While HBO has long been the network of record in professional boxing, over the years, Showtime has made several attempts at a mutiny, trying to take control of a sport lingering on the mainstream margins. They've tried Mike Tyson. They've tried Manny Pacquiao. But no fighter has managed to have quite the impact of Floyd Mayweather Jr., who has single-handedly made Showtime a force to be reckoned with in the sport.
The man behind bringing Mayweather into the Showtime fold in 2013 is Stephen Espinoza, a former boxing lawyer for Golden Boy Promotions who joined the network as its executive vice president and general manager of Showtime Sports back in 2011.
Now one of the three most important men in the sport, Espinoza joined Bleacher Report for a wide-ranging and extensive interview about a trying 2014 and where Showtime and the sport are headed in 2015.
Bleacher Report: Great to talk to you again. Thanks for taking the time with what has suddenly turned into quite a crowded December for Showtime with Stevenson versus Sukhotsky closing out the year. How did that come about? All of a sudden you guys have fights popping up right and left?
Stephen Espinoza: It wasn't originally planned that way. We had some unexpected changes in the schedule back in October and November. We lost a Hopkins event and a Canelo event and that threw a lot of the undercard fights into disarray.
We've regrouped and there's a large group of fighters we were trying to get a fight before the end of the year. We tried to make that happen. Call it an early Christmas present.
B/R: The best Christmas present of all would be Floyd Mayweather Jr. versus Manny Pacquiao. Is it true there is substantial pressure all the way up to Les Moonves, the Chairman of CBS, for you to make a fight between Floyd and Manny Pacquiao? That your job may be at stake if you can't?
Espinoza: The pressure to make the fight is all internal. Not from our CEO but from all of us as boxing fans. It's an interesting fight. It's a fight that we want.
No one has to hold our feet to the fire and make ultimatums. It's something everyone on this side wants. And we're going to do our best to get there.
B/R: Just to be clear—have you had talks internally with people on that level about making this fight?
Espinoza: It's a sensitive discussion. Our strategy, for the most part, has been to keep it out of the press. Because of the sensitivity and the repeated failed attempts. I think we're going to try and stick with that.
B/R: One way or another, Floyd's clock is ticking. Who will emerge as his heir? Will that battle be fought in the ring, or between promoters and networks? May the best marketer win?
Espinoza: There's a combination of factors. Performance in the ring is an enormous factor. Probably the most dominant factor in deciding that. Marketing support is important. But that, really to a large extent, is overblown.
What fighters need most of all is two things. They need good rivals for entertaining, career-defining fights. And they need authentic personalities. That's really the combination. All the marketing in the world won't help you if your fighter doesn't' have any opponents lined up and doesn't have a saleable personality. That's where everything comes from. Not the other way around.
B/R: As you're saying that, I'm thinking of HBO's Gennady Golovkin, whom there has been a lot of buzz around as the next big star. But they don't have opponents built up and can't quite turn the corner. Isn't he appealing to the base of about a million viewers? Can you be a star if you aren't bringing in new fans to the sport?
Espinoza: That's really an astute point. To be a star at the highest level, to really be a true superstar, you have to cross over to the mainstream. And that is what Floyd has been doing for years. That's why, to casual fans and our fans, he's the face of the sport.
If you're not expanding the fanbase, if you're not expanding the viewership beyond the people who are going to watch anytime there's boxing on a Saturday night, I'd argue that you're not a star.
B/R: You had a really strong fight between Amir Khan and Devon Alexander on Dec. 13. It was a great way to close out 2014. But let's be honest, thinking about the year in totality. After what can only be described as a critically acclaimed 2013, the perception is Showtime fell off substantially this year. Is that fair?
Espinoza: We've actually been happy with this year. It's kind of human nature for perception and memories to sort of tend towards the extremes. When people remember 2013, it's as an amazing year. The best year ever. And when they look back at '14, people tend to say it was a bad year.
Candidly, I don't think either one of those is true. At least completely true. People forget we had a slow start to 2013 or that we spent a lot of time in 2012 building towards those great fights in 2013.
Looking back at 2014, people have already forgotten or minimized some pretty spectacular fights that we've had. Linares-Arakawa and Matthysse-Molina, which everyone agrees is one of the candidates for Fight of the Year, and Adonis Stevenson-Fonfara. These were entertaining, high quality fights.
B/R: You're right in a sense. Some of the criticism isn't just about what was happening inside the ring. It was about everything surrounding the fights. Like the great relationship you'd always had with Golden Boy Promotions. Did you put too much stock in those relationships? It worked well in 2013, but this year, they seem to have gone a different direction with both Canelo and Bernard Hopkins leaving the fold.
Espinoza: The reliance on Golden Boy wasn't really an intentional strategy. The way the market is structured, the way the boxing industry is structured, the majority of the talent is with the two biggest companies, Top Rank and Golden Boy.
Top Rank has chosen to do business exclusively with HBO. The natural consequence of that is that the majority of our fights will be with Golden Boy. They have the majority of the high-level talent.
If there's one agency that has a majority of the movie stars, well, all the studios are going to tend to go to that agency. It's not a strategy to go to that agency. You go where the talent is. I'm not saying there aren't other promoters with talent. But when you look at the high-level talent and the way it's currently distributed, it's really concentrated in those two companies.
B/R: Have the networks allowed these two promoters, and quasi-promoters or managers or whatever Al Haymon is, to assume too much power in the boxing world? What I'm hearing you describe is a company very much at their mercy. But considering just two powerhouse TV networks essentially fund this entire sport, it seems like the relationship should be just the opposite.
Espinoza: I wouldn't say that the networks are at the mercy of promoters or managers and advisors. I think there's two things going on.
One, the primary source of money in the boxing business is pay television. That's been the case for quite a few years. As a result of that, once a fighter matures, he's almost exclusively going to be seen on pay television.
Which means, whether it's a high-level fight or it's a stay-busy fight, the structure is such that there's not a lot of outlets besides premium TV that are financially viable for a promoter to keep a fighter busy. That means, being very candid, the pay-TV networks in business with particular boxers are with them on both mid-level fights and high-level fights.
It may seem, on the outside, that things are being kind of forced down the network's throat. It's really more a spirit of compromise, of give and take. It's being in business with a group of fighters and working with the promoter collaboratively to build a career, not just a series of one-off fights.
B/R: How do you think that might shift if, assuming all the rumors are true, Al Haymon will be bringing boxing to NBC in the near future? How does that affect you? Are you prepared for an exodus of his fighters? Or is this an opportunity to get that non-pay-TV outlet boxing needs to help build fighters up for bigger fights on Showtime and HBO?
Espinoza: My philosophy has always been the more networks that are in the sport, and the broader the exposure, the better it is for everyone. I'm happy to see the possibility of new networks getting involved in boxing. It's nothing but a good thing.
B/R: You spent a lot of time and promotional resources on helping to build Canelo Alvarez into a worldwide star. Is it hard to watch him walk away to the competition?
Espinoza: It is a little bit. But in the larger context, it's sort of completely normal and natural. For a very long time, the migration pattern was away from Showtime. Showtime would develop fighters and then they would leave for HBO. That was a consistent pattern over a long period of time.
That has changed. We went through a very good run where the migration pattern was exactly the opposite. There were a good number of high-level boxers who came to Showtime. That's not going to be continuous without interruption and without exception.
It's more the natural order of things that there will probably be some cross pollination occasionally back and forth. But the key is, we've established Showtime as a dominant player in pay-per-view and premium television.
We're attracting high-level fighters and keeping them. Yes, occasionally some of them go across the street. But the vast majority of them are still here and happy to be here.
B/R: When Canelo leaves and Hopkins leaves, do you ever consider taking measures to stanch the bleeding? Of making appearing on Showtime contingent on signing a long-term contract with the network?
Espinoza: That's always an option. But, philosophically, we see that as a tool to be used sparingly. It really isn't efficient or productive to have a large number of fighters under multi-fight contracts.
B/R: It's definitely a fine line. You don't want anyone to "go across the street," as you say. But you also don't want to be stuck with fights you and the audience don't necessarily want to see, right?
Espinoza: It's that scenario, to your previous point, is where the network can lose a lot of its leverage, by having fighters locked in at very healthy license fees that are obligatory to the network. We've got a small number of multi-fight deals. Each was undertaken for specific reasons. For the rest, we kind of rely on having good business partners.
B/R: There's always a lot of talk about ratings after each fight. Yet neither Showtime nor HBO is driven by advertising the way most television is. Are ratings even the key metric for you?
Espinoza: They're definitely not the key metric and not even all the relevant to our business model. We use rating certainly as a proxy, a rough indicator of whether this is programming people are interested in. And that we're satisfying our subscribers.
But our business model is different than other television because we never immediately monetize our viewership with the sole exception of pay-per-view. Beyond that, when Homeland gets monster ratings or The Affair does monster ratings or we do monster ratings with a Danny Garcia fight or an Adrien Broner fight, none of that is monetized in any way.
It says we're doing valuable programming. But even in that respect, we look at it relative to our subscriber base. We don't compare ourselves to other networks—personally I think it's funny when HBO likes to trumpet they've had the largest audience of the year for boxing. They should! They're in millions more homes.
B/R: Do you think the boxing media, when they trumpet these things, even understands ratings? There's a lot going on there. First of all, HBO is in more homes, so comparing raw numbers isn't really a good way of going about it. Then there are other key factors like HUTs (homes using television) and other things. Does this frustrate you that all the traditional boxing media discusses are raw numbers?
Espinoza: I do sometimes wish we could have a more sophisticated and nuanced discussion. But the reality is, the vast majority of boxing fans and the vast majority of our subscribers don't care.
What they care about is turning on the television and seeing good programming, good boxing or good documentaries. That's really what we're intent on doing. The rest follows from doing high-quality programming.
B/R: If it's not ratings, how do you determine, then, whether boxing is still a driver in Showtime's growth? And, if ratings aren't the key decision-maker, how do you decide which fights to offer a substantial license fee for and which don't warrant a big-money offer?
Espinoza: Ratings is one piece of the puzzle. I'd like to say there's some particular science or a particular formula. It really is sort of a best guess what will have ratings value, value to the subscribers and what I call a noise or buzz factor. Social-media impact.
And finally, perhaps most importantly, the kind of action we're likely to get in the fight. We like to reward good fighters who are entertaining and make good television.
B/R: Social media is big because it attracts more than just current subscribers, right? It puts Showtime in front of potential new customers, too.
Espinoza: Increasingly, we're looking at social media and digital media and what kind of presence and reaction we get, either to a piece of programming or digital programming.
We've gotten to the point on All Access where the digital viewing numbers dwarf the numbers on traditional television. That's fine for us. As long as people are watching, we don't really care where.
B/R: When you are programming fights, who are you catering to? Are you trying to maintain the current audience with an ironclad grip on these last die-hard boxing fans? Or is there an outreach to new fans? Is the approach different to matchmaking and promotion with these different audiences in mind?
Espinoza: We have to take both into account. I think the tendency, and possibly the danger even, is to cater to the hardcore fan. Those are the fans who are the most vocal and certainly the most dedicated and passionate. There's a good reason those opinions hold a lot of sway.
But for the long-term health of the sport, and for potential financial viability, the networks, promoters and individual boxers have to continue to reach out to the casual fan. We weight those two pretty much equally. It requires constant vigilance.
It's one of the factors we look at with Mayweather pay-per-views particularly. It's an expensive proposition for the average fan and we want to give them their money's worth. The flip side of that, for the sport as a whole, the audiences for Mayweather pay-per-views is so huge, we want to do everything we can to capture those casual fans, those men and women who maybe watch one or two fights a year, and make them intrigued enough to maybe tune in to other fights.
B/R: Among my last question for you is really just a word: Twitter. You're really the only one in the boxing world, certainly at your level, engaging fans the way you do. Why?
Espinoza: I'd like to say that there is some grand strategy or brand play. But I'll be honest—there isn't. Where it comes from is my own enthusiasm and passion. And what you see on that Twitter account, for good and for bad, are my authentic opinions. On a variety of things. It's not just boxing.
When I'm speaking about boxing, about our fights or boxing in general, it is passionate, it is enthusiastic. I'm lucky to be doing a job I love. When I explain decisions, in terms of particular fights, or when I'm explaining our strategy with particular programming decisions, it comes from a place of genuine enthusiasm and passion.
That's something that hopefully people appreciate. When I'm speaking with conviction, it's because I truly believe in what we're doing.
B/R: We've all seen people get themselves in substantial trouble on Twitter. Do you worry about that? Some of your exchanges seem to get pretty heated. Do you ever have to reel yourself back in?
Espinoza: Yes. I take this very personally. We put in a lot of hours. We put in a lot of travel time. We put a lot of thought and energy into what we program. Personally, I gave up a career as a lawyer and picked up and moved on two weeks' notice across the country to pursue this opportunity.
So, I'm pretty passionate about what I do. And that comes across. For better, and hopefully only occasionally, for worse.
B/R: Finally, 2015—what do you have in store for us? What can fans expect from Showtime?
Espinoza: In 2015, we'll basically have a two-pronged approach. We're going to continue featuring Floyd Mayweather, the biggest star in the sport and the pound-for-pound No. 1 boxer in the world. And everything that comes along with that.
But an important part of our strategy is having the deepest crop of young talent poised to carry this sport for the next eight or 10 years and beyond. Were not just excited about the huge Mayweather events, but about this core group, a tidal wave of guys 23-to-28 years old who are maturing and coming into their primes.
We're lined up for some exciting, high-level fights in 2015. From Keith Thurman to Danny Garcia to Adrien Broner and Amir Khan. People forget he's only 28. The Charlos are only 24. Julian Williams, who is sort of my sleeper pick as someone who could emerge very quickly, is only 24.
We really do have the largest and deepest crop of young talent. And that will be the other key piece of our campaign.
Jonathan Snowden is Bleacher Report's lead combat sports writer and the author of The MMA Encyclopedia. All quotes were gathered firsthand.