Larry Merchant and HBO
By Thomas Hauser
The recent contract negotiations between Larry Merchant and HBO offer insight into several facets of the relationship between boxing and the media.
As virtually every boxing fan knows, Merchant’s previous contract with HBO expired on June 1, 2007. It was widely anticipated that, thereafter, his employment would be terminated by the network. But after much drama, he was offered and signed a new agreement that calls for him to remain with the cable giant until May 31, 2009. HBO has an option to extend his services through May 31, 2011.
HBO Sports president Ross Greenburg declined a request to be interviewed for this article. But many present and past HBO employees were willing to talk about the matter on condition of anonymity while others agreed to speak on the record.
Merchant is a calming presence, not the sort of person one would expect to find at the center of a storm. He’s 76 years old and has called more than 600 fights during his 29-year career with HBO. He has never been a traditional television commentator. At his core, he’s an old-time, old-line, old-school journalist with ink in his veins. He has never promoted himself as a show business personality. His responsibility, as he sees it, is to commentate insightfully on HBO fights. He’s quiet and well-mannered, a voice of reason who tells it like it is when the emperor has no clothes.
Most viewers like Merchant; some don’t. But everyone agrees that he speaks the truth as he sees it. Seth Abraham (former president of Time Warner Sports and the original architect of HBO’s boxing program) calls him “one of the pillars of HBO’s boxing [COLOR=#000066! important][COLOR=#000066! important]franchise[/color][/color]
” and “the conscience of HBO boxing.”
“Over the years,” Abraham says, “Larry’s contribution to HBO has gone far beyond his work behind the microphone. Even though Lou [DiBella] wore a diamond stud in his ear, Lou was a suit when he was making fights for HBO. Lou was management. And Larry was never a suit. He was an ombudsman, a voice for the fan, and a reliable knowledgeable sounding board for everything we did.”
It’s not often that the public figures one looks up to in youth turn out to be as decent and honorable as they appeared to have been when viewed through adolescent eyes. But as new generations of journalists and TV personnel have become Merchant’s co-workers, they have found him to be a man of integrity and grace. His presence in the sweet science gives boxing and everyone associated with it a bit more dignity and class.
In late 2005, Ross Greenburg began planning to remove Merchant from his role as lead analyst on HBO’s World Championship Boxing and pay-per-view fights. His primary motivation is said to have been a desire to appeal to a younger audience demographic. Toward that end, Greenburg met with Max Kellerman (now 33 years old). In March 2006, a contract was signed. Informed sources say that it called for Kellerman to serve as lead analyst on all Boxing After Dark telecasts and perform desk duty on selected pay-per-view events through May 31, 2007. Thereafter, Max would assume Merchant’s role as lead analyst on all World Championship Boxing and pay-per-view shows. The contract runs through May 31, 2010. Kellerman received in the neighborhood of $10,000 for each Boxing After Dark telecast. When he stepped into Merchant’s shoes, his salary was to rise to approximately $550,000 a year.
In 2003, Showtime brought Al Bernstein in to fill a vacancy in the lead-analyst position on Showtime Championship Boxing. Before Bernstein was hired, Jay Larkin (then the head of Showtime Boxing) sat down with blow-by-blow commentator Steve Albert and asked him how he felt about the move and what he thought the chemistry between him and Bernstein would be like. Albert responded enthusiastically.
There is no evidence that Greenburg had a similar conversation with Jim Lampley regarding his partnering with Kellerman. To the contrary, replacing Larry with Max was Greenburg’s call, plain and simple. Informed sources say that he did it with relatively little staff input and against the wishes of most of the people who deal with boxing at HBO.
Moreover, as one current HBO employee observes, “If you’ve promised a person’s job to someone else, the only honorable thing to do is pick up the phone and tell him; or better yet, tell him face-to-face. And that’s particularly true when the person you’re terminating is Larry Merchant, who has been with you for 29 years.”
But that call wasn’t made. And ultimately, Merchant was left dangling for months while his future remained in doubt.
Multiple sources say that it wasn’t until November 2006 that Merchant was advised that his role on World Championship Boxing and pay-per-view fights as he knew it was about to be terminated. At that time, Greenburg offered him a slot on Boxing After Dark and unspecified “other duties” at a seventy-percent cut in pay.
Merchant was prepared to begin the process of stepping back to make way for a successor, but not to the degree that Greenburg wanted. He pressed for clarification of just what those “other duties” would be and learned that they were largely illusory. In essence, Greenburg simply wanted him to trade jobs with Kellerman.
Merchant suggested a variety of alternatives, one of which conformed to Greenburg’s desire to have him give up World Championship Boxing and pay-per-view fights. Larry said he would become the lead analyst for Boxing After Dark if he could also be the matchmaker for BAD. He felt that HBO could, and should be making better fights than it was. But Greenburg rejected the offer, saying that HBO’s management team was perfectly capable of making good fights. Ross also voiced the view that it would be improper for one person to make and then commentate upon fights, despite the historical precedent of Gil Clancy, Ferdie Pacheco, and Alex Wallau doing so at CBS, NBC, and ABC respectively.
Thereafter, other than offering a bit more money, Greenburg refused to budge and Merchant readied to leave HBO. It wasn’t a negotiating ploy on Larry’s part; he wasn’t posturing. He felt unwanted and thought it was time to go.
“I don’t blame Max,” Merchant told intimates. “Every job in television is open to competition. This isn’t about Max. It’s a decision that Ross made with regard to me. He never told me why he was doing it. I’m sure he’ll be asked at some point and he’ll say something like, ‘Larry was here for 29 years and we love him but we have to look to the future.’”