Showtime’s President Has a Master Plan
Stephen Espinoza has a vision for the future of combat sports on cable network
By:Alex Caveda: In an interview with Showtime’s Stephen Espinoza, one of the most powerful men in boxing, quite a bit was revealed in terms of the cable giant’s future in the fightsports. As General Manager of Sports & Event Programming for Showtime, Espinoza plays a major role in how the sport of boxing is seen on television. As a longtime entertainment attorney, Espinoza took over as head of Showtime’s sports department after Ken Hershman left the network last year.
Espinoza has already made a splash among boxing fans in a positive way. In late June Espinoza secured a doubleheader featuring Victor Ortiz against Josesito Lopez, and Lucas Matthysse battling Humberto Soto. The card was a major success, with the Ortiz-Lopez bout seen as a candidate for Fight of the Year. During the exclusive conversation with Espinoza, I found him to be similar to myself… a big time boxing fan looking to present the sport in a positive way to the public. Read on to see what Espinoza had to say to the line of questioning:
SecondsOut: Can you tell me about the moment that you first gained interest in boxing?
Stephen Espinoza:I got it from my grandfather, who immigrated to this country from northernMexico. I grew up in my grandfather’s house and on the TV they always had either boxing or football on. I became a major fight fan.
SecondsOut: It’s one of those things that when you fall in love with it at that age it never goes away.
SecondsOut: How did you get involved with sports television, specifically Showtime?
Espinoza: Well, I got a communications degree from Stanford to get into the world of broadcasting, but I actually wound up becoming an entertainment attorney instead. After years of working as an attorney I was offered a position with Showtime because of my background in broadcasting, and knowledge of sports. Jack Tiernen, an agent from Showtime, actually offered me my current position.
SecondsOut: So you got to continue doing what you love, but you also were able to get back into your first love, which is sports television.
Espinoza: Yes, it all happened quickly; within ten days it had all happened, and I didn’t have any second thoughts. It’s been great.
SecondsOut: What are the best fights that you have ever seen, and what is it about those fights that made them so memorable to you?
Espinoza: The fights that I remember most are the ones that have an emotional aspect. I like intense, emotionally charged fights. For example I like De La Hoya- Vargas because it had great energy, throughout the whole promotion. The Barrera-Morales trilogy, Corrales-Castillo I, and of course I liked Tyson’s fights because of the amazing atmosphere.
SecondsOut: What would you say is the greatest challenge facing boxing today?
Espinoza: Marketing! How we package and present the sport. I think that the Ortiz-Lopez bout showed that we have great stories in boxing. The problem is not in substance, but in the promotions of the sport. There is a lack of a central institution, not a national commission necessarily, but a more unified market. Boxing promoters market events, but we need people that market the sport as a whole.
SecondsOut: You mentioned to me after the Ortiz-Lopez bout that exciting cards can lead to the “resurrection of the sport.” In the old days it seemed as if boxing fans watched the fights for action packed cards, but more recently the attention has been on one or two boxing “stars” at a time, rather than action fights. If boxing fans love great fights, then why have some involved in the sport been more focused on protecting stars rather than delivering action?
Espinoza: Double edged sword. I believe in marketing stars because in any sport you need breakout stars. You don’t get 2.5 million Pay-Per-View buys unless you have a bona-fide star like a Tyson, a De La Hoya, or a Floyd Mayweather Jr. to sell the show. One of the reasons that MMA hasn’t broken that threshold is because they don’t market stars; they just market the sport. Having said that, just marketing stars leads to bad habits. If you just focus on stars you don’t reach the casual fan with boxing. People just show up for the main event, which is a missed opportunity to get new fans. For example, I became a big fan of “Chico” Corrales because I saw him on a Tyson undercard.
SecondsOut: So if MMA had more stars, and boxing remembered a little more to market the sport as a whole, both sports would benefit.
Espinoza: Most likely.
SecondsOut: Speaking of MMA, I hear a lot about the rivalry between MMA and boxing. However, I know a lot of people that enjoy both sports. In your opinion, are boxing and MMA rival sports, or do they compliment each other?
Espinoza: I don’t think they are rival sports! I’m not sure where that came from. The “rivalry” probably was when MMA was growing, but now that MMA has grown as a sport, I don’t think so.
SecondsOut: So they are not mutually exclusive?
Espinoza: Absolutely not. There are people that are fans of both.
SecondsOut: As the general manager of Showtime Sports, you are in a position to make some positive changes in the way boxing is seen by the general public. What role do you feel television can play/should play in making boxing a more mainstream sport?
Espinoza:As a premium network we have an obligation to offer premium fights. Like (Ortiz-Lopez) is a Fight Of The Year candidate. I can’t think of a better doubleheader recently, and neither can anybody at the office. We have to put the cream of the crop, and present big shows for the viewers. Obviously, Showbox serves another purpose, but in general we want big shows. Just like we did back in the nineties with stars like Tyson, or Chavez, we want big shows. The sport has done well for the network, so it’s an obligation for the network to do well for the sport!
SecondsOut: You mentioned the series Shobox which showcases hot young talent. Who are some of the boxers from Shobox that have impressed you the most?
Espinoza:Good question. Shobox is an investment in the future of the sport with good fighters that few have heard of, that need more exposure. The Shobox platform invests so early that by the time the boxers are stars you forget that they were on Shobox. I would say some of my favorites have been guys like Ricky Hatton, Andre Berto, James Kirkland, or Victor Ortiz. More recently on a Showtime undercard we had a guy named Omar Figueroa that scored a first round knockout on June 23rd (the 22 year old Figueroa moved to 21-0-1 by halting Alain Hernandez on the Ortiz-Lopez undercard). Figueroa came out of nowhere, but he’s an intelligent, articulate kid with great potential.
SecondsOut: If you ruled the boxing world, what are three matches that you would make today?
Espinoza:Well, Floyd Mayweather Jr. -Manny Pacquiao needs to happen for the casual fan. The time still hasn’t passed for that fight, and it’s still relevant. I’d like to see Adrian Broner-Yuriorkis Gamboa, and also maybe Abner Mares-Nonito Donaire.
SecondsOut: I’m glad you mentioned Mares-Donaire. Those are two of the best young boxers in the sport, both on the verge of real stardom, and the winner would probably be a major breakout star.
Espinoza:Well, we will be working on that fight.
SecondsOut: Of course with boxing on television you are dealing with more than just the actual fights. Can we expect more “All Access” shows like the ones before the Ortiz-Lopez bout?
Espinoza:Yes! We’ve got one we are working on right now. We’ll be doing one for the September 15th show with “Canelo” Alvarez, and his opponent. The concept was to broaden beyond Fight Camp 360. We don’t want it to be limited to just preparation for the fight, we really want ALL ACCESS. It’s not just about two guys preparing for a fight, but more about personalities, or even about a place, like a particular high-level gym. We have also tried to bring “All Access” elements to our live broadcasts. A small, but really important moment of the Ortiz-Lopez broadcast was when we followed Victor to the dressing room after the fight. We made a conscious decision to do it, and it paid off by us capturing a moment that really humanized Victor. If anybody questioned his heart, once you saw his disappointment, the blood, the emotion, and everything… I don’t think you could realistically still question his heart.
SecondsOut: What can fans expect from Showtime Boxing and Showtime Sports in the near future?
Espinoza:You can expect that kind of innovation. We want to give people access they haven’t had before. It goes from Inside NASCAR, to our boxing to Inside the NFL. We want to push the boundaries in the way sports are seen. By pushing those boundaries we are evangelizing for the sport we love.
July 10, 2012