Showtime's Stephen Espinoza Not Ready to Pull the Trigger on New MMA Deal Yet
UFC owner Lorenzo Fertitta has always been skeptical about the market for mixed martial arts. He knew there was room for one major player. His UFC was proof of that. But the other fledgling promotions that cropped up in the wake of the UFC's post-2005 success? Fertitta told Yahoo! in 2008 that he wasn't quite sold on their long-term potential:
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A lot of people talk about the growth of MMA. I don't believe in that. I don't know where anybody can show me there is this great success in MMA outside of the UFC. There has been explosive growth for the UFC, but MMA in general, nobody is making a breakthrough...There is a bit of a misnomer there. It's not the growth of MMA. It's the growth of the UFC.
Five years later, Fertitta is beginning to look like a prophet about, well, profit. The UFC continues to bank big bucks. Its competitors have all mostly faded into the wind, been purchased by the UFC's parent company Zuffa or failed at the marketplace. And Showtime executive vice president Stephen Espinoza isn't sure that's going to change.
"I think the real question is 'Does the market need more MMA on television?' Is that something fans are asking for? Candidly, it's not a question I hear a lot," Espinoza told Bleacher Report in an exclusive interview. "With the amount of MMA programming available across many networks, just putting MMA on Showtime isn't going to be successful. We need to identify where the demand is. Where is the unmet desire in the combat sports marketplace?"
Espinoza wasn't the man who brought MMA to Showtime in the first place. That was his predecessor Ken Hershman, now running the show at HBO. But he isn't opposed to the sport on principle. After losing Strikeforce to the UFC, however, he wanted to study the market and approach it with eyes wide open.
"We'd like it to have a place on Showtime. We're trying to come up with or identify an opportunity for MMA on Showtime," Espinoza said. "We could have jumped back in really quickly, but we've taken our time. We want it to be something that lasts a long time and we're being pretty cautious about it."
Hershman and Strikeforce promoter Scott Coker made their lasting mark on the sport by helping popularize women's MMA. Former Strikeforce matchmaker Shannon Knapp took up that cause after the promotion was purchased by Zuffa. Knapp saw a hole in the market place for women's MMA and created Invicta Fighting Championship to fill it.
"All I'm asking for is people just give us that one moment...Take a look and see what it's about," Knapp told Bleacher Report last year. "I don't think if you're a fight fan, a true fight fan, that you can be gender biased. Because I can guarantee you, every one of my female fighters is coming to fight. They're skilled, they're talented and they deserve to be on this stage."
Invicta, by all accounts, has been a wildfire underground success. Their first five events have done well, capturing a huge audience with free Internet streams. For their sixth show on July 13, the group is going big time. They'll air live across North America on pay-per-view, with a pay stream available to international viewers. Both will cost $14.95.
Is it a prelude to an eventual spot on Showtime? Those rumors have persisted, but Espinoza says nothing is imminent.
"I haven't had a single conversation about a specific deal with Invicta," Espinoza revealed. "I have spoken to them, but it was very general. Certainly nothing close to discussing a deal with them. We discussed the opportunity, but I've had that kind of meeting with a dozen other promotions as well. I don't know where those rumors are coming from."
Invicta Fighting Championships 6 takes place July 13 at Ameristar Casino Hotel in Kansas City, Mo. Jonathan Snowden is Bleacher Report's lead combat sports writer. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes were compiled first hand.
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