Stephen Espinoza is one of boxing’s elite powerbrokers. During his relatively short tenure so far as head of Showtime Sports, he has led one of boxing’s premier cable network giants from clear second place to viable contender for HBO’s throne of top boxing programmer in America.
He gave Bleacher Report an inside look at his simple but effective strategy at Showtime so far, as well as what to expect from the network moving forward.
“I think our strategy has really been to identify what weight divisions there is a wealth of talent and interesting talent in, and to go to the well in those divisions repeatedly so we’re building familiarity. And then to expand the array of content we make available around our fights.”
Espinoza joined Showtime in November 2011. He is the network’s executive vice president and general manager of sports and event programming. His duties include being responsible for the development and execution of the group as well as managing the network's relationships with distributors, talent and suppliers.
He also oversees the acquisition and licensing of sports and event programming.
Showtime’s biggest acquisition under Espinoza, at least from a boxing perspective, was snatching boxing’s top moneymaker Floyd Mayweather away from HBO in February 2013. It caused a seismic shift in the world of boxing and is probably the single biggest reason Showtime has gained traction on HBO.
Mayweather’s six-bout, 30-month deal was hailed by a Showtime press release as the “richest individual athlete deal in all of sports.” According to a report by Kurt Badenhausen at Forbes.com, the deal could reach and even exceed the $250 million mark once it’s all said and done.
Mayweather’s first bout of the deal was a unanimous-decision win over Robert Guerrero in May 2013. In September 2013, he defeated Saul "Canelo" Alvarez in the highest-grossing pay-per-view event in television history. Next up for the undefeated superstar will be Marcos Maidana on May 3.
Espinoza said the signing of Mayweather fit his vision for Showtime perfectly. As previously published at The Sweet Science, Espinoza believes Mayweather is the Michael Jordan of boxing, an obvious marketing commodity who is also the top performer and earner in the sport.
Mayweather is a welterweight who also has the ability to fight up to 154 pounds when the occasion calls for it (as it did against Alvarez). Espinoza said those were exactly the divisions the network targeted for content, along with the division just south of them, 140.
“We initially looked at 140, 147 and 154 as the divisions we were going to feature and then [later] we added 175 to that. And then, for example, if you look at 140 and 147, and now 175, in each of those divisions we have the possibility of televising unification fights which coincides with our strategy of getting the biggest, most compelling and most competitive fights.”
Espinoza said the key to Showtime’s success was knowing which fighters and divisions Showtime needed to target, the ones that would have the best and most important fights between the most compelling and interesting fighters.
“We want the most compelling and interesting boxers on the air. The second piece of that, and you can’t really have one without the other, is that there’s got to be attractive opponents.”
The most frequent criticism of Espinoza comes from promoters who showcase their fighters on other television networks. He is often accused of not being willing to work with any promoters besides Oscar De La Hoya’s Golden Boy Promotions.
“I’m happy having the NBC network opportunity which has made that Showtime step not something that’s crucial to us at this time,” said Duva. “And they’ve made their choice about what they want to do and who they want to work with.”
For his part, Espinoza said Showtime was willing to work with Main Events and Duva, but that she’s never called him to pitch a fight.
Perhaps partially, this stems from Espinoza’s previous role with Ziffren Brittenham LLP, a transactional entertainment law firm in Los Angeles. There, among other clients, he served as lead counsel for Golden Boy Promotions since the formation of the company.
But he is adamant about his willingness to work with any and all promoters.
“I think the mistake people make sometimes is just judging on the outcomes as opposed to all the fights we pursue. If you look at all the fights we pursue, it’s a variety of promoters and contrary to what some would claim, you can call a variety of promoters and they’d say there is no problem getting their calls answered here.”
Espinoza said he’s tried hard to bring several high-profile, non-Golden Boy-affiliated fighters to the network. Things just haven’t always worked out for one reason or another. In fact, most of the names he mentioned ended up signing with rival HBO, which is a product of boxing’s two biggest networks aggressively competing for the same talent.
“There have been a variety of other non-Golden Boy fighters that we’ve pursued that unfortunately we didn’t get. We bid aggressively on Sergio Martinez fights. We met with Gennady Golovkin before his deal. We bid on Ruslan Provodnikov fights. We pursued prior Adonis Stevenson fights.”
The latter fighter, of course, will fight on Showtime on May 24 in a bout against Andrzej Fonfara at the Bell Centre in Montreal.
The bout was previously scheduled to appear on HBO, but according to Yahoo’s Kevin Iole, it fell through when HBO declined to renegotiate terms of what the network felt was a verbal agreement.
“He’s someone who has always been interesting to us,” Espinoza said of Stevenson. “We actually proposed and approved Stevenson vs. Tavoris Cloud [in the past] but that fight couldn’t be made unfortunately.”
Regardless, adding lineal champion Stevenson to Showtime’s light heavyweight roster to go alongside future Hall of Famer and alphabet titlist Bernard Hopkins gives Espinoza more of what he wants: meaningful and interesting potential fights.
Moreover, it hurts rival HBO, whom Espinoza said Showtime has no cold war with at all. Nope, it’s the regular kind.
“That’s like saying there’s a cold war between Burger King and McDonalds,” said Espinoza, who seemed pleased to take Stevenson away from HBO.
“We saw an opportunity in the light heavyweight division...the series of fights we hopefully will be televising in the near future is going to result in the unification of the light heavyweight which is good for fans and good for television.”
Under his watch, Showtime has become more innovative in its approach than ever. The network was quick to integrate social media into its broadcasts, with announcers like Al Bernstein and Steve Farhood frequently commenting on viewers’ tweets.
Moreover, in February 2012, Showtime began showcasing select undercard fights of Showtime Championship Boxing cards on Showtime Extreme. This gives fighters who would not otherwise be shown on television the opportunity to be seen by fans. In addition, the network gets to see how those fighters stack up under the pressure-filled gaze of Showtime cameras.
Most importantly to fight fans, it means Showtime is showing more fights than ever before.
“In terms of the content itself, we are televising more hours of boxing programming than we ever have and many more hours of boxing programming than any other network.”
That’s good for fight fans, and the quality of programming has taken an uptick as well. In fact, according to the network, the top-five most watched bouts in the nearly 30-year history of Showtime boxing have occurred during Espinoza’s term.
The network also says its average viewership is up more than 60 percent since 2011.
What’s more? As of last look, Showtime had cut its subscriber gap with HBO to unprecedented levels.
Bloomberg’s Cliff Edwards reported last year that HBO had about 28.7 million subscribers, while CBS Bottom Line reported Showtime was up to around 23 million. That gap represents the closest Showtime has been to HBO in recent history.
Is there a direct connection to boxing? Maybe.
Espinoza says Showtime is interested in showcasing good boxing and lots of it. He says the company wants to be the premier boxing destination on television.
When you think of boxing, he wants you to think of Showtime.
“When we look at the Showtime Extreme broadcasts that precede our championship shows, when we look at the number of fights that we have on championship shows which are very often tripleheaders and virtually always at least doubleheaders, and even when we look at the number of classic fights we do, both in support of promotion of upcoming fights and just in terms of library value...You can tune in just about any night on Showtime Extreme and you can catch a random fight, something like Mayweather-Canelo or Garcia-Matthysse, randomly on a replay which is something not any other network is doing with their high-profile recent fights.”
That’s good news for fight fans, and according to Espinoza, Showtime’s future plan is simply more of the same.
“The strategy is to acquire the most compelling content and then make it available to our subscribers as freely as possible.”
There’s no telling whether or not Showtime will be able to surpass HBO as boxing’s premier American television network.
What is clear, though, is that the competition will force each network to do its best to impress fight fans and increase viewership.
That’s a big win for boxing—something it seems Espinoza will be a huge part of no matter how the future unfolds.
Unless otherwise noted, all quotes were obtained firsthand.