Stephen Espinoza has not had the easiest time since taking over as General Manager of Showtime Sports. He has made considerable strides in areas like giving boxing fans more content with undercards airing live on Showtime Extreme and putting on a four fight main card just a few weeks back. But he has also seen a fight that they planned to be one of their biggest of the year in the rematch between Victor Ortiz and Andre Berto fall through twice.
Making matters worse, now that Showtime landed superstar Saul "Canelo" Alvarez, they can't seem to find him an opponent. After booking him against James Kirkland, a shoulder injury forced Kirkland out, then replacement Paul Williams was in a motorcycle accident, paralyzing him from the waist down, Kirkland was put back in the fight only to re-injure his shoulder/want more money, so Victor Ortiz was put into the fight only to lose a tune-up this past weekend and suffer a broken jaw.
While Espinoza has been riding the rocky waves of their boxing coverage, Strikeforce has quietly been plugging along. But, UFC president Dana White did make a big show of saying that Showtime was in control and that he was hands-off when it came to Strikeforce. That topic, among many others, came up when FightHubTV caught up with Espinoza for a recent interview:
Quotes and thoughts after the jump...
On Dana's comments that he's out of it and Showtime runs things:
I would disagree with that characterization. I don't want to get into too much of any dirty laundry, but, if we look at the situation, I am brand new to this job, I am brand new to the position of being a T.V. executive. I think that's actually one of my strengths, is that I don't have pre-conceived notions of how production should work or who should determine the lighting or what the sound should be. So, I'd like to think that I started with a clean slate on boxing and MMA. So, whether Dana has more ideas or anyone at Zuffa, I welcome them. What my goal is, it's not worry about ownership of ideas, but really to maximize our programming and make it look as good as possible.
I think both sides were a bit hesitant coming into it. They didn't know what to expect from me. I knew there was a little bit of a history before me. But, when we all got into a room, and we had a big meeting, 20 people on their side with 10 to 12 on ours, it was actually kind of surprising, it went really, really well. And, everyone put whatever pre-conceived notions and history aside. It was a great relationship from their forward. Every relationship has its ups-and-downs, but the reality is, I have nothing but positive things to say about all the guys at Zuffa from Dana and Lorenzo, all of them.
On UFC vs. Strikeforce fights happening on Showtime:
I would love to see it. Whether it will happen, there are always complicating factors, but that would be a dream. I think it would be a dream for the fans, I think it would be a great opportunity for both companies.
First of all, of course he would love to see those fights happen. From what I've been told, Strikeforce's ratings aren't all that great and are considerably lower than boxing ratings without Diaz/Fedor type stars. Given that Showtime doesn't release those numbers all the time, it's hard to say that with certainty, but I trust my source here. It's even easier to trust them when you see that the numbers for something like Miguel Accosta vs. Brandon Rios last February outdrew every Strikeforce event ever except for one (Fedor/Silva). So, yeah, having some UFC names on their cards would be a big help. But that's like asking the head of the CFL if he'd like to play a few games against NFL teams.
The truth is, Espinoza's real focus isn't on Strikeforce, it's on boxing. I said that would be the case when he first got hired. He had a previous relationship with Oscar De La Hoya which meant that he'd be very interested in building on that relationship to get bigger programming. And that has been the case. They went after Ortiz vs. Berto 2, a Golden Boy fight, by paying a lot of money (relative to their budget) to get a fight that did 1.5 million viewers on HBO the first time around. It also led to the landing of Canelo Alvarez.
Strikeforce is just kind of "there" for Showtime right now. It's not pulling big numbers, but it's not very expensive (i've heard it was anywhere from a 33% to 50% cut in programming cost from last year). So they're happy to have the live programming, but why push to really make it bigger? Any major superstar is at risk of being taken from their promotion and the brand just doesn't have much pull.
Meanwhile, Showtime and Espinoza are working with Golden Boy and fighters managed by Al Haymon in an attempt to build into something that can compete with HBO long-term. There's a pretty clearly established plan for Showtime Sports' future, and I don't really think that Strikeforce is included. If they could take the money they're spending on Strikeforce and put it toward two Canelo PPV's a year, don't you think they'd rather do that?