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Stephen Espinoza of Showtime talks about lessons learned during pandemic period

29
Jul

THURSDAY EVENING UPDATE: This story posted on July 28, and it maybe deserves a re-scan, after word dropped officially on Wednesday evening that Stephen Fulton, the Philly fighter who has emerged as a Showtime favorite, would be axed from the Saturday night card set to unfold at Mohegan Sun in Connecticut.

Fulton tested positive for COVID-19, Showtime informed media in a release, and so Angelo Leo would face a sub, Tramaine Williams, in the cablers’ return to the arena.

It was clear, I think, from the chat with Stephen Espinoza that he expected Sho’s re-entry to not be free from bumps, maybe some bruising. But this development, three days before fight night..Yeah, it leaves a mark.

Thing is, boxing people are used to chaos, the sport is filled with characters, and it’s not rare to deal with athletes who are “zig when they should zag” types. But the Fulton positive reverberated at a higher level when the Sho boxing boss sent out this Tweet, a bit before the 11 PM hour on the East Coast:



I myself re-read my notes from the chat, trying to spot any tells, but nah, I didn’t pick up on Espinoza owning quite intimate knowledge of how this virus can treat a body.

Maybe I get a quarter point extra credit for making it clear to readers that they should expect tumult, not be surprised by it…

My re-read showed me again that Espinoza seemed properly attuned to how this virus might be making his job that much harder.

But no, I didn’t know that Espinoza had first-hand intel that coronavirus is nothing resembling a hoax. And him keeping that under wraps reminds me of something that I have considered but tend to forget. Medical information is supposed to be bound by privacy regulations, for a bunch of good reasons. In media, most of us sometimes forget that the people we cover have feelings.

It bears repeating, I need to hear it myself time to time, that too often we treat a story as a “sports story” or chase down information without factoring in feelings of the subjects.

These are most interesting times and ideally, we all try and learn from all of it, try to come out of it on the other side as better beings.

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You go to his Twitter account, and you pretty quickly determine, Stephen Espinoza is not a typical big-deal executive at a media company. The Twitter bio hints at it, he refers to himself as a “professional skeptic,” and you scroll through some Tweets, and it’s confirmed.

Before it became fashionable to take a stand regarding social justice issues, Espinoza would post a Tweet that didn’t pull a punch, hurling a barb at some stooge in the political realm, often, who paraded their ignorance proudly and loudly.

I confess, I enjoyed it when he did that, because even though it’s more accepted now, executives still err on the side of ultra caution when and if they might be tempted to take a stand on principle. Why? Because even douchebags buy soda…or gasoline…or what have you. Yes, people on the left, right, center and those without a preference are potential customers.

And you don’t want potential customers to get scared off, and write off your company, because you are taking a stand on Black Lives Matter, or the government’s policy of ‘family separation’ as a means to deter people who try to enter the United States to escape extreme poverty or resource scarcity stemming from extreme weather events.

Or..

You say what your conscience calls for you to say.

Because you feel secure in that plenty of people will choose to subscribe to Showtime, the premium cable network, based on the fare offered, not the instances when the cabler’s boss of the sports department chooses to make clear that he is skeptical when it’s declared that the President has been a competent handler of the pandemic. Or he sees someone of supposed high standing take the position that it is un-patriotic for a professional athlete to kneel in support of the long-standing traditions of excessive force and tactics of oppression used against darker-skinned citizens in our nation.

I pondered Espinoza’s standing in the sport, and history of low-key defiance in the name of supporting social justice causes while I listened to him talk on the forthcoming slate of boxing programming which Showtime will present starting Friday, August 1st, deep into the second half of the year in boxing, which has to be the strangest one the sport has ever experienced.

The Texas native now resides in New York City, and I chatted with him on the phone after that announcement, which unfolded on Zoom, and fleshed out specifics on nine different events, spotlighting nine world champions, and eight world championship fights.

As long as I’ve known him, he’s proven easy to talk to. This struck me the first time I met him, right after he got the Showtime job, and he didn’t put up a guard or ask me to talk to his secretary, to schedule a chat, when I saw him at a press conference. He may have been wearing Chuck Taylors, or maybe my mind plays tricks on me…But all this is to say that I am frequently impressed with his Twitter timeline, and yes, the same can be said with the batch of fights that Showtime has put together, which starts out with a Stephen Fulton vs Angelo Leo 122 pound clash for a vacant crown and ends* December 12 with Nordine Oubaali defending his WBC bantamweight crown against the ultra classy ultra vet Nonito Donaire.

(Asterisk insert to right up front send notice that making a schedule during this period of time is even more of a fool’s errand than per usual. Cards, all of them, are REALLY subject to change.)

Espinoza’s timeline, to me, has a track record of consistency that Sho’s batches of fights haven’t always enjoyed. Anyone reading this piece has, I bet, a decent idea of where I’m coming from.

WHY BOXING IS WEIRD, AND WONDERFUL…AND OFTEN IDIOTIC

They know that boxing is such a strange sport, and that part of what makes it so special, its lack of structure, can also serve to brutally undercut how it ‘performs’ within the sports entertainment realm. There is no league office setting the schedule, it’s pretty much every man for themself, persons and organizations instead gravitate toward and away from each other, driven by personal enrichment, and engage in negotiating basically on an a la carte basis. And factionalizing is as cemented today as it has been ever, probably, with Top Rank and ESPN sharing bed space, while PBC supplies fare to FOX, and Showtime. DAZN has let Eddie Hearn get their groceries, with Golden Boy also sending their guys and gals to that platform to ply the trade.

Espinoza took a pretty unusual step almost a year ago, when he made clear that he would like, moving forward, for Fox to not rely so much on the hard work Showtime had done building brands, in weight classes, and in fighters. That was simmering during the summer and continued into the fall, when a Fox executive went on the record as saying, “at the end of the day, we get the best fights” and “the top stars.” And the Fox guy added that Showtime won’t. Espinoza didn’t go nuclear but he did send signals. “Right now,” he told The Athletic last summer, “PBC has a great talent pool and we’re happy to be doing business with them, but there’s always going to be new talent, some of which we’ll find with PBC and some of which we’ll go other places for.”

Nope, I wasn’t a fly on the wall how this parcel of Showtime fights came together, but I feel like it got acknowledged that Showtime’s longevity and quality of production talent, if nothing else, sort of deserved better from PBC in the allocation of matchups funneled to Fox, and Sho. And, let me go on the record, I think that’s righteous. I think longevity should be rewarded in a relationship, and track record should be factored in sometimes more than it is, because new money from a new suitor can seem crisper, greener, more alluring.

Some of those thoughts were in my mind as I started to talk to Espinoza, and others of them sprung up or became more clear to me as we talked for 30 minutes. I started out human being to human being. Has he, I wondered, made it out of NYC, since we last talked, which came near the beginning of April? Because he said then that his galpal had made clear she wanted to dash, jet from the city for a spell, maybe try to see if some Green Acres location suited the couples’ soul.

“I didn’t escape the city, and the fact is, she reminds me of this every day,” Espinoza said, chuckling. “But there’s still time, we’re working from home the rest of the year.”

Get on Air B n B now, pull that trigger, I weighed in, with my 1.5 cents.

And now, as compared to when we talked three plus months ago, are we as a nation basically where Espinoza thought we’d be?

I had to go back to our April session, and I found this excerpt.

“We’re all making this choice for the good of the community and it’ll probably slow down the spread,” Espinoza said, when asked how he thought our leadership and citizens will handle this severe challenge as we looked toward the summer, and beyond. “So yes, that requires some sacrifices and if people start saying look, ‘I’m not willing to sacrifice for the health of the community, for the greater health of the society at large, so I’m going to play a pickup basketball game. ‘I need to see my ma.’ You know, ‘I’m going to you know, go see the the docking of the Comfort when it pulls into New York City,’ that’s that’s the kind of thing where you sort of see, OK, I understand where people are are coming from.”

Months later, the cable platform’s sports bossman had this take: “The landscape now…I was hoping we as a nation would be in a better situation by the mid to late summer and obviously, we’re not, and that’s challenging. We expected to be back July ish, and that’s about where we ended up. The process of coming back was every bit as complicated and at some points excruciating as I think I expected it would be.”

And more, challenging, it’s safe to say, than it could have been, we agreed, because, what if in February we’d seen a Commander in Chief who didn’t spread the fallacy that the virus was a hoax cooked up by his political rivals…that the virus would be obliterated by the hot weather…would magically disappear…and had set an example by wearing a face shield in public and used his bully pulpit to direct his rooters to do the same? Impossible to know, because that didn’t happen, and as of Monday, just four states in our union were deemed by the Center for Disease Control (CDC) to be trending well in the control of the virus.

So, speaking of being a “skeptic.” Is Espinoza now more of a skeptic, overall, than he was when he crafted his Twitter bio?

No BS, Espinoza is a solid follow on Twitter. Er, maybe not if you use the word “Libtard” and follow Chuck Woolery on Twitter, though.

He laughed at the question, and had to think a moment. That trait has come in useful in the field of law, so his skeptical side came out more in law school. “And it serves me well in the sport,” Espinoza said. “Boxing teaches you to be a skeptic, for all the salesmanship you see, and hear, with people trying to promote. There’s so much misrepresentation and mischaracterizing, you have to be skeptical in this sport, with pay per view numbers, and gate numbers, etc.”

Again, we agreed that neither of us foresaw how when we talked in April that there would be a sea of skepticism which would claim victims, in the form of “mask deniers,” who decided to make a civil liberty issue of a public health matter. “Give me liberty, and give me death,” that should be their motto, a proper brutal truth designation of what this hyper selfish stance actually plays out to be in too many instances.

I admitted to Espinoza, I’m still learning, I’m still adjusting my world view, and no, that’s not to my credit. By now I should maybe know better. I didn’t know that people across this nation would STILL so stubbornly keep holding on to their beliefs, in the face of such a stark and sad mountain of evidence. The number of COVID-19 deaths we’ve experienced, for an “exceptional nation,” the amount of division seen and heard when discussion of a subject which I’d have thought would have helped soothe the vibe of hyper factionalism…Yes, it goes to show lessons still get learned, and it isn’t wise to get cocky, and think that having a few more decades of living tucked in your pocket automatically confers a mandatory level of wisdom.

TAKEAWAYS FROM TOP RANK BUBBLE BOUTS

From our April talk, I think I’ll admit Espinoza had a bit of a better handle on how things MIGHT play out with the virus. But, he too has been watching, waiting, absorbing data, and getting educated.

He’s been seeing how Top Rank has handled their Bubble time, and UFC, and MLB, he monitors the NFL’s handling of their business, heck, even the pro bull riding league. “We’re gonna emphasize pre-fight testing a bit more,” Espinoza continued. “And we know, there’s no way to get rid of all risk, it’s almost inevitable there will be positives along the way. We do hope to catch them earlier.” Yes, others will benefit from Top Rank being first to market, among the boxing big dogs.

That said, Espinoza isn’t wanting to give Top Rank all the high marks for being first. “I think we as fans have unfortunately become accustomed to accepting less than the best results from our sport. I think it’s fair and necessary and appropriate to hold the sport to a higher standard. I don’t give a lot of credit to Top Rank just coming back. The variety of the fights, there were mismatches, some bad mismatches. We took a different tactic, waited longer, we want fighters to have a full camp. And we’ve started out with high quality, well matched, competitive fights. And the reaction to the announcement of the schedule? There’ve been nitpickers here and there, but I think when people look at it objectively, these are competitive fights, meaningful fights all the way from the top to the bottom.”

Back to learning lessons…”I think we saw a reaction from a lot of fans, all boxing isn’t good boxing. I don’t think anybody should be taking advantage of audience desperation,” Espinoza said.

Nope, nobody came away from the Bubble shows saying that we saw encouraging proof of how alluring the sport of boxing is, how the fanbase is beefy and that certainty got cemented by audience reaction to boxing’s re-start in June into July.

“I don’t believe that there’s this pent up demand,” Espinoza said. He offered up a scenario to illustrate how some could interpret the behavior of boxing fans in June and July. “It’s more like a relationship, you get out of it, at first, after it’s ended, the sun is never gonna come out. Then in a week or two, it’s OK. Then after six weeks or so, you say, ‘hey, it’s not so bad, there are advantages here, it’s good to be free, then you realize I’m doing pretty good without the relationship. Our audience figured out how to survive without us. We have to earn it!”

Espinoza hammered the point during the Zoom presser last week.

Which boxing media member got caught working in their underwear during the Showtime Zoom schedule presser?

“This lineup really delivers on our promise to boxing fans with the biggest fights, the most exciting fights, and the highest quality presentation in the sport. We’re doing nine telecasts with what are unquestionably the most significant fights in the sport since boxing has restarted.”

He continued to set a high level bar for the Sho tussles: “We weren’t going to come back just for the sake of coming back. We wanted to come back at a high level with meaningful fights – with fights which would remind the public why they’re excited about the sport of boxing. So, we put together a schedule week after week of competitive fights, with big names, with meaningful fights. Before we know it, this sport is going to be back where it should be in terms of momentum and positive energy.”

NOTE: I asked Top Rank bossman Bob Arum for his takeaways, last week, and the Las Vegas pack leader finished their MGM run. And we discussed audience reaction, and he said the suits at ESPN were quite happy with how pugilism performed. Also, he said that when Top Rank re-starts after their first re-entry run, there will be more title fights.

THE MAKING OF THIS SAUSAGE

Now, Top Rank puts together their scraps and then places them on ESPN. The ESPN brass are not in the practice of putting in their two cents and then finding a middle ground with Arum. Espinoza is on that other side, he oversees the platform division, and so he’s wanting to get fights that please Showtime subscribers, and help bring new ones into the fold. So, was it a breeze coming up with the schedule?

“I wouldn’t call it easy,” he said. No, OK, there was give, and take. There is rarely a time when there isn’t in the boxing game, which should more accurately be referred to as “the boxing business.” Yes, it is that. Fans don’t always get that, even though more of them are wiser to the business side than used to be the case, because the nature of this “information age” means that more specifics about business details are made available to regular Joes. But Espinoza said he found that by and large, people he dealt with in coming up with the to-year-end schedule seemed to be in a mindset of: let’s get back to work, make up for lost time, and let’s give the people, meaning the fans, more of what they want–competitive fights.

I told the exec that I appreciated on that Zoom call how he didn’t try to be slick, and work OT to try and “handle” the fact that the Charlo twins will be back on Showtime, but on a Pay Per View basis. Jermall Charlo (30-0, 22 KOs) will defend his WBC world middleweight title against Sergiy Derevyanchenko (13-2, 10 KOs). And WBC world super welterweight champion Jermell Charlo (33-1, 17 KOs) will meet WBA/IBF counterpart Jeison Rosario (20-1-1, 14 KOs) in a unification tiff.

The Charlos said they will be seen a pound for pounders when they both win on Sept. 26 at Mohegan Sun, which will also play host to Bellator MMA events.

And smart boxing fans know that the virus has to a degree changed the business side of the game, because right now, fans plunking down money to come to the arena to watch a card isn’t happening. That erases a revenue stream, and can affect negotiations. Certainly Arum will be trying figure out how to make Vasiliy Lomachenko and Teofimo Lopez happy, with their purses, without what would be a healthy gate to grow the purse pot. The absence of a gate wasn’t probably a bone of contention for Al Haymon and Espinoza and other business side principals as the Charlo PPV got fashioned, but the Texas twins have become accustomed to being well compensated for their appearances. Think about it, who is keen to take a pay cut at any time? So, on Sept. 26th, you will be offered the option to watch the Charlos both engage in what could be their toughest tests on paper, for a fee. Espinoza didn’t try to be slithery, and massage the PPV setup, on the Zoom call. I followed up on that. How much will the show cost? “The price will be in the same range as historically it’s been. I’m not sure the HD or SD difference makes lot of sense, but they’ve been in that $64 to $74 range. It’ll be somewhere in that range. And we are sensitive to these times, we know it isn’t an optimal economic situation.”

(Judging by Mell’s wording on that Zoom call, by the way,  I’d bet the summer house that Jermell gets to headline the PPV, by the way.)

Espinoza said that he’d rather be aggressive, and put challenging fights on, rather than play a waiting game, and think that next year, tough ones can get put together. And he’s thinking, fans will be willing to spend some of that more scarce discretionary cash on a PPV, as long as they know there will be a good chance of a return on the investment. “There’s definitely a risk (in doing this as a PPV), given the economic conditions in the country now,” he said. “Everybody involved is bearing portion of that risk, none of us are getting away unscathed. And I hope we do well, and everyone enjoys the event.”

We discussed another fighter being featured on this Showtime surge, David Benavidez. I told Espinoza that I was impressed with what the WBC 168 champ Benavidez (22-0), meeting Roamer Alexis Angulo (26-1, 22 KOs) on Aug. 15, had to say on Zoom.

Benavidez has a full plate. Getting ready for a fight, and for an addition to his household. Pic from the fighters’ IG account.

He said he wasn’t looking past Angulo, but that he craves a meeting with Caleb Plant, the IBF’s 168 champ. And, Benavidez said, he won’t let his monetary ask get in the way of making that happen. Yep, that’s right, throwback talk. He likes to make a solid check, but isn’t just doing this for the money. “He’s a great kid, one of the real guys to watch in the sport,” Espinoza agreed.

And I agree. And I agreed with the majority of Espinoza’s POV put forth in this interview. I’m hoping that others do, too.

A few too many times in the last few months, I’ve had people poke me, and tell me that they’ve started leaning harder toward UFC. More 50-50 fights, they tell me. Too much talking, not enough walking, in boxing. Too many fighters spending too much time expending energy on social media beefs, rather than funneling the energy on their fights.

And I am cognizant, this pandemic can color your perception, get you into a glum zone. There will be a time when the world gets back on axis, “normalcy” returns–and then, hopefully then too, some of the takeaways we absorbed in the last few months will be acted upon. Espinoza said that in working on his schedule, he dug hearing that prospects wanted to risk their 0, in a tough fight. “What promoters do, is create stars. Good fights, that’s the one thing that creates stars.”

Amen, I say. Let’s learn hard lessons from this virus, and smarten up, and hit the reset button as a nation. That won’t happen unless there’s a concerted push to end the constant sparring between the parties, and we find leaders who are skilled at uniting rather than dividing. And this sport could use some of the same energy, some of those same messages Espinoza shared with me. That means less of every man for themself, and more intent to find common ground, that being, lifting up the sport as a whole. I know, even as I type that, I feel like it sounds corny, because that ideal has been asked for and wished for and promised too many times, over too many decades. But maybe you know what the author EB White wrote back to a man who sent him a letter, admitting he was demoralized by the state of the nation and the world, which felt off axis: “As long as there is one upright man, as long as there is one compassionate woman, the contagion may spread and the scene is not desolate,” said the author of ‘Charlotte’s Web.’ “Hope is the thing that is left to us, in a bad time.”

To the upright men, and the masses of compassionate ladies out there. Let’s get up, off that canvas floor, raise up the gloves, tuck the chin, and fight on, by keeping hope alive. Hard times have a way of speeding up the learning of lessons. Ideally, that is. We are upright, still got a shot to learn, do better, be better. That goes for inside the fight business, and even more so, the wider world.

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