NEW YORK -- A simple review of the schedule indicates 2014 was a rough year for Showtime boxing. A stellar 2013 was followed by a steady stream of fights that lacked either the competitiveness (Keith Thurman-Julio Diaz; Danny Garcia-Rod Salka) or the relevance (anything Adonis Stevenson was in) to command an audience.
Network executives though say the numbers tell a different story. In 2014, Showtime’s flagship series, Showtime Championship Boxing, maintained its average audience gains from ’12 and ’13, according to officials. Boxing programming continues to grow digitally and the network is kickstarting 2015 with a strong marketing push behind the young stars that have been consistently fighting on the network.
Last week, Showtime Sports Executive Vice President and General Manager Stephen Espinoza sat down with SI.com to discuss Showtime’s future, the impact of Al Haymon’s new deal with NBC and his role in making a mega fight between Floyd Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao.
SI.com: It’s hard not to look at 2014 as being a rough year, especially when compared to the strong 2013 you had. What would you say about 2014?
Espinoza: It had its ups and downs. I was happy with the year as a whole and where our boxing programming is today. In 2013, we had record ratings, all-time highs for the network. In 2014, we matched those. With all the ups and downs we can still sit here and say more people are watching Showtime boxing than at any point in the history of the network. That’s not something that many others can say, including our biggest competitor. So in terms of the state of our boxing programming, it’s never been better.
SI.com: Still... the eyeball test says the caliber of fights were worse.
SE: When compared to 2013, and more specifically the last half of ’13, that’s a tough pace to keep up. When you have a guy like Al Bernstein say it may be the best period of boxing he has seen in his long career, anything is going to pale in comparison.
SI.com: What happened that the big fights didn’t materialize in 2014?
SE: Each was a different case. Sometimes it was a business reason. Sometimes it was a timing reason. Sometimes it was promoter issues. You can’t forget that we had a couple of surprises later in the year that threw us curveballs. We were building towards some good fights in the fourth quarter that for reasons unrelated to what we did, didn’t come about. I can still point to quite a few fights during the year that we televised that I’m proud of.
SI.com: If you had a do-over for 2014, what would you do differently?
SE: I wouldn’t do anything differently. We go through each month, each quarter trying to make the best available fights. Although it is not always obvious to the outside audience why a fight hasn’t been made, there are reasons. It isn’t that we aren’t trying to make the best fights. We do. It’s a complex sport with complex personalities that affect the outcome.
SI.com: OK, Manny Pacquiao-Floyd Mayweather; what do you know, what can you tell?
SE: The one thing I’m absolutely positive about is that everyone on our side, from CBS to everyone at Showtime to all of Floyd’s team to Floyd himself is very much in pursuit of the fight. There is not a shred of hesitation that it’s the fight we all want. I wish that was enough to make it happen. Conversations are ongoing, which is a positive, but we can’t yet say there is a deal in place. We will continue to work until a final resolution.
SI.com: Optimistic? Pessimistic?
SE: It varies hour to hour, and that’s no exaggeration. Sometimes it looks bleak, sometimes it looks great. I do get the sense that Manny Pacquiao is interested in the fight. I know Floyd Mayweather is interested in the fight. Fundamentally, knowing those two facts should go a long way towards getting it done.
SI.com: It’s hard to figure out who is talking to who...
SE: I think, at least on our side, it’s all hands on deck. It’s a high priority for CBS and for Showtime. If the receptionist here had an in for making the fight happen, we would enlist him or her.
SI.com: Pacquiao’s side is publicly making a lot of concessions. The perception if this fight doesn’t happen will be that Floyd didn’t do enough. What does Floyd need to get this done?
SE: The perception Floyd isn’t doing enough to get it done is perhaps a little our fault. Through this latest round of discussions, we have adopted a strategy of saying as little as possible. Perhaps clarifying a few things would have helped the p.r. battle. But we’re not fighting the p.r. battle. We’re fighting to make a great event. As a group, we think the less said the better. So, yes, Floyd is suffering in the p.r. war but he is sticking to a strategy we all decided is the most likely to result in the fight happening.
SI.com: If a Pacquiao fight falls apart, is there a Plan B?
SE: There really haven’t been discussions. All the efforts are going to Pacquiao. When it’s clear it’s not going to happen, we move to the next one.
SI.com: OK, speculate. If it’s not Pacquiao, who is the most attractive opponent?
SE: The two obvious choices are Amir Khan and Miguel Cotto. We have done focus group testing on both. Cotto has a tremendous legacy and is a huge name in the sport. Amir has surprising speed, which is intriguing. When you talk about a TV ad campaign, his hand speed is something people notice. He’s fast and athletic. You haven’t seen that against Floyd since Zab Judah. And we know that was a pretty tough fight. I think Floyd is in a no-lose position. Any of those three are intriguing bouts.
SI.com: Is there a deadline?
SE: Not a hard date, but we’re beginning to feel a little urgency creeping in. But we don’t want to threaten the process with hard dates. But we have one eye on the calendar for sure.
SI.com: Do you believe Floyd is going to fight on May 2, regardless of the opponent?
SE: Absolutely. He has never wavered for a second during the process. That is the date. He is very tied into the routine of the May-September dates. He has attuned his body to them. Two years ago everyone scoffed at the idea that he would be fighting twice a year. Well he has now set his body and his training regiment to doing that. That’s what he is going to stick to the remainder of his career. He has said that to me and everyone else involved with his business.
SI.com: The last two Mayweather pay per views didn’t do great numbers. You get asked this a lot: Is the Mayweather deal still a good financial investment?
SE: Absolutely. The Marcos Maidana rematch significantly outperformed what we expected it to do. The danger in an immediate rematch is that it might not do as well as the first; in this case we saw double digit percentage increases in the pay per view buys from the first fight to the second fight. We saw significant increases in anything from theatre revenue to closed circuit. The gate was already maximized at $15 million. Every measure validated the decision to do an immediate rematch.
SI.com: Al Haymon has a new deal with NBC. You do a lot of business with Al Haymon. How does this affect Showtime?
SE: I’m in favor of how it affects the sport as a whole. One of the keys is getting back on network TV. It’s a goal many have identified for years. Having free TV, cable, having a different layered approach to the outlets is a positive. When there are more mid-level outlets, we can get back to doing premium level fights. That’s why some of the pressure to do triple and quadruple headers will dissipate, because these guys can get exposure on great outlets, perhaps on NBC. I’m all in favor of it.
SI.com: But big fights have to come from somewhere, and most likely it’s going to come from someone that regularly fights on Showtime. Is that an unfair assessment?
SE: Not at all. It’s a logical statement. But I think it assumes that the deal is going to play out a certain way. Before we pronounce Al’s new business model as a good thing or a bad thing for Showtime, we should all see what it is. Al may suffer a little bit because he tends to be behind the scenes and allows his fighters to take center stage and people tend to assume the worst. But everyone should just wait. I think this will play out in a way that benefits [Showtime] and the sport.
SI.com: Who do you have exclusive contracts with?
SE: Floyd and Amir.
SI.com: Have you been told that certain fighters will not be on NBC?
SE: No assurances have been made to me. There are no contractual protections. Except at the highest level, I don’t think exclusivity for a network makes sense. In a healthy television environment, what’s best for the fighter and what’s best for the sport is exposure on a variety of platforms. One of the flaws in boxing over the last 20 years has been the reliance on premium television as the primary marketing tool. Whether you are talking 23 million or 28 million, you are talking about a quarter of the U.S. television households. To try to create a true mainstream star by marketing to a quarter of the households is not a recipe for success. I think the broad exposure benefits the fighter and that benefits us when the fighter comes over to Showtime.
SI.com: Why isn’t this deal happening with CBS?
SE: Wait and see. There is a lot that is being assumed, a lot of conclusions being drawn that may or may not be warranted. I’d love to be less vague about it, but I’ll leave it at there are some initiatives we are working on.
SI.com: Oscar De La Hoya moved Bernard Hopkins and Saul Alvarez over to HBO. Have those decisions changed your relationship with Golden Boy?
SE: Their business model has changed, but our relationship has not. I have 15 years of professional relationship as an attorney and a personal relationship with Oscar and other members of his team. The fact that Oscar made a business decision for his company doesn’t mean our relationship is over. He has the right to run his business however he wants to. Exclusivity at Showtime was not something I ever asked for. Going forward he will stick to his business strategy and we’ll adjust accordingly.
SI.com: You mentioned the quadruple-headers. People seem to be souring on the triple and quadruple-headers, mostly because of how late the main event starts. Any plans to adjust to that in 2015?
SE: That is the disadvantage of trying to expose so many young fighters who are worthy of the exposure. It’s a balancing act. We’ll see fewer of the quadruple-headers. There will be double and triple-headers in ’15, with a slightly earlier start, while still providing the Showtime Extreme cards for the hardcore fans who look for something a little bit more.
SI.com: What do you do with Adonis Stevenson?
SE: The reality is all you can do is try to make the best available compelling fights. You look at a guy like Gennady Golovkin. To be candid, his opponents have not exactly been a murderers row. But he has generated some momentum...
SI.com: Well, the difference with Golovkin is that there is no one in his division chasing him like Sergey Kovalev is going after Stevenson.
SE: Peter Quillin might take exception to that.
SI.com: I think Peter has had his chances.
SE: Look, finding [Stevenson] opponents is something we are dealing with. It’s sort of a fact of the business. HBO is experiencing that with some of its welterweights and junior welterweights. You do the best you can with what is available.
SI.com: Roc Nation merged with Gary Shaw. Gary Shaw has done a lot of business with HBO. How do you foresee Showtime’s relationship with Roc Nation and Gary?
SE: Gary is somebody I’m friendly with. [COO] Dave Itskowitch is someone I have had a long relationship with. I have had conversations with Roc Nation. They have made it clear they are open to all networks. Whether it’s Andre Ward or anyone they are in business with, if they can bring us a good matchup or a talented fighter, we’re all ears.