Sports Media Watch had a chance to speak to HBO Sports President Ross Greenburg on Friday. Topics of conversation included the upcoming Sports Media Marketing Awards*, the NFL reality series Hard Knocks, the upcoming 24/7 reality show on the NHL’s Winter Classic, the short-lived Joe Buck Live, and Bill Simmons‘ contention that HBO documentaries skew toward older demographics.
SMW: This is the first year of the Sports Media Marketing Awards. What was it that appealed to you to want to be a part of it?
Greenburg: I think our industry was in need of having our marketing prowess broadcast across the land. There’s a lot of great, quality work that was being put on televisions and across the internet that really wasn’t getting the recognition it deserved in the marketplace. I think [PromaxBDA CEO Jonathan Block-Verk] and certainly those of us in the industry saw it. There’s a lot of great, quality work that comes out of the sports television departments across the board. I think, having judged it, it’s pretty apparent that it’s some of the most creative advertising anywhere.
SMW: Speaking of that, you are one of the judges on this event. What were you looking for as a judge?
Greenburg: I think you look for quality, delivery of the message, and entertainment value, all wrapped into one 30-60-90 [second] or print ad. It’s one of those situations where you know it when you see it, in terms of quality. I thought a lot of what we judged was of the highest of quality, and it was pretty tough to judge it, to differentiate the best product.
SMW: Hard Knocks, which was such a big deal this year especially — it seemed like the series really had a major impact on the way the Jets were perceived entering the season. When you do a show like this, are you looking to have it be as pervasive in the perception of a team as the season begins?
Greenburg: The premise of Hard Knocks is to go behind-the-scenes and show the casual fan how a professional organization prepares for a season. What are the ups and downs, who’s getting cut, how it works. I think the Jets were the perfect subject, with the leading actor of Rex Ryan, and all of those supporting actors that we found on the team — whether it be a Bart Scott or Mike Westhoff the special teams coach, or Mike Tannenbaum the GM, Mark Sanchez the quarterback.
We knew we had the right team at the right time, with the right tone, and the leading man in Rex. I think we hit on all cylinders, and we became watercooler talk around the country, and it became a show that really took hold of the imagination of the American public. This was by far our biggest success in the world of Hard Knocks, after doing it for ten years. Now we just have to try to raise the bar again, which is not going to be easy, a year from now.
But in terms of branding, I think we branded the series a few years back. We started to see a turning point with the Cincinnati Bengals a year ago, and then I think we just reached for the moon and grabbed it with the Jets. Now we’ve certainly given our brand a luster with that show, with that series Hard Knocks. And I think we’ve also showcased the fact that we can put a little luster on a football team’s brand. So the New York Jets have become a national force today, and I think prior to Hard Knocks, they weren’t necessarily all of that. We’ve showcased how our series can impact a team at the beginning of an NFL season.
SMW: Going off of that, I believe I read in an interview earlier this year that the Houston Texans have asked to be on Hard Knocks next season?
Greenburg: No, they asked this year. They asked prior to us closing the deal with the Jets. At the last minute, the 11th hour, we were approached by the Houston Texans and asked if we wanted to cover them for Hard Knocks. We had already made the determination that we wanted the Jets. That is the first time that a team approached us, and I would imagine, coming off of last year, that we will get quite a few teams approaching us in the future. That’s one of the benefits of a series that people get, in that now we’ve gained the trust of the NFL teams, that they know that we’re flies on the wall, and we’re not going to be intrusive, and we’re going to really jumpstart their branding as a professional organization. In the future, I look for more teams to ask us.
SMW: Moving to the other reality show, 24/7. This upcoming year, you’ll be doing the Penguins and Capitals in the lead up to the Winter Classic. What about the Winter Classic really appealed to that show, in the way that the boxing matches did in the past, or the Daytona 500 did?
Greenburg: The fact that the NHL had conveniently scheduled the Washington Capitals and the Pittsburgh Penguins, led by the two biggest superstars in the league, [Capitals LW] Alex Ovechkin and [Penguins C] Sidney Crosby, certainly didn’t hurt. The outdoor event, the Winter Classic, has also become a yearly spectacle, and the NHL has done a great job — [COO] John Collins and [Commissioner] Gary Bettman — of showcasing that event. When that fell into place, I worked out an arrangement with John Collins, whereby we would get embedded with both teams three weeks prior, and we would do a series of shows that took us right through the Winter Classic.
So we’ll do our fourth episode the Wednesday after the Winter Classic, and show people the behind-the-scenes that went on there, as well as what happened earlier in that week as they prepared for the Winter Classic. The key for this series is that we’re now going to be, for the first time, taking 24/7 into the regular season, and following two teams in a professional league while the season is going on. Obviously, in boxing we’ve done that, but it’s not a team sport. This will be the first time in a team sport where we’re right in the middle of it.
We’re really excited. We think it’s the right two teams, the right superstars, and the right spectacle of an event as an ending to our series. So we’re really looking forward to it.
SMW: Kind of like with the Hard Knocks situation and more teams wanting in, do you see more leagues wanting in? This used to just be boxing, then it was NASCAR, now the NHL — do you see maybe Major League Baseball, the NBA, wanting into this as well?
Greenburg: I hope so. I think the goal is to reach out to every major sport and see if we can work our way in, and give people the inside look that they want so badly. We’ve had such success of being able to execute on these shows, in NASCAR, in boxing, and hopefully in the NHL — and certainly, with the NFL. We think we have a certain expertise that we bring to the table in production, and we think we can kind of enhance the viewing pleasure of the audience, but also the league itself — the branding of the league, and the individual teams. We think it’s a win-win for the teams and the leagues, and hope that in the future that we can go everywhere.
SMW: Joe Buck Live went off the air [earlier this year]. It only lasted three episodes, and I was wondering, what did not work out on that show?
Greenburg: We got off to a rough start. We had issues figuring out who we wanted to be on that show. HBO Sports didn’t do justice to figuring out who Joe was, and what kind of show to build around him. In essence, Joe didn’t fail, we did. At the end of the day, you learn from mistakes that were made, and you move on.
Joe Buck is a tremendous talent, and on a nightly basis or weekly basis, there’s no-one better at what he does. Talk shows are different animals, and that kind of a vehicle is tough to produce. It took us years, to be honest, to figure out how to create a show around Bob Costas. We just didn’t have the time or the patience anymore to figure it out, so after the three episodes, we decided it would be better if — Joe wanted to dive back into play-by-play, and we just wanted to move on and maybe expand our 24/7 series, and use our money differently.
SMW: Do you plan to try another version of that type of talk show in the future?
Greenburg: You never know. You never say never in this business. Whatever we did would have to be unique. One of the things HBO Sports has to do is give you something you don’t see anywhere else on the dial. We think we’ve done that with Real Sports [with Bryant Gumbel], our sports magazine show. We know we do it with 24/7 and Hard Knocks. Our boxing coverage is unparalleled, we obviously think of ourselves as the leading producer of that product. And our documentaries are special events for us, three or four times a year.
If we ever did get back into the talk show business again, it would have to be a hybrid of a show that you couldn’t see anywhere else on the dial. I think that’s one of the challenges. That goes for the old Inside the NFL that we did. I think in this day and age, you can go along the dial and flip channels and see three or four people sitting around a desk talking sports on a dozen channels every night. That is not HBO. We just can’t duplicate that kind of a product and think that we’re something special. We’d have to create a talk show that you’ve never seen before. I can’t tell you what is, at this point.
SMW: You just mentioned the documentaries you do at HBO, and obviously HBO has had so much success with documentaries in the past. One of the other judges working with you for the SMMA is Bill Simmons from ESPN. Earlier this year, he had some comments about HBO’s documentaries. He basically said that they skew older than the documentaries that ESPN’s 30 For 30 has done. Do you have a response to that statement?
Greenburg: I sat with Bill Simmons and met him for the first time, really enjoyed his company, and we kind of exchanged pleasantries. Also, I’m the first to tell you that I think some of the shows they’ve put on the air have been brilliant. I think it’s a real successful series, and we welcome them to the documentary tent because it has given more appetite to that kind of fare.
We just dig deep and look for rich storytelling, and I don’t care when it happens. It could happen in 1890 or it could happen in 1990, it doesn’t really matter to me. If it’s a story we feel needs to be told, we think all ages will come to the television set and watch. I think a lot of times, people underestimate the minds of a younger generation, and their thirst for knowledge and entertainment. I don’t think you have to have lived through Magic [Johnson] and [Larry] Bird in order to appreciate the story. Same goes for Vince Lombardi, [his name is] on that Super Bowl trophy, and I would imagine his name rolls off the tongue of kids in elementary schools across the country. They know who he is, but they know nothing about him. I think anyone with a sense of history would know that if HBO is going to dive into a topic, it’s important, and they should sit and watch it. Our promise to them is that they’ll be entertained, enjoy it, and they may laugh and cry during it.