Before Tony Soprano, before Carrie Bradshaw, before even Larry Sanders, there was a hockey game.
HBO aired a game between the New York Rangers and Vancouver Canucks on Nov. 8, 1972, its very first night of broadcasting, and while the NHL would quickly slide off the channel’s radar, it would be replaced by championship boxing, Wimbledon tennis and award-winning documentaries, all of which have played a major role is solidifying HBO’s stellar reputation.
The MVP in this success story is HBO Sports president Ross Greenburg who openly admits to shedding tears while screening film footage. But the visionary boss, who has been with the channel since 1978, is no softie. Longtime boxing commentator Jim Lampley learned that firsthand when he was ringside at the 1999 bout between Lennox Lewis and Evander Holyfield, battling in front of a star-studded audience at Madison Square Garden. Most observers thought Lewis was the clear winner, but the judges called it a draw.
Seconds before going on the air, Lampley heard Greenburg’s voice in his earpiece, urging him to “go for it.”
“What he was saying was, ‘Forget about the hopeful buildup and romantic expectations and trash what you have to trash,” Lampley says. “You don’t get that kind of encouragement in television.”
Greenburg, a teenage jock who grew up with Frank Gifford’s son, started his career at ABC before signing on in to the fledgling pay channel in 1978. He was promoted to producer within a year at the age of 24. He secured the top post 10 years ago thanks largely to his ingrained motto: Make ’em laugh, make ’em cry and make ’em think.
No sport better lives up to that ideal than boxing, an HBO staple since George Foreman shattered Joe Frazier’s undefeated record during a 1973 heavyweight fight, and one that continued with classic showdowns such as the “Thrilla in Manila” and James “Buster” Douglas’ upset over Mike Tyson.
“In a lot of people’s minds, we’re married to the sport,” Greenburg says. “It plays very well on pay television because we don’t have to go to commercials, and we can develop storylines before the fight. Boxers dream about fighting on HBO.”
Lampley says boxing is perfect for the pay channel because the sport is built around rare, hyped-up events that people wait months, sometimes years, to happen.
“The great brilliance of the World Series and March Madness is that you can expect it every year, but boxing is the opposite,” he says. “It may happen only this one time, so it’s perfect for subscribers who are looking for unique, one-of-a-kind moments. Every fight is organic with its own look, like a snowflake. That’s in sync with what HBO wants.”
HBO also became the home for a very different sport in 1975 when it started providing weekday coverage from Wimbledon. Not only did it add a touch of class, but it also cemented a friendship between Greenburg and Arthur Ashe, the subject of HBO’s Emmy-winning documentary, “Arthur Ashe: Citizen of the World.” Ashe had so much respect for the channel that he picked its airwaves to announce that he had contracted AIDS.
Greenburg says he had his longtime friend in mind when he created the series, “Real Sports With Bryant Gumbel,” which premiered in April 1995 (Ashe passed away two years earlier). The monthly series would go on to win the Sports Emmy for outstanding sports journalism 12 times and rival “60 Minutes” as TV’s finest newsmagazine.
Correspondent Frank Deford says producers originally believed they had to have at least one major celebrity in every edition, but they quickly changed their philosophy.
“Most superstars are guarded and boring,” Deford explains. “Once we stopped chasing that whimsy, we could concentrate on picking really good stories that are seldomly just about sports. I’ve had a lot of guys tell me that they made their wives watch the show. At first they didn’t want to, and now they’re the ones making their husbands watch.”
Like “Real Sports,” “Hard Knocks” isn’t really about the game. It’s about everything surrounding the game. The series, which takes you behind the scenes of a different NFL team every season, didn’t get any takers until Baltimore Ravens coach Brian Billick agreed to let cameras into the locker room.
“They were coming off a world championship, and he knew that he had a veteran team that thought training camp was a real drudge,” says co-exec producer Steve Sabol. “He thought the cameras would raise the tempo.”
Getting a coach’s permission is only part of the battle. For this season’s coverage of the New York Jets, it wasn’t unusual for the production crew to finish editing the weekend highlights on Tuesday night, get Liev Schreiber’s narration in Wednesday morning (a particularly daunting task this year because the actor recorded it from a set in Barcelona) and got the tape over to HBO studios via a police escort just two hours before the airtime.
“It’s most most pressure-packed, most difficult show I’ve ever produced, but it’s also the most rewarding,” Sabol says. “I always say that if the show lasts six weeks, I’m going six weeks without a bowel movement.”
Sabol, who also oversaw HBO’s “Inside the NFL,” says he’s learned a lot about the HBO aud over the years, especially when he took it upon himself to bleep a few obscenities in a mid-’90s production.
“We got a lot of criticism from subscribers,” he says. “They felt that they were paying $100 a month for cable and they didn’t want anyone to decide that they weren’t mature enough for some things.”
HBO’s approach to sports is different because it has to be different. It can’t afford the rights to most major sports (although Greenberg still regrets HBO passed on the opportunity to cover the 1985 Ryder Cup), so it’s had to develop its own niche. Part of the strategy is developing both feature films and documentaries made with care and depth.
For “Lombardi,” a film about legendary Green Bay Packers coach Vince Lombardi, HBO allowed producers an entire year to conduct research. Usually, Sabol says, you would only get two months.
“Magic and Bird: A Courtship of Rivals,” which aired earlier this year to high accolades, was more about the personal relationship between superstars Magic Johnson and Larry Bird and less about their amazing abilities on court.
“It wasn’t just a look back at the greatest moments in NBA history,” Greenburg says. “Our documentaries have to have a sociological attachment that goes beyond the event.”
That mantra could also cover all HBO Sports programming, the best of which lingers with viewers long after the closing credits.
“When everyone zigs,” Greenburg says, “We zag.”