SBJ/Aug. 4-10, 2014/Media

New sports documentary projects have Greenburg energized

When Ross Greenburg left HBO Sports in July 2011, the normally upbeat executive sounded as down as I’ve ever heard him.

He had just gone through a series of bruising boxing negotiations that led to HBO losing the Manny Pacquiao-Shane Mosley bout to Showtime. In an exit interview at the time, Greenburg pointed to those negotiations as the main reason for his departure from a network where he had spent 33 years.

“Boxing just got to me,” he said wearily.

Greenburg

Fast-forward three years, and Greenburg’s demeanor has completely changed. He got into the business to produce, and that’s what he’s doing now. He certainly seems more energized, especially when he talks about his upcoming projects, documentaries from “Forgotten Four,” on the integration of the NFL, to one on Jack Nicklaus for the U.S. Golf Association.

As for boxing, nowadays he only dabbles in the sport as a consultant to Stephen Espinoza, executive vice president and general manager of Showtime Sports.

“It’s more as a consult to help Steve through the maze and the mess that is negotiations for boxing,” Greenburg said last week. “It really doesn’t take up the percentage of time for me that would wear me down. I don’t have to get in the middle of the fights in the boardroom. That’s been really a nice part of this new world that I live in.”

As his Ross Greenburg Productions comes up on its third anniversary, Greenburg has been able to concentrate on the part of the business he truly loves: producing documentaries and reality series.

Trading on his relationships and reputation, Greenburg’s slate of productions is as full now as it was when he was running HBO, averaging about three or four documentaries per year and some reality series. Greenburg has produced docs for networks such as NBC Sports Group and Showtime and leagues like the NHL and USGA. 

He’s even had conversations with ESPN about potential “30 for 30” topics, meeting with ESPN Films executive producer Connor Schell and producer Libby Geist. “I threw out some ideas,” he said. “Hopefully, one of them will hit.”

Greenburg already had plans to launch his own production company before he left HBO Sports. As a guide, he looked to Don Ohlmeyer Productions, the company run by the legendary broadcast executive that was behind “The Skins Game” and “The Superstars.” 

“When he left NBC, Don went into the live world, which was his forte, and put together a heck of a company,” Greenburg said. “I’m hitting different programming genres, some of them didn’t exist back then, like reality programming. He built a huge business. I’m not there yet.”

Greenburg still isn’t sure that he wants to get there. While he’s open to growing his business, he said he appreciates the “boutique mentality” that he currently has with his company.

“If you spread yourself too thin, you can wear away at the quality of the product,” he said.

Greenburg was the most energized when he discussed “Forgotten Four,” a documentary he is producing for the premium channel Epix. It tells the story of the Los Angeles Rams’ Woody Strode and Kenny Washington and the Cleveland Browns’ Bill Willis and Marion Motley — African-Americans who started in the league in 1946 — a year before Jackie Robinson put on a Dodgers uniform in Major League Baseball.

Pro Arts Management executive Wes Smith came to Greenburg with the idea of a documentary on the history of African-Americans in pro football. Smith is the executive producer for the film, which debuts on Epix Sept. 23.

“When I found out that there were these four icons who had busted through in pro football, I said, ‘My gosh, what a story. We have to end the story right there. I don’t want to take it into the 1960s,’” Greenburg said. “I knew that I picked a gem.”

In catching up with Greenburg last week, it was easy to see that he was doing what he loves to do. Topics didn’t stray to boxing or corporate politics. He was just a producer talking about his films.

“My first love is to produce — whether it is reality shows or documentaries or any live productions that would come along,” he said. “I knew that was what was in my heart. That was how I started in the business.” n

John Ourand can be reached at jourand@sportsbusinessjournal.com. Follow him on Twitter @Ourand_SBJ.

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