HBO Sports exec says the future of the network will be 'high access, high ambition' programming now that it's dropping boxing after 45 years

Kevin Winter/GettyHBO Sports’ Executive Vice President Peter Nelson.
  • HBO recently announced that it would soon stop broadcasting professional boxing matches after 45 years.
  • In an interview with Business Insider, HBO Sports Executive Vice President Peter Nelson detailed some of his programming plans going forward.
  • Nelson said the goal is to do “high access, high ambition” programming going forward, like the Bill Simmons-produced “Andre the Giant” documentary and LeBron James’ “The Shop” show, which will feature Drake in the next episode.

Thursday marked a major pivot for HBO when the network announced that it will no longer feature professional boxing content.

That’s 45 years after its first televised match, and in that time, HBO didn’t just air some of the greatest boxing matches ever, it also produced award-winning programming on the sport.

But without a dominating force like Mike Tyson to keep the casual boxing fan interested throughout the last few decades, HBO Sports Executive Vice President Peter Nelson pulled the plug.

“We’ve had consistent audience research saying that boxing is no longer a determinant factor for HBO subscribers,” Nelson told Business Insider on Friday.

In many ways, HBO’s move away from broadcasting boxing is an indication of how far interest in the sport itself has fallen from the zeitgeist. But it also shows where HBO Sports wants to focus going forward: programming that draws in a wide audience, not just in a specific sport but on aspects of the culture that transcends it.

Or as Nelson put it – “high access, high ambition” programming.

“Our mission is to use sports as a lens into socio-economic, political, and cultural issues,” Nelson went on to say. “I think humanising individuals, creating empathy around different communities, allowing that to cross-pollinate for people in a way that allows them to contextualize themselves and the world around them. That’s at the heart of what we strive to do.”

And there are different ways HBO Sports is planning to accomplish that going forward, including continuing some of the programming that’s a staple to the network, like the HBO Sports documentary. But some of those plans are a bit more outside the box.

Andre the Giant 2 WWEWWE

Documentaries will still be front and center

With Bill Simmons signed onto the network, he’s brought more current topics of sports documentaries to HBO, the sort that made ESPN’s “30 for 30” brand – which he helped launch – so popular. His executive produced “Andre the Giant” documentary, released earlier this year, became the most-watched doc in HBO Sports history. Nelson said he’s currently in talks with Simmons about making more documentaries, in addition to unscripted projects.

Then there’s the first-ever acquired documentary by HBO Sports, “Momentum Generation.” Executive produced by Robert Redford, the surfing documentary was purchased by HBO at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival, and Nelson said festival acquisitions will be part of their content strategy going forward.

But perhaps HBO’s most ambitious project in the documentary space coming up is the multi-part Muhammad Ali documentary, “What’s My Name | Muhammad Ali”, which is directed by Antoine Fuqua (“Training Day,” “The Equaliser” movies).

Though a documentary on the greatest boxer of all time is hardly anything new (HBO itself has done numerous docs already on Ali), Nelson touts this one as having a different feel than most because of Fuqua’s involvement and how it will be told.

“It will be told in Ali’s own words,” he said. “That will be the driver of the narrative. I think that is what makes this project special, the perspective of the viewer is going to be shaped by what Ali has to say about himself, his own time, and the context of which he lived.”

“What’s My Name | Muhammad Ali” will air in the spring of 2019.

Making programs that go beyond sports

Outside of the traditional documentary space, Nelson said he’s in talks with IMG’s original content division about partnering on more projects similar to “Being Serena,” the series HBO aired on Serena Williams this past year. It’s also expanding its “24/7” series beyond boxing to golf, as its next one will be focused on the Tiger Woods vs. Phil Mickelson match that will take place on November 23. The all-access style of “24/7” will air during the lead-up to the match.

And then there’s “The Shop,” the conversational show from LeBron James set in a barbershop that has already gained attention for its honest, unfiltered chats with the likes of Odell Beckham Jr. and Jon Stewart, not to mention James’ own frank talk on it.

The Shop John Johnson HBOJohn Johnson/HBO‘The Shop.

Nelson revealed to Business Insider exclusively that the show’s next episode will feature a chat between James and Drake and is set to run in October.

Though HBO has been a staple of all facets of sports for decades, it’s never been in close collaboration with some of the biggest names in sports until now. Nelson is focused on continuing the type of programming that delves deeper into the people we cheer for.

“What we look to do is programming that tells stories that bring in viewers beyond what they care about that particular sport or sporting event,” Nelson said.

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