The Boxing Esq. Podcast, Ep. 48: Showtime sports president Stephen Espinoza
The Ring is proud to present “The Boxing Esq. Podcast with Kurt Emhoff”. Emhoff, an attorney based in New York City, is a top boxing manager who has represented over 10 world champions in his 20-plus years in the sport.
On this episode, Emhoff is joined by Showtime President of Sports and Event Programming Stephen Espinoza. They talk about Showtime’s excellent way to fill the COVID-19 programming void on Friday Nights with their Showtime Classic Boxing series. They discuss Showtime’s game plan on how they’ll proceed when boxing events are allowed to come back and what precautions need to be in place. They also spoke about the bidding wars between networks and what Stephen anticipates the market looking like post-COVID. They get into his plans for Gervonta Davis and the Junior Middleweight division as well as his attempts to get a Jermall Charlo-Demetrius Andrade Middleweight unification made.
Additionally, they discuss Stephen’s comments at last year’s Leaders conference on the sport of boxing and whether we’ve reached “peak boxing” yet.
Below are a few excerpts from the interview:
On how Showtime has dealt with the effects on programming of the COVID-19 virus and why the Friday Night Showtime Classic Boxing Series came about:
“We go through this period of adjusting to COVID-19 and all the stuff that we’ve been doing from a business standpoint over the last three or four weeks. It’s basically put us in three categories or in three phases. The first phase was just dealing with the immediacy of canceling events and pulling stuff off the air and losing events. Not just live boxing events, but you know, we had a documentary or two that were going to premiere at South by Southwest.
And so there’s a whole range of adjustments there. Then you get into the process of, okay, in the short run, what are we substituting the programming with? We lost some programming, some of the series didn’t get to finish their full episode order in production. And so how are we going to plug the holes in the schedule? And then the third phase, which is where we are now. Until we know exactly how long this will last, then we’re going to continue brainstorming and trying to come up with interesting programming that we can do with all the constraints that we have. And so when this first happened, we were talking about scheduling. I’d say probably there’s a little bit of a concern. Honestly, I had a question of how the network would value replays.
Because as a network we do a lot of replays on Showtime Extreme. And chances are just about three or four nights a week, if not more, you can go to Showtime Extreme and see a sports doc replay or a boxing replay or an MMA replay. But, on top of that, I think it demonstrates the priority that management as a whole at our network values the sport of boxing to say that we’re gonna dedicate a Friday night slot every week to Classic Fights. It’s something that to my knowledge, I don’t think anybody else is doing, actually scheduling it as a regular program. So I think that says a lot about the importance we put on the sport and the value of the sport to the network.”
On how Showtime Boxing will proceed when the COVID-19 virus abates:
“It’ll depend on a lot of things. I mean one other thing to keep in mind is, depending on when we get back there, there’s also a backlog of a lot of other sports and a lot of other entertainment programming that it’s going to be super competitive. If we are able to come back in June or July, then you’ve got the NHL that has to make up for lost time. The NBA will be going at times. Both of those will be going at times during the year that they don’t typically go. Then you’ve got baseball becoming active and probably what’s a shortened season. Who knows what happens with NFL and college football. So part of it will be, are we sitting here in July competing against a whole bunch of other sports? We might be competing against the NBA finals in July, it may be NBA finals are in August. Who knows at this point?
So that’s, that’s one element of it. The other element is sort of bang for your buck. In this sense of, for those of us who are the hardcore fight fans, it’d be great if there were two or three big events every weekend. I don’t think the hardcore fan minds at all having to flip around. But not everybody is that fan. So the question is, are we better off taking a more measured approach and not cramming three or four events every month for the back half of the year. I think there’s somewhere to middle ground. There is such a thing as too much boxing, too much being crammed in there. So I think we would end up somewhere in the middle, probably busier than our typical schedule. But I’m not sure it makes sense to go every single weekend or anything close to that.
The other thing is, sometimes there are changes in behavior or technical innovations or other types of innovations that come out of situations like this. Meaning sometimes the habits and the changes that we make during times of unusual stress become normalized. So, one thing we may look at is, and this is something that we’ve been looking at for the last couple of years, maybe if things are really all that busy with entertainment and sports and everything coming back online, then we should probably look at doing something other than Friday and Saturday nights. Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday night are particularly wide open until the start of NFL season certainly. So this may lead to other changes which are unrelated just because, people are forced out of necessity to do things that they don’t typically do, like put fights on Tuesday or Wednesday night.”
On Gervonta Davis’s options – including a potential PPV fight with Leo Santa Cruz:
“He’s due. Both guys are due. I mean, there’s been a lot of talk, not just Tank and Leo. Gary Russell has spoken up. Ryan Garcia has spoken up. There is no shortage of interesting fights for Tank in the near future. But I think probably most realistic is Leo Santa Cruz and I think it’s a good style matchup. I know there are those who have their concerns about Leo going up another weight class. He’s been pretty adamant that he sees something. That he thinks there’s an opportunity and he thinks there’s a way for him to be successful against Tank. He hasn’t said what that is. But he is very confident and very fired up to get that fight. So I think with both of them open to it, I think it’s very likely to see that pretty quickly.
I would say it’s probably a pay-per-view fight. Going forward, I think PBC and Tank have been very motivated to sort of explore that and see what is potential there is. But, depending on the timing of the fight, how long this goes on. Look, if we’re in a recession or something approaching a depression and we’ve got a large chunk of the audience that has financial obstacles, it wouldn’t be wise to go with the pay-per-view in that environment. So, we’ll have to evaluate what the market is and particularly what consumer confidence and consumer spending is doing.”
On whether we’ve reached “peak boxing”:
“For the hardcore fan, the more boxing the better. There’s no such thing as too much boxing on the air. Now as a fan, I get that. As someone who is invested in the sport as an executive at a network with programming in the sport, I have a different opinion. And I think there is such a thing as too much boxing, particularly when there’s not quality controls. Because, you know, I’m not gonna point specific fingers. But I think there’s been a huge range of quality and there’ve been a lot of bad mismatches and I think that’s part of the problem. When you’re filling 50 dates a year, for example, and both ESPN and DAZN are doing 50 dates a year, by definition, it’s sort of like an expansion in any of the other sports.
Yes, it does get watered down at a certain point. And, you look at some of the match-ups and some of the programming that’s being done and you wonder, is there anybody really at the wheel who’s screening these for quality control? The other problem is, and again, it’s to a certain extent, it’s about the presentation, how you present it. But I think for the vast majority of the fans, who are not hardcore fans, who come in and out, it’s confusing. If you are presenting what is not a top tier match and claim that it’s the best the sport has to offer, you are setting the audience up for disappointment. And that’s the problem.
Look, when you tune in for the NFL every Sunday or the NBA, you know you’re getting the best athletes in the world. There are good teams and there are not so good teams, but you know, the quality of the athlete and the quality of the matchup is the best in the world. That’s where we as a network, Showtime, where we see our place and I think for the good of the fan, the more high-quality stuff that we’re putting on, the better. No one is really served by a prospect at 6-0 taking on somebody with a lopsided losing record at three in the morning from Ireland. It just doesn’t make sense. There’s nobody well-served by that other than the families of the fighters who are involved. That does not grow the fan base.
Is it a necessary part of the sport? Absolutely. Does it need to be nationally televised and should it be presented as this is high quality, this is the best of boxing? No, absolutely. And you and I’ve talked about it before. One of the bad habits that we’ve gotten in into this sport is there are people involved in this sport who are selling lies. Who are presenting things that they know and saying things that they know are not true. It’s okay if you’re saying, look, this is a ShoBox fight. Those are prospects. No one is saying this is Mayweather-Pacquiao II. So I think without that perspective, without that honesty and presentation, then the consumers let down, the expectations aren’t there.
I think you have to be really clear. And I think promotion of boxing has gotten to the point where I think most promoters are thinking the more outrageous the statement I can make, the more headlines I can make because I’m saying something that is off the wall, out of the blue, indefensible, surprising, you know, that generating clickbait then that satisfies promotion. And that’s a terrible thing for the sport. When the art of promotion, it really is an art, has been reduced to name-calling and clickbait and social media battles and all of that. And I’m not saying that I’m immune. I’ve been dragged into some of it as well. I’ve made the mistake as well. But I think as a whole, we as a sport need to get back to the presentation and presenting things a little bit more honestly. I’m not saying the hyperbole and marketing doesn’t have its role because it does in every industry. But we need to get back to presenting things honestly, being honest with our audience about what we are giving. And get away from the clickbait and in the TMZ of the sport of just saying whatever you can to get a headline and generate some publicity for your event. It just bad for the sport and it makes us look like we pale in comparison to the other professional sports when we have the principles of our sport engaging in stuff like this.”