There was a period not so long ago when televised mixed martial arts was considered the keystone to yanking the sport out of the shadows. Five years after The Ultimate Fighter performed its magic on Spike TV, that notion has been affirmed, to the point that MMA fans have so many options these days they're as likely to stumble upon a bout as they are a baseball game.
Among the numerous networks lending support to MMA, perhaps none outside of the UFC-affiliated Spike TV has meant more in the U.S. than Showtime, which dipped its toe in the space in 2007 and is a major reason CBS has aired the sport five times.
With the much discussed No. 1-ranked Russian heavyweight Fedor Emelianenko debuting on the premium television network this Saturday, memories of the embarrassing run of a failed EliteXC brand and a certain street-fighter from Miami feel like something out of an alternate dimension.
Strikeforce CEO Scott Coker, whose company expanded beyond its regional roots after signing a multi-year broadcast deal with network in 2009, believes Showtime, with its 18 million subscribers, remained married to the sport because of one man: Ken Hershman, senior vice president and general manager of sports and event programming. As instrumental as Hershman has been in elevating the profile of MMA on a network that features boxing, NFL and NASCAR content, he has rarely engaged a bellowing chorus of critics -- most notably UFC president Dana White, fighters and managers who blame the network for a lack of communication about their futures, and a niche media he sees as misinformed or, worse, ill-intentioned.
As the narrative persists on blogs and fan forums that Showtime essentially neutered Strikeforce's decision-making power, Hershman said he finally felt compelled to respond. Sitting in a posh restaurant at a Beverly Hills hotel last month, the executive, who has worked under the CBS Corporation umbrella since 1992, called the constant criticism "spin from competitors who would like to see Strikeforce and Showtime fail."
"We want to make sure that people understand our place in this sport," he continued. "We're putting a lot of money and commitment into this sport. We're in it for the long run. We're not going anywhere, despite what anyone may suggest. All the kicking and screaming makes us hold true to that more firmly."
That, however, doesn't address regular complaints from people in the industry who suggest unlike the UFC, it's difficult if not impossible to get answers from Strikeforce. In large part, they believe, because Showtime has the final word.
"I would say there isn't a network that I'm aware of that doesn't ensure the quality of what they put on the network meets whatever criteria they've established," Hershman said. "There isn't one fight that gets on the air that I'm not satisfied meets the expectations that our subscribers hold us to. It would be irresponsible for me not to do otherwise. But to suggest that I'm running Strikeforce or controlling the matchups is ludicrous."
Under Coker's leadership, Strikeforce -- a joint promotional venture between Coker's West Coast Productions and Silicon Valley Sports and Entertainment, the parent company of the NHL's San Jose Sharks -- expanded from a regional MMA promoter to a national brand in three years. The growth happened so rapidly, many in the sport believe the company wasn't prepared. As such, Strikeforce struggled behind the scenes to play the role of a legitimate big-league promotion, a source in the company said. Coker has recently expanded the staff of his San Jose, Calif.-based office to 10.
"You'd be surprised how small the team really is accomplishing these big results," Coker said. "I commend them, though I think they're all ready to choke me."
So are at least five fighter reps who told SI.com in recent months that it's often impossible to reach Coker or his staff.
"The communication is horrible," veteran manager Monte Cox said in April. "For me to get in touch with Scott Coker is impossible. When you sign someone to a major organization you expect to have a conversation with the organization about how things are going, how you think your fighters are doing, when they might fight again, who their opponent will be. With Strikeforce you get none of that. You can't get any information out of them. It's like top secret. We're not used to working under those conditions."
There was some early finger pointing at Showtime regarding the speed with which decisions were made, but over the past couple of months that chatter has declined.
"We have a long-term commitment to Strikeforce," Hershman said. "The programming is working well for us and we're not going anywhere. It's been a real net-positive."
With Showtime's limited viewership because of the "premium" network tag, it's expectations regarding ratings aren't equivalent to an advertiser-driven platform like Spike TV, which has blossomed throughout its relationship with the UFC. That, said Hershman, is one major differences of the competing business models between Showtime and Spike, which has made it a habit of releasing comparison-based ratings between itself and the Strikeforce-affiliated network.
"The whole Showtime versus Spike ratings comparison shows me that there are very few people who appreciate the difference in marketplace and business dynamic between the two networks," Hershman said. "We're in a totally different space than a basic cable network.
"We strive to get the most viewers but it's not the be-all, end-all because we're not selling ads against it. We don't have to give back money to our advertisers because we didn't hit a number. To judge our success or failure based on a rating is just missing the point about what our business is about. We're an extremely successful and profitable business, not because we're getting ratings but because we're putting [out products] that are getting and keeping subscribers in record numbers."
With Emelianenko at the helm of Saturday's card in San Jose, Showtime will know soon enough whether subscribers are happy with the effort of a network that has gone from showcasing Kimbo Slice to one of the sport's early legends.
"Our subscribers tell us in no uncertain terms, by paying the monthly subscription fee or disconnecting, whether they're happy," Hershman said. "That's how we judge success."