In 2014, Showtime has continued to make its case as a premier destination for some of boxing's biggest fights. The network is home to two of boxing's most marketable pay-per-view stars, Floyd Mayweather and Saul "Canelo" Alvarez, and has a strong stable of young talent in Danny Garcia, Amir Khan and Abner Mares, among others. But Showtime Executive Vice President and General Manager Stephen Espinoza has also faced criticism for the network's matchmaking, specifically pitting big names against anonymous opponents.
As Showtime prepares for Saturday night's pay-per-view showdown between Alvarez and Cuban star Erislandy Lara, Espinoza sat down with SI.com to discuss the first half of 2014 -- and what's to come in the second.
SI.com: So the first half of the year is in the books. Likes, dislikes?
Stephen Espinoza: We started off a little bit slow. In January we were pretty light. We had some bad luck in February with an injury cancellation of the [Abner] Mares fight. It took us a little while to get the ball rolling. March was a highlight with Canelo rolling the dice on a pay per view and exceeding expectations. Then we got to late April and May which I thought had a series of entertaining fights. For my money, the fight of the year so far has been [Lucas] Matthysse-[John] Molina. The way that went back and forth, you didn’t know how it was going to end. The it culminated on May 3 with the most competitive Floyd Mayweather fight in years, if not his entire career. So sure, there were things I wish would have played out differently but overall I’m happy with the first half of the year.
SI.com: Let’s talk Mayweather: You are coming up on fight four of Mayweather’s six-fight contract. How do you feel about what you have gotten from it?
Espinoza: It’s been an unqualified success. No matter how you look at it, financially or the intangibles of the visibility of the network or the elevation of our other boxing programming, it has exceeded what we hoped for in every way. There is a lot of misunderstanding about how the deal works and what constitutes success for us but whether it is financially or otherwise, it has been the biggest success that I have had in my tenure here at Showtime.
SI.com: There is the perception that you guys have taken a financial bath on two of his three fights ...
Espinoza: It’s been puzzling hearing that. That characterization is so disconnected from the financial reality. It’s tough to combat that mischaracterization because we are not going to open our books for the general public to peruse and investigate at their leisure. But one thing is clear: If we weren’t successful with the events we have been doing, we would change. I’m not sure there is much I can do to combat the mischaracterization. It may continue. But we know internally here that the deal has been a huge success.
SI.com: To be clear, you are saying the reported losses of millions are inaccurate?
Espinoza: Absolutely untrue. The people who are writing that we have tens of millions of losses fundamentally don’t understand the business of pay per view. If you look at the allocation of costs, there is no way even with the worst estimates of pay-per-view performances we would be losing the amount of money people say we are losing. Candidly, it really is mystifying where that comes from. I don’t think I could generate those kinds of losses if I wanted to. If I did, we wouldn’t keep repeating those events. If we were going to force a fight, we all know what fight I would try to force.
SI.com: I’m not going to ask about that. Not touching it. No way.
Espinoza: I don’t know if [Manny Pacquiao-Mayweather] is realistic, but I haven’t given up hope for it.
SI.com: What makes you say that?
Espinoza: It’s my own personal opinion. It’s not based on anything I have heard from anyone. But I hold out some hope that as Floyd and Manny get to the inevitable latter stages of their careers, it will cause a renewed sense of commitment to get the fight done. Because they will have the next 40 or 50 years to think about why they couldn’t. So I don’t know anything and I hesitate to say it because I don’t want to fuel another round of rumors or speculation, but I’m not letting it go and I won’t until they are both retired.
SI.com: Back to Mayweather. There seems to be an obsession about his pay per view buys ...
Espinoza: Obsession is a good word for it. It’s become an obsession beyond what it merits. People are curious what the audience is for something like the Super Bowl. But people are not holding their breaths waiting for it. I know Floyd invites some of that with his persona, with the things that he says and does. But it has become so much of an obsession that it becomes unhealthy for the events, for the sport, for us. It has almost become more important than the actual quality of the fight. When you look back at May 3, we had a very entertaining fight. There is no disputing that. As fans, that’s what we should center on. One of the biggest events of the year was also one of the most entertaining. It was very satisfying in every respect. Yet there was a continued conversation about what the numbers are. We’re not going to feed into it anymore.
SI.com: Well, like you mentioned, fighters do hold the good numbers up as a barometer for success. Isn’t it fair to seek out the numbers when they are not so good?
Espinoza: I understand where it comes from. But what has been puzzling is the rush to characterize it as success or failure. One thing we know is that Floyd is head and shoulders above any athlete in terms of pay-per-view viewership. He is the world’s No. 1 pay-per-view attraction. And it’s by a large margin. To characterize any of his events as failures when he is surpassing by a large margin what anyone else does is irrational, to say the least.
SI.com: If it’s not just about the numbers, give me some of the ways you do measure success with his fights?
Espinoza: I think probably the biggest, immediate value of Mayweather was symbolic. It sent the message that we are in boxing at the highest possible level. We are doing top-tier programming. The best way to send that message is to get the No. 1 attraction and continue to grow it. That last part is critical. What we have seen is that since Floyd came over to Showtime, his mainstream appeal has without question continued to grow. Candidly, that was not something I thought would necessarily happen when we first signed him. He was such a big star when we first signed him. I even asked myself, ‘How are we going to continue to grow him?’ But through the platforms that we have and through Floyd’s own marketing genius we have combined to continue to elevate him to heights we haven’t seen with even Oscar De La Hoya.
In addition, each event has to be financially viable. That has absolutely been the case for us. The rest is a general intangible evaluation. What is the halo effect that he brings? Not just viewership but perception and general awareness. From all those measures, from the vague sense of p.r. and general visibility to specific measures in focus groups and through audience testing, the perception of Showtime Sports has been on a tremendous positive flow since Floyd has been on the network.
SI.com: Floyd has said publicly he will face Marcos Maidana in a rematch in September. What do you think if that fight, if it happens?
Espinoza: With the Maidana fight, it was the most entertaining, closely matched fight that Floyd has had in years. Because of the entertainment value, it’s worth doing again. People want to be entertained. They want to get value for their money. Floyd was in legitimate peril throughout the fight. To us, it’s worth recreating that to see if Marcos, as he says, learned some important lessons. One thing that we typically see with Mayweather fights is that Floyd, after a couple of rounds, kicks it into high gear and goes into another level of dominance. And there was [sic] certainly points in the middle rounds where he was dominating. But if you look at 10, 11 and 12, those were competitive, close rounds. So I didn’t walk away thinking that Floyd figured it out. We’re used to seeing Floyd shut a guy out after six rounds. Maidana was right there at the end. I’m hoping they pick up at Round 13.
SI.com: But rematches tend to do do worse on pay per view. Is that a concern?
Espinoza: I actually think this will have the reverse effect. Some of the buy patterns we saw is that people actually stayed away from the fight because Floyd was going to dominate Maidana, just as he has dominated all of his recent opponents. In this particular case we saw a huge spike in the number of post Saturday night pay-per-view buys. In other words, people that heard about it on Sunday bought it on Sunday and Monday because people said it was entertaining. So given that dynamic on the first fight, I think there would be a good amount of interest in a second one.
SI.com: The two fights Floyd has “underachieved” in, Robert Guerrero and Maidana, had limited pre-fight promotion. The one that was huge, Saul Alvarez, had enormous promotion. How do you quantify the value of something like a press tour?
Espinoza: We definitely see a value in it. That’s something Leonard Ellerbe, Al Haymon and I have discussed. Floyd is completely on board with a press tour. I question what the real value of it is. We know pay-per-view purchases are such a last-minute activity. I question the idea that what we do 10-12 weeks before the event has any impact on people’s decision to buy a fight on Saturday afternoon. It certainly doesn’t hurt. So we will be undertaking one. It’s not an inexpensive venture. It does require an investment. And, candidly, that investment does come from Floyd’s pocket.
SI.com: Give me a fighter you are most proud of developing at Showtime?
Espinoza: I’d give a couple. The two that immediately come to mind are sort of intertwined. That’s Danny Garcia and Lucas Matthysse. Lucas was not well known. He has established himself as a bona fide attraction and a fan favorite during his time at our network. Danny was featured on HBO on occasion, but his bursting onto the national scene came during our tenure. The other one who comes to mind is Leo Santa Cruz. He’s someone we have been able to take advantage of every platform with, from Showtime Extreme to Showtime to CBS. We expect he will probably be featured in the Sept. 13 pay per view as well. He’s not quite a mainstream success yet but he is a fan favorite who will be part of the next generation.
SI.com: Are we going to see more boxing on CBS?
Espinoza: I think the great thing about being affiliated with CBS is that you are affiliated with the No. 1 network. But that’s also a challenge. The time on CBS is very valuable. Particularly in the fall, winter and spring with college basketball, college football and the NFL. Some golf events, too. It’s a very full calendar on the weekends. We have looked for opportunities, we have looked for the right opportunities, but we haven’t been able to find it. I do expect we will be able to identify some opportunities in the near future that will enable us to take advantage of that platform. There have been some near misses with some very big names.
SI.com: Will we see boxing on CBS Sports Network?
Espinoza: It’s something we are slowly expanding. They are expanding on their own. CBS Sports Network has been incredibly supportive of our pay-per-view events with shoulder programming, with classic fights, with post-fight shows like every other major sporting event does. We are trying to figure out a business model that works for them to be in live boxing. But I would expect that they are going to be dabbling in it this year. I’m not sure exactly what form but I would expect them to be more active in the last half of this year.
SI.com: More active ... like with live fights?
Espinoza: Oh yeah. Whether it’s a long-term series or an occasional fight, I’m not exactly sure what it will look like. But I know there is an appetite on CBS Sports Network for more combat sports in general. They have also been active in MMA.
SI.com: We’re here because you have another pay per view with Canelo coming up. What’s impressed you the most about him?
Espinoza: His maturity, in and out of the ring. He’s a kid. He’s a week away from his 24th birthday. He has been a pro more than eight years. His style in the ring mirrors his personality out of it. Unflappable, calm. He rarely changes expressions, rarely seems flustered. That’s not something you can say about most 23-year-olds. The other thing I would say is that he has a genuine hunger to achieve. He doesn’t seem to care about who is financially viable, who is the least risk, highest reward. He wants to fight the toughest guy each time. That’s a rare quality in any athlete, not just boxing.
SI.com: He wins and you know we’re headed for a showdown with Miguel Cotto. After helping build Canelo, do you worry about losing that fight to HBO?
Espinoza: That’s a natural fight. Whether it’s one fight or two down the line, those two roads are going to converge. We believe we have established the strongest pay-per-view platform the last two years. Look at the numbers, our track record has been consistently good on every event, big or small. For that reason, I’m confident we are going to be able to maintain our business with Canelo, through the Cotto fight and through other fights. There is a relationship there and he is an honest, loyal guy. But business is business. And we look at the results of what we have done for him, business-wise, and you can’t argue with the success. That’s why we feel we will be in business with him for a long time.
SI.com: OK, clarify what happened with you, Top Rank and the conference call?
Espinoza: There was a request from Top Rank that they be included. I got a call from Golden Boy saying they weren’t inclined to grant it, and did I have a problem with it. I said no. I wasn’t on the call. I didn’t have strong feelings one way or the other. So they went back [to Top Rank] and said this was going to be focused on the fighters, as it should be. That’s how it was going to end. However that decision was communicated to Top Rank, they interpreted it as the decision coming from me personally. They decided to issue a press release about that suspicion. I thought the entire thing was silly but the most ridiculous part was Top Rank’s decision to make a mountain out of a mole hill by issuing a press release about not being able to participate in a conference call that wasn’t that important in the first place.
SI.com: With Golden Boy -- publicly anyway -- declaring a willingness to work with Top Rank, what’s your position on Top Rank fighters appearing on the network?
Espinoza: I would love to see it. Bob [Arum] hasn’t always had the kindest words for me. But that’s not a factor in our programming, in which fights we buy and which fights we are trying to pursue. It didn’t stop us from going after Mares-[Nonito] Donaire. It didn’t stop us from pursuing Mikey Garcia. If Oscar is able to find a way to do some of these matchups, we are more than happy to host them here at Showtime. If Top Rank decides it wants to expand its business beyond what they are doing at HBO, they would be welcome here as long as they are giving us good fights.
SI.com: Correct me if I’m wrong here: You’re more than willing to bid for big fights as one-offs. HBO has made it clear they are not, that they want guys locked into multi-fight agreements. Is that a fair characterization of a difference between you two?
Espinoza: Well, any businessman wants loyalty and a return on their investment. We certainly would prefer to stay in business consistently with the guys that we have built. But realistically, that’s not always possible, for a variety of different reasons. And when opportunities come up on mega events, we’ll make a bid. As a general concept, the biggest challenge with that model is audience awareness. If it’s a mega fight, bidding on it as a standalone makes sense. If it’s less than a mega fight, the challenge is that it is probably a fight with a guy who isn’t familiar with our audience. So throwing a guy in out of the blue without development probably isn’t a good recipe for audience engagement. But if it’s a really good matchup, we’ll roll the dice and buy it as a one-off.
SI.com: The shake up at Golden Boy by Oscar De La Hoya -- has that effected your business with them?
Espinoza: No. The June 21 event was set up while Richard Schaefer was still at Golden Boy. The Canelo card less so. Aug. 9 and beyond is all post-Schaefer. We expect to be doing one more Golden Boy card in August. There has been some turnover in their personnel, but it hasn’t effected our programming in any way.
SI.com: Does the potential litigation there make you nervous?
Espinoza: It is a concern. On a personal and a professional level, I think it would be best if Richard and Oscar were able to settle their disputes as quickly and painlessly as possible. Having said that, they are both very smart guys with business objectives that have to do what is best for themselves. But hopefully that doesn’t create a situation where fighters are frozen and we are unable to program them. I don’t see that as a likely result but it’s something we are keeping an eye on.
SI.com: Are you comfortable working with Oscar as the front man?
Espinoza: Yes. I said this to him the other day, and he agreed: I have had more contact with him over the last four weeks, on the phone, person or email, than at anytime of our relationship, including when I was his attorney. We have had early morning calls, late night calls about the nitty gritty stuff, not just the fun stuff. He’s fully available. I have no complaints about how he is running the business.
SI.com: Does Oscar have a goofy gmail account? I’m thinking something like “GlittersLikeGold” at gmail...
Espinoza: No. He has one that has ’92 in it somewhere. That’s a special year for him. But nothing other than that.
SI.com: You have had some entertaining fights. Matthysse-Molina. Robert Guerrero-Yoshihiro Kamegai. But there is a school of thought that you lucked into them because both looked like gross mismatches. How do you react to that?
Espinoza: I’m willing to roll with it, but once you start getting lucky three or four times in the space of seven months, you have to look at it as something other than luck. People can go back and look back at what I said about Danny Garcia and Mauricio Herrera. I said that wasn’t a showcase fight, it wasn’t a gimme. No one believed me. They said we lucked into that one. Well then we move to Molina-Matthysse, which I said was going to be competitive. Did we luck into that? Did we luck into Mayweather-Maidana and Guerrero-Kamegai? At some point it becomes ridiculous to keep saying we are getting lucky. I’ll be the first one to admit when I describe a fight to be entertaining, and I’m wrong. But give us some credit when I’m right.
SI.com: You know where I’m going with this. The Aug. 9 card. People see it is a bunch of mismatches. Do you feel confident we will see good fights?
Espinoza: Absolutely. I think Edgar Santana is a live underdog. He is a good puncher. He has not faced top-tier competition, so that is a question mark. But he has got more than a puncher's chance. He can bang. Rod Salka has surprised us on two consecutive fights on Showtime. One of which he may have arguably won against Ricardo Alvarez and then a slight upset over a very good Cuban fighter [Alexei Collado]. He also has exactly the style that caused Danny Garcia problems with Herrera. People look at it like, ‘It’s a guy I haven’t heard of, he only has a few knockouts, so and so has him ranked here.’ We like to match up based on styles. It’s not what fights are on paper. Guerrero and Kamegai was destined to play out the way it did. I have the same feeling about the Garcia-Salka fight. It is going to be very entertaining based on the respective styles. If I’m wrong, berate me. Until then, I just ask everybody to withhold their judgment.
SI.com: It looks like there are some pretty good fights you can make in the second half of the year. Adonis Stevenson-Bernard Hopkins. Danny Garcia-Lamont Peterson. Bermane Stiverne-Deontay Wilder. Do you see those fights happening?
Espinoza: The first half of this year reminds me of late 2012, early 2013, from our programming standpoint. We were in the process of finding out and setting up the match ups. Then we hit this incredible period in the last half of 2013 where we just had big fight after big fight. Great action on every card. And then the pendulum swings back the other way where you sort of have to reset and line everything up again. You try to keep it as entertaining and competitive as possible, and then the pendulum swings the other way. With a little luck, we’ll be seeing Stevenson-Hopkins, Wilder-Stiverne and Garcia-Peterson, among others. I think by the end of the year people will look back at 2014 and Showtime and say that was a pretty good year of fights.
SI.com: There has been a lot of buzz -- and controversy -- about Hopkins-Stevenson. Do you really see that fight happening?
Espinoza: We have had preliminary discussions. We’re sorting out what the implications of the [Main Events] lawsuit are and how that effects our ability to go forward. If there is a way to make it happen, even with the lawsuit, we’ll definitely pursue it. If we get legal advice to the contrary, we’ll have to hold out and let the legal proceedings run their course.
SI.com: Ross Greenburg took a lot of heat for what was perceived as him allowing Al Haymon to program HBO during his time there. You now have the same critics. How do you feel about that criticism?
Espinoza: I can only laugh. At the end of 2013, I was the best television executive ever. At the midpoint of 2014, I’m the worst television executive ever. Neither is true. Boxing fans are very passionate. Everyone has an opinion. So [the criticism] comes with the territory. The bottom line is, if people are critical, at least they are paying attention. That’s what you want. In terms of Al Haymon, sometimes it was Richard Schaefer running Showtime, sometimes it was Al Haymon running Showtime. It’s amazing that I have figured out how to have other people do my job and still collect a paycheck. But if that’s the way people see it, they are entitled to their opinions.
SI.com: Thomas Hauser wrote a piece this week about Haymon working closer with NBC next year. You use a lot of Haymon fighters. Are you concerned by that?
Espinoza: I think there is some misunderstanding of who Al is, what he does and his relationship with promoters and networks. It’s not my job to dispel that, but fundamentally what I do know about Al is that he is as committed to the growth of the sport as anyone I know. And if that means taking business it CBS, NBC, Fox Sports or anyone else, it’s good for the sport. Anyone you ask will say one of the things that has stunted the sport is not having boxing on network TV. If Al can figure out a way to get on NBC or Fox or if I can help him with CBS, it’s only going to benefit the sport as a whole. Is it a programming competition in the basic sense? Yes. But it makes the pie bigger. It will create more pay-per-view stars. It will create more of an appetite for the premium level fights and perhaps get back to the audience we had 15 years ago, when you were seeing audiences of five or six million for premium fights.
SI.com: HBO has invested in overseas fights. You seem to prefer to do your fights domestically. Is that a conscious choice on your part?
Espinoza: Without question. It is definitely a conscious choice. I’m not ruling out doing overseas fights, but there is often a lack of consistency. One of the flaws in the Super Six was that so many of the fighter were European-based and the U.S. audience didn’t have much of a chance to become familiar with the guys. That’s one of the reasons the tournament, which was a good idea, didn’t become as big as it should have. I think there is more than enough underexposed U.S. talent, talent in all of North and South America, to build programming around.