Sherdog Rewind: An Interview with Showtime Sports’ Stephen Espinoza

By Jack Encarnacao Jul 13, 2012

Mixed martial arts makes strange bedfellows.

For years after Showtime first broadcast the sport in 2007, brass at the premium cable network publicly feuded with Ultimate Fighting Championship impresario Dana White over the direction of the industry. The friction carried over when EliteXC collapsed and was replaced by Strikeforce in 2009. Then, UFC parent company Zuffa LLC made a game-changing purchase of Strikeforce, and White and company found themselves parties to a television contract with Showtime.

Shortly thereafter, longtime Showtime Sports President Ken Hershman left for HBO. The messy and intriguing business of sorting out the new Zuffa-owned Strikeforce fell on new boss Stephen Espinoza, a longtime sports and entertainment attorney who has represented Oscar de la Hoya, Mike Tyson and Gina Carano. Each time the new incarnation of Strikeforce stages an event, macro-level questions about the future and purpose of the brand burn in the MMA discourse.

As Strikeforce prepares to stage its fourth show of 2012 on Saturday in Portland, Ore., Espinoza joined the Sherdog Radio Network “Rewind” program to discuss the past, present and future of mixed martial arts on Showtime.

To stay updated on the show, follow it on Twitter @SherdogRewind. Explain the structural differences between getting a fight on television in MMA and getting a fight on TV in boxing.
Espinoza: Well, the biggest difference is that there is a structure in mixed martial arts, and, generally, there isn’t one in boxing. Obviously, [the] UFC is the dominant force in mixed martial arts, and, in that regard, they’re responsible for scheduling all of their programming. Strikeforce and other organizations obviously organize and structure their own events, as well. In general, each of those organizations, whether it’s Strikeforce, UFC or otherwise, has exclusive relationships with networks, and then there’s that dialogue back and forth on what fights get put on air. The boxing world is basically a free-for-all. Everyone proposes potential fights, dates. Somehow, through all the chaos, once in a while a network and a promoter [are] able to actually reach an agreement on some mutually beneficial programming, and something lands on the calendar; but it’s night and day in terms of the organizational structure. How about from the perspective of how fighters are promoted, marketed, licensed and even ranked in the two sports?
Espinoza: Obviously, Zuffa has an incredible machine both in terms of marketing, promotion, social media [and] fan interaction. It’s an amazing structure, and it really is responsible for a lot of the growth in mixed marital arts over the last decade. And they do a tremendous job really popularizing the sport on a global level. And there are obviously a bunch of other promotional entities which also work very hard. They don’t have the dominance and the reach of [the] UFC, but each of them, in their own way, is behind a fighter. And I think the interesting difference in dynamics promotionally is that the professional career of a mixed martial arts fighter is far shorter than that of a boxer, in general. I mean, I remember watching Josh Koscheck fight a few weeks ago. I believe he had 20, 22 fights, something like that, which placed him well in the Top 10 of the most fights ever in the history of the UFC. You know, 20 fights for a boxer is really when his career is just getting started. There’s now a very popular fighter, Canelo Alvarez: he’s actually got over 40 fights, and he’s 21 years old. That’s the extreme in boxing, but it’s a very different dynamic in terms of the timeframe because the careers, in general, for mixed martial arts fighters [are] much shorter. Obviously, you have the exception -- you have the [Tito] Ortiz and [Chuck] Liddell and [Randy] Couture and Koscheck -- but most of the time, you’re looking at far shorter careers and a far more limited window within which to build the fighter. If you had to pick one of the two business models to do business in, boxing or MMA, what would it be?
Espinoza: As a businessman, I’d have to say probably the mixed martial arts model. I think I’ve looked at the model, and whether it’s Strikeforce or Bellator or [the] UFC, I think I’ve looked at the boxing model and addressed the sum of its flaws. Again, [the MMA model is] not perfect. Certainly there are difficulties -- fighters getting the fights they want -- and other challenges within the mixed martial arts structure, but there’s more order to the business on the mixed martial arts side, in general, as compared to boxing. Of course, MMA on Showtime dates back to the first EliteXC event in 2007. What does the rise and fall of EliteXC on Showtime tell us about the MMA business?
Espinoza: Well, the rise and fall of that promotion, I’m not sure that a lot can be generalized other than there were some mistakes in the business strategy of that organization, ranging form financial to marketing to personnel. You know, it didn’t work. I think the important thing from our perspective is that MMA is an important part of Showtime’s programming. At Showtime, we have a broad-based sports program; we have essentially five franchises. We do, obviously, mixed martial arts, we have professional boxing, we have a Major League Baseball show, an NFL show and a NASCAR “Inside NASCAR” show, as well. So we look at our sports platform as broadly based, virtually, as any of the sports networks, and MMA is an important part of that. What role do you see MMA playing in the future on Showtime?
Espinoza: I think it will continue to be important, and I think that premium television is important to mixed martial arts, as well. I think the most successful organizations, whether they’re boxing or MMA, have a multi-tiered approach, including basic cable or free television, your premium network fights and then your pay-per-view fights. Boxing suffers from not having the exposure at the basic level, and I think MMA definitely benefits from having the sort of we’ll call [it] the mid-level exposure. Putting events on a pay network sort of allowed the promoter financially to put on fights which would be expensive, but [he] can keep those off of pay-per-view. Without the money from a premium or a subscription network like Showtime, you’re basically left with basic cable fights and pay-per-view, which, in my opinion, isn’t the best business strategy. Do you see a place on premium television for a UFC-branded product in the current climate?
Espinoza: I think it would work, and it does work. Obviously, we are functioning within sort of the Zuffa structure now. So I think my opinion, from the outside, yes, the UFC could benefit from sort of having that middle-tier fights on a premium network [and] maybe reducing slightly the number of pay-per-view events they’re doing and putting some on premium television, but that’s just my opinion of their business model. It’s known the Strikeforce-Showtime contract is for six to eight events in 2012 with options to continue the relationship after that point. We’re three events in halfway through the year. Is MMA on Showtime next year, and, if so, will it be Strikeforce?
Espinoza: I fully expect to have mixed martial arts on Shwotime next year, and I hope it is Strikeforce, as well as possibly supplemented by other organizations. We’re still in sort of the learning and adjusting and sort of transforming stages of our relationship with Zuffa in terms of how we both configure our businesses and how we both adjust to the new constraints of the relationship. So I can’t speak definitely, but I think after a little bit of, let’s say, a little bit of a bumpy start, I think we’re fully on track. I think each event has gotten better from the production standpoint, from the operational standpoint, and I expect that to continue with our July event and beyond. So I think the one thing I can say, definitively, is I look forward to having mixed marital arts on Showtime for the foreseeable future. UFC President Dana White has made some public comments that make it seem like it hasn’t always been a harmonious relationship between your regime and Zuffa. Tell us what shape the collaboration with Zuffa has taken halfway into 2012. In what ways is Showtime collaborating with Zuffa and in what ways is it not?
Espinoza: I think, all in all, the collaboration has been going extremely well, if you look at, for example, how Strikeforce has been integrated into UFC pay-per-views, in their in-arena promotions, their in-person promotions. Both Josh Barnett and Daniel Cormier were very active on UFC events before their Strikeforce grand prix fight. You know, Ronda Rousey has been very active at UFC events and UFC programming. So I think as we get more and more acquainted, more and more comfortable, and learn each other’s working habits and styles, the collaboration just gets stronger and the integration just gets stronger. So I think it’s going well now, and I think it’s getting better with each event. One of the things White said early on was that he was going to be present at all Strikeforce events like he is UFC events. Then, that didn’t happen, and he’s pointed to a disagreement over production elements of Strikeforce events as a reason. Can you tell us anything about what that was all about?
Espinoza: There’s an ongoing dialogue in terms of how the production looks, what elements we put into the show, what elements are involved in the in-arena show; that’s a dialogue which continues. I think at any good network there’s a constant process of evaluating where you are production-wise, and that happens internally and that happens in our discussions with Zuffa, as well. And I’d say 90 percent of the time we’re completely on the same page. You now, either Zuffa raises an issue or Dana raises an issue and we look at it and say, “Yeah, that’s a very good point,” or we raise an issue that has to do with the in-arena production and Zuffa makes the adjustment. You know, 10 percent of the time we don’t agree, and we work it out and things move forward. And I think what I can say about the relationship is that in any relationship, whether it’s marriage or it’s a network television relationship, [if] you’re getting along 80, 90 percent of the time, that’s a really good relationship. Politics aside, it’s the future of Strikeforce fighters that truly interests the fans. With every Strikeforce card, the dialogue is when and if the standout performers can fight the UFC contenders in their weight classes. And I don’t think that’s because people see Strikeforce as secondary; I think it’s because they can’t wrap their heads around how a promotion that Zuffa owns has these limitations. Can these guys fight UFC guys or not?
Espinoza: I’m not privy to all of the details, but sort of as a general statement, I think a large part of the obstacle was the Fox deal. And the Fox television deal for Zuffa was structured in a way that didn’t contemplate Zuffa content being on another network. So when the acquisition of Strikeforce occurred, we all sort of had to make certain adjustments and change the business strategy to some extent in order to conform to the existing overall structure. So, really, I think the constraints and the difficulties come from the fact that Fox made a very lucrative deal across several television networks with Zuffa, and they have various exclusivity requirements. I’m not privy to all of them, but I understand that that’s what stands in the way of having UFC fighters come over and fight in Strikeforce. We have gotten hints that such fights could be possible, such as when Zuffa was working to put together Gilbert Melendez-B.J. Penn. Now the explanation you’re giving seems to tell me that, no, cross-promotional fights won’t happen.
Espinoza: I wouldn’t close the door on it entirely. There’s some possible structures in which maybe a fight like that can happen. I don’t want to foreclose the possibility that at the end of the first year of the relationship, and I’d say, a year roughly [into] the relationship both with Fox and our relationship, that adjustments could be made. Certainly, this is just speculation. I don’t know that Dana is interested in doing this or [if] Lorenzo [Fertitta] wants to sort of raise the issue with Fox, but it’s sort of tough to go into a deal with Fox and then all of a sudden a few months later say, “Oh, by the way, we had an unanticipated acquisition, can we adjust our deal?” Sometimes it’s easier to have that conversation at the end of a year between TV seasons, things like that. So maybe that’s one alternative, but I think the bottom line here is that both Zuffa and Strikeforce management and Showtime are committing to finding the best available talent and the best competitive matchups for their champions. The conversation we have with Gilbert, with Luke [Rockhold], with Ronda, with everybody, if it’s signing new guys, if it’s figuring out some flexibility in the UFX-Fox relationship, if it’s bringing in foreign fighters, the talent pool is so deep that I’m confident we’re going to find a large number of very competitive matchups for our top tier fighters. What about Strikeforce heavyweight grand prix tournament winner Daniel Cormier? Is the plan still that he has one more fight for Strikeforce and then Strikeforce dissolves its heavyweight division?
Espinoza: That is the plan, yes. You mentioned Ronda Rousey. What’s the future of women’s MMA on Showtime?
Espinoza: Women’s MMA has always been a priority at Showtime, and I’m certainly not going to change that. Personally, I think there’s a huge untapped talent base in women’s MMA, and it’s far more than a novelty. I think they deserve multiple weight classes, and I’ll try to develop additional weight classes in support of women’s MMA at Strikeforce and at Showtime. But that’s not going anywhere. That’s been one of the hallmarks of MMA at Showtime, and it’s going to continue. On the Strikeforce web site, every female fighter is listed under the 135-pound category, even most recent 145-pound champion Cristiane “Cyborg” Santos, who has publicly acknowledged that making that cut would be difficult. Is the strategy to just go with 135-pound women for now?
Espinoza: I think in the short run the easiest way to see the high-level fights that everybody wants will be at bantamweight -- at 135. I think maybe it’s a little bit of negotiating positioning by Cris’ part to sort of maybe raise that point and see if she can make some differences. I haven’t had that conversation with her about weight, but I don’t think in the long run that that’s necessarily the best way to go about it. We just don’t have the numbers right now to support the second weight class. I think it’s something where we have to get a base level of talent in that division to be able to really effectively operate there, so I think that’s an ongoing endeavor. They’re out there; we just need to get a consistent base number of athletes in that category to be able to fully develop it. Since we don’t have that right now, I think the pressure, naturally, is to go to 135 where all the action is. But, all of a sudden, someone can pop up next year just like Ronda, and, all of a sudden, people are focused on 145. You’ve represented Gina Carano as an agent. What are the chances of seeing her fight again on Showtime?
Espinoza: You know, she plays very coy with me, as well, sometimes. I know -- probably as long as she lives -- there’s probably going to be that itch to get back in the ring. I know anyone who sort of knows her or talked to her knows that she is very committed to fighting, that she loved training; she’s gone to Thailand to improve her standup. She’s just a fighter at heart, and when you’re a fighter at heart, no matter how successful you are as an actress or as a broadcaster or anything else, there’s always that itch. So I would never foreclose the possibility of that happening, simply because I know there’s a little part of her -- maybe not so little -- that is always wanting to get back in the challenge. I know she feels that itch every time there’s a big fight around. Having said that, there’s certain realities in terms of how long you can be away from the cage before you go back and be competitive at the highest level. So I’m not sure how much of a possibility it is in the long run. I know that it’s something that still keeps her awake [at] nights, wondering if there’s a way to make it still happen. Carano’s dance partner in one of Showtime’s highest-rated fights, the aforementioned Cris “Cyborg,” is currently shelved for a performance-enhancing drug violation. How big of an issue are PEDs in MMA and boxing to somebody in your position?
Espinoza: This is an issue that I’ve become intimately familiar with. Obviously, in the first few weeks of the job I had to deal with the loss of Cris and [Muhammed] “King Mo” [Lawal], and then, as recently as the last few weeks, we lost the headline fighter for one of our biggest boxing events of the year in Andre Berto, who was originally scheduled to fight Victor Ortiz on June 23. So it’s a problem in both [MMA and boxing]. On a certain level, I’m glad that we’re going through these growing pains, because performance-enhancing substances in mixed martial arts and boxing are [a] much more dangerous risk than in other sports. You’re a track athlete, someone else is doping, you lose. If you’re in a fight sport and your opponent is doping, arguably your physical health is at risk in a much greater way. And I know that’s the dealings in certain cases with De la Hoya and one of his fights against Fernando Vargas, for example; he was very upset after the fact to learn that his opponent tested positive in the post-fight drug test. So it’s something which obviously is unfortunate for the fans, for the subscribers, for people who want to see these big events, but we have to go through these growing pains. I mean, it’s a fighter safety issue, and I’m confident that, as the technology sort of catches up with where they are in terms of some of the designer substances and as the testing process gets cheaper, more streamlined, that we’ll get past these growing pains and get to a point where things are back on track. Finally, can Showtime make the unilateral decision to extend the Strikeforce arrangement? Do both parties have to agree? And what does that decision portend for the future?
Espinoza: I’d rather not get into the specifics. As a general practice, we don’t get too much into the contractual details, but what I would say is that the Strikeforce relationship has been obviously a huge positive thing for Showtime and its subscribers, and that hasn’t changed since Zuffa made the acquisition. Again, we’ve had a period of adjustment which we’ve now transitioned through, and things are looking great for the future. I love our talent, I love where the collaboration is going, I love the support that UFC has been giving our events and our fighters lately, and I’m very optimistic about the future.


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