that often HBO can take ownership in a Super Bowl-like event.”
I was scheduled to attend the big bout and was nervous about it. Would somebody get really hurt? Would I feel guilty enjoying violence framed as a game, like I was watching Gladiators?
Ross assured me that the apparent world-class athleticism would impress me and that the feeling in the arena is remarkable, especially when the crowd roars as Oscar walks in.
“I’m an emotional guy—have you seen our documentaries?” Ross said with endearing self-deprecation.
(Yes, by the way. I’m a huge fan of the HBO Sports.)
“When people scream as De La Hoya enters, I wonder, God what that must feel like for him,” Ross said. “There is nothing like the electricity of a prize fight.”
He was right. A few hours after lunch I found myself physically feeling the hum of the full arena as the fans waited for the athletes to make their entrances. I’ve been to pro hockey games, NBA finals, NASCAR. The only sporting event that came close to this feeling of being part of a true American spectacle was a big game in University of Michigan’s Big House, which holds exponentially more seats than the space I was in.
What I’ve never seen is such a clearly one-sided crowd. At least once during every round people began chanting “Oscar.” When Mayweather was named the winner, I heard nothing but “Boooo!”
A lot of the press I read leading up to the event questioned whether boxing was dead or dying and whether this fight could save it. Considering the enthusiasm I witnessed that weekend and the $120 million in pay-per-view revenue the fight generated that night, I found that anthem kind of kooky.
Ross insisted the boxing-is-dead refrain is hogwash.
“I’ve done enough research on this sport through documentaries, all sorts of programs and I can tell you there have been certain times over a period of 100 years, usually when the heavyweight title is in question, when people say boxing is dying,” he said, adding that there was a headline once that asked whether Joe Louis could save boxing.
It’s not the glory days of the 1980s right now, but “I know this sport is not dying. It’s not dead. It’s here to stay on HBO,” he told me. He also said he has a theory about all the boxing-is-dead buzz.
“A lot of fringe writers and journalists who do not cover our sport on a daily basis are now turning their attention to De La Hoya and Mayweather and perhaps rationalizing why they have not been writing about these people by saying it’s a dying sport,” he said.
Whether that’s true or not, Ross has been taking steps to keep a spotlight on and grow the sport. For it to continue thriving, “the storytelling and drama of the fighters needs to come through.”
HBO in the last couple years has been spending more time on interstitial vignettes about boxers and upping the amount of profiles during boxing telecasts. “24/7” of course also was part of an effort to draw people into the drama and personalities of the sport.
He’s also committed to telling these stories in a truthful, artful way.
“We are documentarians at HBO Sports,” he said, adding that before joining HBO he picked up a lot as a young P.A. at ABC Sports under the late Roone Arledge’s tenure. He said he applies Roone’s philosophies to everything HBO Sports does.
“You can’t fool the American public,” he said. “We need to deliver truth.”
That’s why he gives announcers freedom to speak their minds, he said.
He told me a story of how Jim Lampley, who announced Saturday’s fight, says one of his fondest memories of doing a fight with Ross was the Lennox Lewis-Evander Holyfield fight in which Lewis appeared to win. It was deemed a draw.
“Before the crowd could start chanting I hit his IFB and said, ‘Go for it,’” he said. Jim came up with a one minute diatribe that some consider a great part of boxing history.
Another moment in HBO boxing that will go down in history is the fact that the night of the De La Hoya-Mayweather fight ended on a sour note for Chris Albrecht. He got into an altercation outside the MGM that landed him in jail. He was forced to resign a few days later on May 9.
On the Books: Chuck LaBella, executive producer, Starz series “The Bronx Bunny”