When Stephen Espinoza was named the replacement at Showtime Sports for Ken Hershman in mid-November, boxing and MMA fans couldn't immediately know what to expect. Hershman, an incredibly ambitious executive who saw combat sports as the cornerstone of the Showtime franchise, was off to HBO, where he would hopefully help spend the massive budget better than his predecessors, but Espinoza was an unknown, a former attorney for Golden Boy Promotions.
His first move big move was a good one, as he out-bid HBO for the rights to the February 11 rematch between Victor Ortiz and Andre Berto, the two fighters who delivered what was arguably HBO's best fight of 2010.
Espinoza tells RingTV.com that it's just the beginning, and that there is a message in picking up the fight:
"The message is that we will be opportunistic and that we will compete at the highest level for the most quality events," said Espinoza. "The message that we're sending is that in order to compete for high-level, high-quality, compelling events, that we will spend money. That's the bottom line."
Espinoza sounds enthusiastic and ready to spend money when a quality, affordable fight comes along. Whether this will have a bad effect remains to be seen -- there is the chance that Showtime ponying up could lead to HBO overbidding simply to sign the fights they want, and thus not getting the quality for their dollar that Hershman was brought in in part to improve.
In addition to the boxing moves, Showtime has been busy securing their MMA brand, too. Showtime recently signed an extension with Strikeforce, the UFC-owned secondary MMA promotion in the United States, through 2014. Dana White says that's entirely due to Espinoza taking over, and that he doesn't believe a new deal would have been made with Hershman still in charge:
"Listen, let's cut the bullshit. Me and Ken Hershman aren't fans of each other. He's not a fan of mine, I'm not a fan of his. He's not there anymore. I flew out there, I liked these guys, and we did a deal, period, end of story."
So Espinoza is off to a good start overall. The new Strikeforce deal is not as rich as the old deal, but it's ambitious and a good fit for both sides. That does, however, leave a little boxing budget wiggle room. Last year, Hershman managed to bring Miguel Cotto and Manny Pacquiao to Showtime for one-off pay-per-view events. Ortiz vs Berto is not the same scale as Pacquiao, but it's a bigger, better fight than Cotto vs Mayorga, and won't be shown on pay-per-view, where that fight was basically lost in the shuffle.
There have been whispers (and more) that Espinoza will be negatively influenced by famous/infamous adviser/manager/whatever Al Haymon, who does manage Berto. But I think the jury remains out there. Haymon takes his fighters where the money is, always has. If the money is there at Showtime, of course he'll encourage his guys to fight there, even if it means a lesser audience (and it does, and pretty significantly so for the time being).
Will Showtime be a true high-level money competitor with HBO? Probably not yet. But Espinoza obviously didn't take this job just to follow Hershman. He's looking to build on what Hershman established at Showtime, and compete with the old boss in time.