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HBO Boxing pops Showtime with a hard counter

When it comes to boxing, the media rivalry between Time Warner's HBO and CBS's Showtime can be as merciless as some of their best televised bouts. And HBO just struck a blow.

Canelo Alvarez, left, throws a punch against Floyd Mayweather Jr. during a 152-pound title fight, Sept. 14, 2013, in Las Vegas.
Steve Marcus | Reuters
Canelo Alvarez, left, throws a punch against Floyd Mayweather Jr. during a 152-pound title fight, Sept. 14, 2013, in Las Vegas.

HBO signed Saul "Canelo" Alvarez to an "exclusive, long-term" deal—the channel won't reveal either the dollar value or the duration of the pact—that will give it the rights to the sport's fastest-rising star.

Canelo (the nickname is "cinnamon" in Spanish) is a brutal Mexican redhead who, at the age of 24, carries a devoted fan base, many of whom are abidingly loyal Mexicans and Mexican-Americans—one of the sport's fastest-growing demographics.

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The win is especially sweet for HBO Sports because it peeled the 44-1 junior middleweight away from arch-rival Showtime Sports, and in doing so undermined a big part of the very strategy that Showtime sought to bring to bear against HBO. Boxing has a long, open and unashamed tradition of promoting itself around the ethnicities or nationalities of its fighters, and HBO just stole away the sport's biggest Mexican star.

Stephen Espinoza, the executive vice president who heads Showtime Sports, has said that his channel saw the country's urban markets, and the Hispanic fan base in particular, as of strategic importance.

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"The Hispanic fan base, we all know what the numbers and the demographics look like," Espinoza told CNBC last year. "There's a following here (in the United States), and it's not limited to Hispanic and African-Americans, but within those two demographics, the following is very dedicated."

"It's just about comfort level and not being second to anyone. That was important."" -Saul 'Canelo' Alvarez, on leaving Showtime

The key word there is "dedicated." Pay-per-view boxing is a sports segment whose revenue varies from year to year, but which can easily exceed $300 million. However, the real money for Showtime and HBO comes through the cable subscriptions that their regular boxing programming generates. Subscriptions are the core revenue of both cable channels' businesses—and boxing fans prove consistently that they're willing to pony up for regular access to bouts.

Ironically, Canelo is leaving Showtime largely because he doesn't want to operate in the shadow of the sport's biggest star, Floyd Mayweather. The boxing business last year saw a major shakeup when Mayweather—whose bouts had previously been carried by HBO—signed a multiple-fight contract with Showtime.

People on the sport's promotions side widely held the view then that Showtime was taking momentum from HBO. Showtime Boxing's resurgence was partly facilitated by CBS CEO Les Moonves, himself a serious boxing aficionado, Espinoza told CNBC at the time.

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Canelo said this week that he likes the idea of having his own spotlight at HBO. Leaving Showtime "was nothing personal," he told CNBC through a translator. "It's just about comfort level and not being second to anyone. That was very important."

Mayweather beat Canelo handily in a bout that aired on Showtime in September 2013. Speaking this week about Mayweather, who's famous for his evasive style, Canelo accused his rival of "only fighting 10 percent of the time" when he's in the ring.

Oscar De La Hoya, the former champion and head of Golden Boy Promotions, said that his client Canelo initiated the move.

"Showtime really made the effort," he said. "It was a strong effort. But he wants to be with HBO," said De La Hoya, who added that "My focus is Saul (Canelo) 100 percent. Saul Alvarez is the present and the future."

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In a statement, Showtime's Espinoza said that his channel is proud of the work it did with Canelo, "especially in establishing him as a pay per view star." But "Canelo's decision to switch networks does not alter our programming strategy. We will continue to feature the best and brightest of boxing's established stars and future stars."

HBO has made no formal announcement but is likely to debut Canelo on Dec. 6 against Ghana-born, 42-4 Joshua Clottey.