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Join Date: Jun 2005
Re: "Larry Merchant and HBO"- Thomas Hauser article
Doug Krikorian of the Long Beach Press-Telegram declared, “In what has to be one of the most misguided decisions in sports television history, HBO president Ross Greenburg has decided not to renew the contract of his longtime boxing analyst, Larry Merchant, and replace him with Max Kellerman. Omigod! What is Mr. Greenburg thinking? If he wanted a clown, I’m sure there are plenty available at Ringling Bros and Barnum & Bailey Circus that are a lot more entertaining than Max Kellerman. Kellerman has a superficial knowledge of boxing, makes a lot of noise, and offers the kind of opinions one routinely hears in places like beer bars, fraternity houses, and barber shops. Greenburg is insulting the intelligence of his audience.”
But no critic was more persistent than Bob Raissman of the New York Daily News, who, in a series of columns, attacked Kellerman for “smug rants designed to pander to the coveted younger demographic,” and proclaimed, “Replacing Larry Merchant with Max Kellerman would be like replacing Picasso with the guy who sells the velvet Elvises outside of Graceland. MeMax’s greatest asset is his ability to self-promote. He has fooled more than a few TV and radio suits, who again prove that having a brain is not a prerequisite for becoming a network sports executive. If HBO honchos dump Merchant in favor of Kellerman, it will signal a lowering of journalistic standards, which have always separated HBO Sports from all other TV sports operations.”
The situation reached critical mass in Las Vegas during the week leading up to Oscar De La Hoya versus Floyd Mayweather Jr. Greenburg had wanted to replace Merchant with someone who would elicit a reaction from the media and fans, but this wasn’t the reaction he wanted.
“Ross is all alone on this one,” one HBO insider said. “Kery Davis, Mark Taffet, Rick Bernstein, Barbara Thomas; everyone thinks he’s making a mistake.”
The HBO bubble that Greenburg lives in was bursting. His decision to terminate Merchant’s tenure was being attacked as evincing a lack of respect for boxing fans and boxing. It was suggested by one observer of the scene that HBO launch a new TV reality series entitled Greenburg-Merchant-Kellerman 24/7.
One moment spoke volumes. Several days before De La Hoya-Mayweather, Greenburg came into the media center at the MGM Grand Hotel and Casino, walked past dozens of writers and other “boxing people” without a word, and sat down next to former Los Angeles Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda. By virtue of his position as president of HBO Sports, Ross was the most powerful person in the room. But he didn’t seem to like the people he was sharing the room with very much.
Meanwhile, an extremely troubling issue had arisen. Earlier that week, Greenburg had been interviewed by Michael Hiestand of USA Today with regard to Merchant’s contract status.
“Larry is still throwing a 95-mph fastball and hitting the corners,” Hiestand quoted Ross as saying. “We’d never give him a reduced role. We’re working to hammer this out.”
The words, “We’d never give him a reduced role,” were at odds with the truth.
Time Warner (HBO’s parent company) is a media-entertainment conglomerate with a long tradition of journalistic excellence. Time Magazine and CNN are among its component parts. Closer to home, HBO prides itself on its journalistic integrity. That’s the philosophy behind its boxing telecasts and shows like Real Sports.
For the president of HBO Sports to be quoted in “America’s newspaper” and for that quote to be false was disheartening to a lot of people at HBO.
Then everything changed. Depending on one’s point of view, either Greenburg blinked or had a change of heart.
On Friday, May 4th (the day before De La Hoya-Mayweather) Ross asked to have breakfast with Merchant at the MGM Grand and made an unexpected offer. His proposal was for a two-year contract with options at HBO’s election for two years more. Merchant would work all of HBO’s pay-per-view boxing cards (an estimated six per year) and half of its World Championship Boxing shows (Larry would choose which ones). His role on the telecasts would be the same as in the past. Other details (including salary) were ironed out at a May 8th meeting in New York when Merchant was in town to tape commentary for the network’s replay of De La Hoya-Mayweather.
Merchant considered the agreement to be fair and was pleased with it. Then, a week later, he received unsettling news in the form of a telephone call from Rick Bernstein. Bernstein had been a strong advocate for Larry within HBO. Indeed, some people had begun referring to him as “the janitor” because, in the words of one co-worker, “he’s trying to clean up the mess that Ross has made.”
Bernstein told Merchant that there was a snag. Greenburg had thought he could persuade Kellerman to accept a lesser role on World Championship Boxing and pay-per-view fights and continue as the lead analyst on Boxing After Dark. But Max was objecting to Larry’s new contract on grounds that he had a contract of his own and expected it to be fulfilled. Short of that, Kellerman was demanding parity with Merchant in assignments and refusing to work Boxing After Dark subsequent to May 31st because it wasn’t required by his contract.
“HBO has gotten locked into bad longterm contracts with fighters in the past,” marveled one network executive. “But this is the first time that HBO has gotten screwed on a longterm contract with an announcer.”
Regardless, Greenburg was now backing away from the agreement that he and Merchant had reached. If Larry’s new contract was to be finalized, he would have to accept a lesser number of fights than previously agreed to and would no longer have the right to choose which fights he worked.
Intimates say that Merchant was shaken and angered by the new turn of events. “This knocks me for a loop,” he said. “I was prepared to leave. I had come to grips with it emotionally. And now, to be told that we have a deal for me to stay on and, less than ten days later, to be told that the terms of the deal are changing; I’m not happy about it at all. In the three decades that I’ve been at HBO, nothing like this has happened to me before and I’m not aware of it happening to anyone else.”
Once again, Merchant’s status was in limbo. Taylor-Spinks came and went. Larry finished the telecast not knowing whether he’d sit behind an HBO microphone again.
Then another precinct was heard from. At the kick-off press conference for his July 14th fight against Alfonso Gomez (which will be televised on HBO), Arturo Gatti was asked what he thought about Merchant’s possible departure. Gatti has fought under the HBO banner twenty-one times. Only Oscar De La Hoya and Roy Jones Jr have made more appearances.
“I wouldn’t want to speak to nobody but Larry Merchant after a fight,” Arturo opined. “Some people don’t like him. I like him because he’s real. He’s got balls to say it. If Max Kellerman goes to HBO, HBO is gonna go to shit.”
Still, time was running out. May 31st came and went. Now a new deadline loomed. On June 8th, the Boxing Writers Association of America was to present Merchant with the James J. Walker Award for “long and meritorious service to boxing.” The next night, Miguel Cotto versus Zab Judah would be televised from Madison Square Garden on HBO Pay-Per-View. The announcing team for that fight was still undetermined.