Stephen Espinoza was hired as executive vice president and general manager of Showtime Sports in November 2011.
Recently he joined the Sherdog Radio Network’s “Rewind” show to discuss the network’s relationship with UFC and Strikeforce owners Zuffa, the future of MMA on Showtime, women’s MMA and more.
Espinoza on the future of mixed martial arts on Showtime: “I fully expect to have mixed martial arts on Showtime next year. 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. I can’t speak definitively, but I think after 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. I expect that to continue with our July event and beyond. The one thing I can say definitively is I look forward to having mixed martial arts on Showtime for the foreseeable future.”
On Showtime’s relationship with Zuffa: “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. Ronda Rousey has been very active at UFC events and UFC programming. 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.”
On Dana White expressing his frustration with Showtime over production issues: “I think at any good network, there’s a constant process of evaluating where you are production wise. That happens internally. That happens in our discussions with Zuffa as well. I’d say 90 percent of the time we’re completely on the same page. 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. Ten percent of the time we don’t agree, and we work it out and things move forward. What I can say about the relationship is that in any relationship, whether it’s a marriage or a network television relationship, if you’re getting along 80, 90 percent of the time, that’s a really good relationship.”
On why there are issues with UFC fighters competing in Strikeforce: “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. The Fox television deal for Zuffa was structured in a way that didn’t contemplate Zuffa content being on another network. When the acquisition of Strikeforce occurred, we all sort of had to make certain adjustments and change sort of the business strategy to some extent in order to conform to the existing overall strategy. Really I think the constraints and the difficulties come from the fact that Fox made a very lucrative deal across several television networks for Zuffa and they have various exclusivity requirements. I’m not privy to all of them, but I understand the general proposition is that’s what stands in the way of having a UFC fighter come over and fight in Strikeforce.”
On whether UFC fighters will ever compete in Strikeforce, such as a UFC fighter against Gilbert Melendez: “I wouldn’t close the door on it entirely. There’s some possible structures in which maybe a fight like that can happen ... . Certainly this is just speculation. I don’t know that Dana is interested in doing this or 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 have 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. So maybe that’s one alternative, but I think the bottom line here is both Zuffa and Strikeforce and Showtime are committed to finding the best available talent and the best competitive matchups for our champions.”
On Ronda Rousey: “We expect Ronda to be fighting again late summer. We obviously have a July date, July 14 at the Rose Garden in Portland, and then at some point after that, before the end of the summer, we expect Ronda to be defending her title.”
On women’s MMA: “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. It’s far more than a novelty. I think they deserve multiple weight classes and I’ll try to develop additional weight classes to support the women’s MMA at Strikeforce and Showtime. That’s not going anywhere. That’s been one of the hallmarks of MMA at Showtime, and it’s going to continue.”
Listen to the full interview (beginning at 33:28).