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End of an era: HBO Sports announces pivot away from boxing coverage starting in 2019

Operating with a noticeably reduced budget in recent years despite maintaining the facade as a destination for boxing on premium cable, HBO announced Thursday it will be leaving the fight business following 2018 after 45 years.

An HBO Sports statement confirmed the initial report from The New York Times, which brought a sad end to an era in which the network brought class and high production value to the sport, which included many of the biggest pay-per-view events in history and breakthrough programming like the often duplicated "24/7" pre-fight documentary series which debuted in 2007. 

"Going forward in 2019, we will be pivoting away from programming live boxing on HBO," the statement read. "As always, we will remain open to looking at events that fit our programming mix. This could include boxing, just not for the foreseeable future. We're deeply indebted to the many courageous fighters whose careers we were privileged to cover. 

"We are a storytelling platform. The future will see unscripted series, long-form documentary films, reality programming, sports journalism, event specials and more unique standout content from HBO Sports."

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HBO made its boxing debut with George Foreman's knockout of Joe Frazier in their Jan. 22, 1973 heavyweight championship bout and most recently produced the much-anticipated PPV rematch between Canelo Alvarez and Gennady Golovkin for the unified middleweight title. Currently, the only remaining broadcast scheduled for HBO is an Oct. 27 card at New York's Madison Square Garden headlined by a IBF middleweight title bout between Daniel Jacobs and Sergiy Derevyanchenko.

The reason for the network's departure from the sport is centered upon a decline in viewership. HBO Sports executive vice president Peter Nelson told The New York Times that boxing telecasts in 2018 averaged around 820,000 viewers for HBO, which amounts to just two percent of the total audience.

"Boxing has been part of our heritage for decades," HBO's statement read. "During that time, the sport has undergone a transformation. It is now widely available on a host of networks and streaming services. There is more boxing than ever being televised and distributed. In some cases, this programming is very good.  But from an entertainment point of view, it's not unique."

Although Showtime has presented itself to be a viable competitor over the past 25 years, there's little doubt HBO Sports had built the majority of its reputation on being boxing's broadcasting home, especially following the sport's transition off of network television. HBO was also the undisputed king for PPV events until Showtime, upon it's 2013 acquisition of Floyd Mayweather, began to level the playing field. 

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The past five years saw Showtime equal and eventually eclipse HBO as boxing's premier network, thanks in large part to its relationship with Premier Boxing Champions founder Al Haymon. Last month, Showtime announced a three-year extension with PBC.

HBO's exit also comes within a calendar year that saw the broadcasting landscape dramatically shift within the sport. Fox joined Showtime in announcing deals with PBC while Top Rank left HBO to sign with ESPN, which included a recent seven-year extension which extends across the streaming platform ESPN+. Eddie Hearn of Matchroom Sport also made waves by signing an exclusive eight-year, $1 billion deal to promote fights in the U.S. on the fledging app DAZN, which held its debut card last Saturday featuring unified heavyweight champion Anthony Joshua. 

The New York Times reported that of HBO's boxing announce team, which includes Max Kellerman, Roy Jones Jr. and Andre Ward, only blow-by-blow voice Jim Lampley is expected to remain with the network. There has been no word as to whether HBO will continue to produce its monthly boxing show "The Fight Game with Jim Lampley." 

The only boxing related programming scheduled for 2019 thus far on HBO is the multi-part documentary called "What's My Name? Muhammad Ali" which lists NBA star LeBron James as an executive producer. 

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The news is also expected to create an intense bidding war between the network's two biggest names, Alvarez and Golovkin, who both saw their exclusive HBO deals expire with their September rematch and are expected to likely face off for a third time in 2019. 

Earlier this month, HBO declined to pick up the option on televising a light heavyweight title rematch between Eleider Alvarez and former champion Sergey Kovalev, just months after Alvarez's exciting comeback knockout aired on the network. The fight was subsequently signed by ESPN and the decision from HBO was seen as a harbinger towards Thursday's announcement.  

In terms of statistics, HBO has aired a grand total of 1,111 fights over 45 years and debuted its "Boxing After Dark" series on Feb. 3, 1996, with a memorable action fight between Marco Antonio Barrera and Kennedy McKinney. Overall, Jones and Oscar De La Hoya are tied with the most appearances fighting on HBO with 32 while Mayweather and Shane Mosley are tied for second with 27. Manny Pacquiao (24), Miguel Cotto (24), Lennox Lewis (23), Bernard Hopkins (23), Wladimir Klitschko (22) and Arturo Gatti (21) round out the top 10. 

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