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Friday, May 18, 2007
Boxing and Mixed Martial Arts--- Arrest & Firing of HBO's CEO Could Affect UFC-HBO Deal
by Ivan Trembow
Originally Published on MMAWeekly

The news of the record-breaking PPV buyrate for Oscar De la Hoya vs. Floyd Mayweather, Jr. has almost been overshadowed by the news that HBO Chairman and CEO Chris Albrecht has been fired. Just hours after the conclusion of the De la Hoya-Mayweather fight, Albrecht was arrested for allegedly assaulting his girlfriend in a Las Vegas parking lot.

As reported by the Los Angeles Times, "Officers at the site of the Oscar De La Hoya-Floyd Mayweather Jr. boxing match came running when they spotted a man later identified as Albrecht grabbing a woman by the throat with both hands and dragging her toward the valet parking station at the MGM Grand... The officers who arrested Albrecht said that he had grabbed his companion around the neck so hard that he left red marks, and that they had to physically break his grip to free her."

According to an MSNBC/Newsweek account of the police report, Albrecht then told the officers "that his girlfriend had pissed him off and that he was the CEO of HBO."

Fans of mixed martial arts who don't follow the boxing industry or HBO at large may be familiar with the name Chris Albrecht because he is the person who took the uncommon step of overruling HBO Sports president Ross Greenburg's plans to exclude MMA from HBO's line-up in the future, as previously reported by acclaimed boxing writer Thomas Hauser of Seconds Out.

Two days after his arrest, Albrecht initially said in a memo to HBO employees that he was taking a paid leave of absence from the company. Just one day later, Albrecht said in a second memo that he was resigning from the company "at the request of Time Warner," which is HBO's parent company.

As for what changed in that one-day period between the two memos, Albrecht was asked to resign from his position at HBO on the same day that the Los Angeles Times published a story containing the revelation that this is not the first time Albrecht has been in trouble for allegedly assaulting a woman. The Times reported, "In 1991, the cable network [HBO] paid a major settlement to Sasha Emerson, a subordinate and love interest of Albrecht's who alleged that he had shoved and choked her at HBO's West Coast offices in Century City. The incident, according to four people familiar with the matter, had been kept quiet for 16 years by the management of HBO."

Insiders at HBO considered Albrecht to be "a ticking time bomb" even prior to the most recent incident, according to a report by the Reuters news service.

Reuters has also reported that there could be further shake-ups at HBO if those loyal to Albrecht choose to leave the company in the coming months. As Reuters put it, "Rarely does an executive that high in a corporate structure fall out without taking some of the people he put in with him. Insiders are wondering who will follow Albrecht out the door."

Albrecht is among those credited with helping lead HBO to expand beyond movies, sports, and stand-up comedy with the addition of critically-acclaimed original series such as "The Sopranos," "Six Feet Under," and "Oz."

Bill Nelson, the Chief Operating Officer of HBO, will assume Albrecht's duties until a full-time CEO is appointed. The top candidates to replace Albrecht as CEO include Nelson and two other HBO executives, Eric Kessler and Richard Plepler.

According to a report by Thomas Hauser of Seconds Out from January of this year, HBO Sports did not want to air MMA programming at all, and HBO Sports president Ross Greenburg had "opposed the UFC deal as vigorously as possible," while doing "everything in his power not to televise mixed martial arts."

It was a surprising and significant move when Albrecht, then the Chairman and CEO of HBO as a whole, veto'd Greenburg and insisted that HBO would air MMA programming at some point, leaving Greenburg only to negotiate the details of such a deal. The Seconds Out article added that the veto from Albrecht "represented a marked shift in HBO's corporate culture... in the past, an HBO chief executive officer would not have ordered sports programming over the objection of the sports department."

It is not yet known what affect, if any, Albrecht's departure from HBO will have on Greenburg's day-to-day business dealings and the decisions that he makes at HBO Sports.

However, due in part to Albrecht's previous veto of Greenburg, and also due in part to the very strong anti-MMA sentiments of other people at HBO Sports (including HBO Boxing's lead announcer Jim Lampley), it's a very sensitive political situation at HBO whenever the subject of boxing vs. MMA is raised even privately, and much more so when it's raised publicly.

Lampley said on the air following the conclusion of the De la Hoya-Mayweather fight, "Mixed martial arts is entertaining, but the kind of skill level you saw in the ring tonight... there’s nothing in mixed martial arts which is within light years of what Mayweather and De la Hoya are able to do with their hands."

Max Kellerman, the HBO Boxing color commentator who may or may not be replacing Larry Merchant as the #1 color commentator for HBO Boxing in the coming months, responded to Lampley's comment minutes later by saying on the air, "I disagree with Jim. I think there are mixed martial artists who are operating on a very similar skill level in what they do as these fighters [Mayweather and De la Hoya], and that’s one of the reasons why that sport is becoming very popular."

In comments to the media after the record-setting PPV buyrate was announced, HBO Sports president Ross Greenburg said, "This fight never would have materialized if boxing was dying. It's alive and well." Greenburg expanded on that point in the L.A. Times: "The sport of boxing is alive and well. If it isn't, how do you explain this? The naysayers can go take a nap."

In numerous interviews with the media after the De la Hoya-Mayweather fight, UFC president Dana White voiced his disappointment with the fight. In one interview with the Boston Herald, some of White's statements included: "I went to the fight that night. Inside the arena, there was no energy whatsoever... I'm not bashing boxing, I love it, but all these people have destroyed this sport... It's crazy. It just drives people further from boxing. You get one fight for 55 bucks. One fight for a $2,500 ticket. You get people all excited for the build-up and then the fight ends up sucking. Both guys try to outpoint the other and win a decision."

White continued, "In the UFC, we give you eight or nine fights, they’re all good, and the guys are fighting their asses off trying to finish it."

The UFC's contract with Spike TV expires in mid-2008. Spike is currently the UFC's exclusive basic cable television partner, an arrangement which precludes the UFC from signing deals with other basic cable networks, but would not preclude a deal with a premium cable network like HBO.

In addition to seeking a large increase in programming rights fees in its negotiations with Spike TV for a contract renewal, the UFC is almost certainly going to want to remove the exclusivity clauses altogether, given the company's publicly stated desire to air its programming on other networks such as ESPN.

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