Stephen Espinoza, the Executive Vice President and General Manager of Showtime Sports and Event Programming, admits this long gap does trouble him. “It does somewhat,” he told Maxboxing on Thursday. “I don’t like going that long without programming and as a fan, I don’t like not seeing boxing for spans of four or six weeks. I don’t think it’s good as a programmer or as a fan. Having said that, sometimes it’s the unfortunate result of unexpected events.”
The Winter Olympics from Russia are not unexpected but there is a belief that both HBO and Showtime didn’t want to counterprogram this event. Of the “Sochi Effect,” Espinoza states, “I couldn’t care less. I think there’s absolutely no crossover between the Winter Olympic audience and the boxing audience and I would’ve gone opening weekend, closing weekend, any weekend during the Olympics because quite honestly, demographically, our audience is not the audience that’s watching the Winter Olympics. There’s not going to be any drain of the boxing audience who otherwise would be watching Abner Mares but says, ‘I want to watch Slopestyle or ice-dancing or luge.’ I mean, it doesn’t happen.”
It has to be noted that in 2013, both HBO and Showtime both did just one card last February. You wonder with this month being a bit of a black hole (after the NFL season wraps up and being in the thick of the never-ending abyss of the NBA and NHL schedules) why more boxing isn’t programmed by the major networks during this month.
On March 8th, Showtime broadcasts the Saul Alvarez-Alfredo Angulo pay-per-view card and then, March 15th, April 19th and April 26th are slated as dates on which boxing will be featured on the network. But for now, no fights have been finalized or placed on any of those dates.
Espinoza explains, “The first domino will fall and then everyone else falls into place. So obviously, there’s a big question of [Amir] Khan or [Marcos] Maidana for Floyd Mayweather [on May 3rd]. That will fall and then one of those guys is available for another fight. We slot in [Bernard] Hopkins for his fight somewhere in there. We figure out when Lucas Matthysse is going to be ready to come back. We figure out who’s available for Keith Thurman, for Paulie [Malignaggi], for [Shawn] Porter. But a lot of it is waiting on who is fighting Floyd and what we’re putting on the undercard and the rest sort of slots in around that.”
Regardless of whom Mayweather fights on May 3rd (http://www.maxboxing.com/news/sub-lead/rock-the-vote-or-dont), it will be on pay-per-view. One of the trademarks of the Golden Boy Promotions/Showtime pay-per-view cards recently have been very strong co-features like Garcia-Matthysse and Mares-Daniel Ponce de Leon. Their March 8th show has fan favorites Leo Santa Cruz and Omar Figueroa on the undercard. That said, if these guys are on pay-per-view cards, it could be argued they are then being taken away from Showtime subscribers, therefore watering down the non-pay-per-view franchise.
“I can see that argument,” admitted Espinoza, “but the way we try to account for that is using guys on the pay-per-view who fight very often. For example, if Leo Santa Cruz was a guy who fought twice a year, I’d be more concerned about putting him on pay-per-view but he’s a guy who likes to fight very often. So if for whatever reason people don’t see him on the pay-per-view, guess what? He’s probably going to fight again in May and probably again before the end of summer. So that’s the case with Leo; that’s the case with Omar Figueroa and whether Jermell Charlo or Carlos Molina win [on March 8th], they like to fight fairly often as well.
“So it’s a catch-22; it’s good exposure to be on a ‘Canelo’ undercard or a Floyd undercard but I understand as well that there’s something to being on the network and that visibility too. So we never want to rely on just one or the other.”
Every year, networks like Showtime and HBO have yearly budgets to make fights throughout the year but what they spend on every show or a particular month will differ. And you won’t see boxing programming going up against certain events like the Final Four and traditionally, the networks have shied away from the summer months (last year, HBO came to a virtual standstill from July to the end of September, doing one fight card in that period).
“For us, it’s an evaluation of what the competitive programming is: college football, pro football, college basketball, NBA, in particular and households using televisions, seasonal television watching habits and looking at what periods we can own,” said Espinoza, an avid sports fan, “and conversely, February, in my opinion, has always been a good month because there’s not a whole lot of compelling sports on television. So I’ve always like to go February.” Perhaps moving forward, Espinoza will make a point to program multiple cards during this month.
He continued, “Conversely, I don’t like going late-March, early-April because of the [NCAA basketball] tournament. There’s been conventional wisdom that you don’t spend a lot of money in the summer because the households using televisions is lower. I’m not so sure I agree with that one. We’ve had some decent success and there have been some decent ratings during summer months because there’s not a whole lot else going on in the sports calendar.”
In this battle between Showtime and HBO, there’s no doubt that the gap has closed with Showtime making significant strides over the past year but HBO still plays to a larger subscription base and higher ratings. There will always be accusations of counterprogramming from those involved but with the advent of the DVR, does it even matter anymore?
Espinoza states, “The DVR doesn’t completely protect against counterprogramming. It certainly does for series programming but the real attraction of sports for most of the audience is live. For me, personally, and a fair amount of fans, there’s just a different feeling knowing you could fast-forward the DVR and find out the result as opposed to the excitement of when you don’t know what’s going to happen second to second in a live event. So I don’t believe that people necessarily automatically watch one live and DVR the other and watch it right after.
“I think that’s the case with series [television] but I don’t want to make that assumption with sports.”
So will CBS ever dip its toe back into boxing as they did in December of 2012 featuring Santa Cruz at the L.A. Sports Arena?
“We’ve had some discussions,” said Espinoza, who explained. “The challenge to me is that it’s critical to have a strong lead-in where we’re in the process of building the viewing habits for boxing on network television. I think it’s wise to use an existing audience that’s somewhat consistent demographically as the boxing audience to provide a lead-in, which means college basketball, college football, NFL - in particular - on CBS. The challenge there is at the same token, those are the times of the year that CBS is the busiest.
“Yes, it’s a great time to have a lead-in. It’s also a time when there’s already a lot of sports programming.”
In 2013, Showtime had 14 boxing telecasts (not counting pay-per-view cards and “ShoBox”) which broke down like this from month-to-month: January: one, February: one, March: one, April: two, May: one, June: two, July: one, August: one. September: one, October: one, November: zero, December: two.
HBO did 20 cards last year (not counting anything on HBO2 or pay-per-view). Its month-by-month breakdown: January: one, February: one, March: three, April: two, May: one, June: three, July: zero, August: one, September: one, October: two, November: four, December: one.
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