The sweet science

Boxing leads the sports charge for the self-billed 'Network of Champions'

From boxing to the “Bambino,” Chris Albrecht has put a definite stamp on HBO’s sports coverage.

Branding itself the “Network of Champions,” boxing brings in the sports division’s highest numbers. In June, 4.6 million viewers tuned in to the Lennox Lewis-Vitali Klitschko fight at Staples Center, making it the highest-rated fight in four years for the cabler.

That number could easily be upped Sept. 13 with the rematch between Oscar De La Hoya and Shane Mosley. Those numbers are down considerably, however, from sport’s TV heyday in the 1970s and ’80s. The first match in June of 2000 drew 600,000 pay-per-view buys.

Then again, boxing’s popularity has fallen considerably since Muhammad Ali, Joe Frazier and Sugar Ray Leonard laced up the gloves. It is practically non-existent on English-language network TV, and HBO and Showtime serve as two of the few venues for boxing fans.

“The generalized sports fan has been drifting from boxing, and to get them back we’ve matched up superstars vs. superstars,” says HBO Sports topper Ross Greenburg. “That’s the way to attract them back to the sport.”

While HBO might be known more for original series such as “The Sopranos” and “Sex and the City,” the pay cabler’s sports menu is extensive.

Besides several boxing events, there’s the recently concluded latenight talker “On the Record With Bob Costas,” the monthly newsmagazine “Real Sports With Bryant Gumbel,” weekly gridiron roundup “Inside the NFL” and a slew of documentaries spread throughout the year.

“We put a different spin on sports television,” Greenburg explains. “We have more of a journalistic style and are storytellers. We’ve had to develop our own niche.”

“On the Record,” a laid-back chatfest that features Costas talking to a mix of both celebrities and athletes, recently saw a spike in viewer totals when it moved from 10:30 p.m. Thursdays to 11:30 Fridays, resulting in a ratings jump of 56% from 2002. The time change was the brainchild of HBO chairman-CEO Albrecht.

And speaking of shifts, “Inside the NFL” — cable’s longest-running series returning for its 27th season — moves to Wednesdays when it kicks off on Sept. 10.

The lineup of hosts remains the same: Costas, Dan Marino, Cris Carter and Cris Collinsworth. Adding a comedic flair is Wanda Sykes, who has her own sitcom, “Wanda at Large” on Fox, and George Lopez, whose self-titled series returns for a second season on ABC.

“You have to keep trying to innovate, and we think the new Wednesday night primetime showcase will further help distinguish the show,” says Rick Bernstein, senior VP and exec producer for HBO Sports.

One upcoming HBO docu should be of great interest to baseball fans, especially those in Boston and New York.

Debuting Sept. 16, “The Curse of the Bambino” examines the sale of Babe Ruth from the Red Sox to the Yankees — in the winter prior to the 1920 season — and the effect it’s had on both teams.

For the uninitiated: The transaction didn’t work out too well for the Red Sox, who haven’t won a World Series since 1918. The Yankees, on the other hand, have gone on to win 26 more world championships.

“This story has a beginning, middle and, so far, no end,” says Greenburg. “The saga of Red Sox fans evoke every emotion you find in a great documentary.”