What We’re Getting From The New Leadership At Showtime — So Far

Welcome to the future.

We’re now two months into the reigns of the new bosses at boxing network giants HBO and Showtime, Ken Hershman and Steven Espinoza. That’s not enough to give a passing or failing grade or anything — nor even enough of a statistical sample from which absolute conclusions of any can be reached. But between their programming decisions for fights that have already transpired, fights booked for the near future and various interviews, we’re beginning to get a clearer picture of trends developing, philosophies espoused and the quality of matchmaking.

There’s stuff to like here — for instance, Showtime has picked up a couple quality rematches, like the one from this past weekend, and HBO has picked up a number of very good fights, too. There’s stuff to dislike as well, though — like too many so-so fights being signed at both networks, and a certain infamous adviser apparently being favored at Showtime.

We’ll start with a review of some of the match-ups themselves, as well as who’s behind them, and what it all means. Then we’ll take a look at the public remarks of Hershman and Espinoza, the latter pictured at right.

Part I looks at Showtime, which, with a few exceptions, has taken a turn for the worse. (Part II, focusing on HBO, is planned for next week.)


Limiting our scope of review to regular main events and special editions of ShoBox, here’s the good: Everyone wanted to see last weekend’s main event, pretty much. Orlando Salido-Juan Manuel Lopez II was a can’t-miss featherweight rematch, both meaningful and with action credentials. Victor Ortiz-Andre Berto II at welterweight in June — delayed from earlier this year — has a similar dynamic, only with a really excellent undercard fight between junior welterweights Lucas Matthysse-Humberto Soto. Word is that the network has picked up yet another highly-anticipated rematch, between lightweights Antonio DeMarco and Jorge Linares. And most people exected good things from the light heavyweight clash between Gabriel Campillo and Tavoris Cloud, and the match-up delivered, despite the judges’ crappy verdict, something Showtime doesn’t really control.

Unfortunately, there’s a lot of bad-to-mediocre among the rest. I don’t suppose you can blame Espinosa for the Guillermo Rigondeaux-Rico Ramos featherweight bout — which most expected to be a dull affair, and it was, even if it was a moderately significant bout — since it was booked before he came on board. Other stuff, you can point fingers. Paul Williams-Nobuhiro Ishida (middleweight) ended up being a decent scrap, but it wasn’t a fight anyone was demanding, to say the least. Abner Mares-Eric Morel in April might show some defensible commitment to Mares for winning the Showtime bantam tourney, but again, it’s not a fight anyone is demanding. Maybe Antonio Tarver has revived his career at cruiserweight, but who really wants to see him fight Lateef Kayode in May? Or, for that matter, the undercard featuring rising middleweight Peter Quillin against semi-retired Winky Wright? And Robert Guerrero-Selcuk Aydin in June is a good intro for Guerrero to the welterweight division and a potential nice bout, but demand is low. Even last weekend’s undercard fight between Mikey Garcia and fellow featherweight Bernabe Concepcion could encounter the same question — anyone asking for that one?

The Tarver-Kayode fight makes even less sense when you consider that it’s the same night of a truly excellent super middleweight bout between Carl Froch and Lucian Bute. You could look at this and say, “OK, Froch and Bute are foreigners, they have no real record of doing good ratings, and the Showtime super middleweight tournament didn’t do good ratings so it makes sense for them to cut bait on the division despite their investments.” But if that’s the case, why stick with Mares when he, too, hasn’t been a ratings behemoth — especially since Mares-Morel isn’t nearly as appetizing as Froch-Bute? And it’s not as if Tarver-Kayode is a guarantee to do better ratings than Froch-Bute, to say the least.

So what’s behind some of this bad stuff?

Espinoza is a former Golden Boy employee attorney for Golden Boy through the firm Ziffren Brittenham LLP, so there were questions coming in about whether he’d favor Golden Boy. Sticking to just the bigger bouts, the evidence is beginning to accumulate that, indeed, he has. Golden Boy is the promoter of eight of the fighters from this pool, followed by Top Rank at five. That about makes sense, given that Golden Boy and Top Rank are the two biggest promoters in the sport, but there’s enough of an edge from Golden Boy to make you wonder. Take out Top Rank’s promotion of Rigondeaux and it’s eight/four. But of the so-so match-ups above, Golden Boy promotes six of the guys and Top Rank three. In other words, there’s a skew toward Golden Boy, and the tendency is for that to be bad for matchmaking.

But then there’s that Al Haymon guy. Of the bad/so-so match-ups above, Haymon’s fighters are involved in four of them. In fact, among the top fights reviewed here, Haymon advises five of the fighters in question. The next highest manager/advisor, Cameron Dunkin, only has two fighters making it to Showtime. Take the Haymon-advised Ramos out of the equation, and it’s just four.

But this focus on the big fights doesn’t tell the total picture as it pertains to Golden Boy and Haymon at Showtime. If you expand it to some marginal things — smaller ShoBox bouts, or bouts that are likely but not yet finalized at Showtime, Showtime Extreme-televised undercards, or a Mayweather “promoted” card where Golden Boy was the official promoter of record — you add Golden Boy to at least nine more fighters. And Haymon is affiliated with three more fighters. Tracking down the promoter or manager of some of the other obscure fighters in this case wasn’t easy, so I don’t have strong numbers for comparison. But from what I COULD get, Golden Boy goes up to 17; Top Rank goes up to six; and suddenly some smaller promoters begin to factor into things, like Lou DiBella (five) Goossen Tutor (four) and Gary Shaw (five, a decent amount but which was noteworthy for the low number because Shaw used to get a ton of Showtime dates). And there’s no chance any adviser has more fighters represented than the eight represented by Haymon.

In all, we’re talking about a grand total of 24 fighters in these main cards. Of that total, no one promoter or adviser/manager is dominating the schedule or even close to it. And we’re talking about two and a half months worth of boxing, plus a couple more months worth of a half-booked schedule. But based on early returns, esecially when combined with the smaller/unsigned bouts (59 fighters in total), it looks like Golden Boy and Haymon have a leg up at Showtime. So far. Unscientifically.

Golden Boy and Haymon have been involved in some good bouts on Showtime. But they’ve also been responsible for a good number of the bad ones, and that’s troublesome.

For what reason would Showtime favor anyone over anyone else? Well, again, we’re only talking about a limited set of data — maybe the schedule turns around and balances out. We don’t have any hard reporting about why Showtime would skew toward favoring Golden Boy or Haymon. The appearance of things is that the “revolving door” effect has led Espinoza to benefit his former paymaster, Golden Boy. There’s no good explanation of why he would favor Haymon, though. Haymon is affiliated with fighters from a variety of promoters, so it’s not at all like Golden Boy = Haymon. Some of the traditional explanations of why Haymon is influential overall don’t hold here; as the adviser to Floyd Mayweather, Jr., the argument goes, Haymon has wielded leverage with HBO with his other fighters because there’s always the threat that he could take cash cow Mayweather elsewhere. But Mayweather’s next fight is on HBO pay-per-view. I suppose you could look at this as Showtime currying favor with Haymon in an attempt to steal Mayweather’s next fight after that, but it’s a risky gambit, if true. I suppose the usual explanations of why any network would favor a specific promoter could apply, i.e. that it’s easier to deal with one promoter/manager than another. And I suspect we’ll get some conspiratorial notions about backroom corruption or something, because that’s what a lot of people think of Haymon as it is.

I was open-minded to the posibility, although not optimistic, that Espinoza wouldn’t lean so favorably told Golden Boy. Pessimism looks like the correct take, so far. I was skeptical about claims that the new leadership at Showtime would be so inclined toward Haymon. As it happens, it looks like that speculation has proven to be the case. Nothing about what I’m saying here invalidates anything I’ve said in the past two years about how Haymon’s influence at HBO had been overstated by boxing media and fans for quite some time. Nor does it overrule anything I said about how Haymon’s fighters were matched or paid over that period of time, compared to how other manager’s fighters were matched or paid. New evidence demands new analysis; new evidence about new circumstances doesn’t suddenly apply retroactively to old circumstances. But however it’s happened, Haymon’s influence is showing strong signs of being mighty at Showtime — to the detriment of the network’s programming.

The Institution

One change at the network in 2012 that’s been for the better is that Showtime Extreme is airing more undercard bouts for regular Showtime boxing programming. Some of these fights won’t be thrilling, or particularly important, or even competitive. But more options for viewing boxing on television is always, always a good thing. And so far, we’ve gotten some good things out of this innovation. Take the first installment: Heavyweight Chris Arreola’s one-round war with Eric Molina was a lot of fun; heavyweight Malik Scott was something of a revelation in his return to action against Kendrick Releford; and middleweight Justin Williams pulled off an impressive upset of Alfonso Lopez. So far, so good.

The delay of Victor Ortiz-Andre Berto II to this summer also delayed Showtime’s plans to air a Fight Camp 360 documentary series with it, but it’s a worthwhile investment. Fight Camp 360 is an excellent product, and Ortiz is so weird and goofy and interesting that he alone will guarantee entertainment of some sort when the series finally airs. If Showtime used Fight Camp 360 fairly regularly going forward, that would be a nice development.

The on-air product has changed slightly. Showtime has added an unofficial ringside scorer in Chuck Giampa, which is a smart idea in theory, because Giampa is an insightful and experienced former judge, but so far Giampa has had real trouble mastering this broadcasting thing. Real trouble. It’s not just his curse-laden debut due to technical difficulties; mid-fight, when the broadcast team turns to him, he often stammers and struggles to offer insight. Maybe he’ll get the hang of it, though. Another innovation has been to air fans’ tweets at the bottom of the screen. It can be a little distracting at times, but overall I like it — fans having a voice is a positive, and for those who don’t already spend much time on Twitter watching fan feedback, it’s a broader way of getting that to them.

Impressively, Showtime demonstrated by outbidding HBO for Ortiz-Berto II that it not only could, but would compete with its bigger rival for programming it really wants. And so far as that goes, Ortiz-Berto II was a pretty want-able product. The first meeting was a Fight of the Year candidate. Even though it benefited from a free preview weekend, it also did big ratings. And Ortiz now has a higher profile coming off his fight with Mayweather (if a somewhat more dubious profile, considering his dumb antics in that fight). Showtime spent $2.25 million to outbid HBO’s $2.15 million for the fight, and unless we later discover that Showtime blew its budget on that one bout, it will probably turn out to be money well-spent. Outside of that, we don’t have much data yet about how much Showtime is paying for individual fights. Wise use of resources is essential to the product: If Showtime uses too much of its budget on terrible fights, we, the viewers, are less likely to get fights we want when they become available.

The one extra-serious negative institutional trend here is that ShoBox has gotten off to a horrible start in 2012. ShoBox used to be the steadiest bit of boxing programming you could find. Young boxers would be tested in especially stern match-ups; those who lost were exposed as pretenders, and those who won survived a trial by fire that would steel them for future success. Instead, ShoBox this year — so far, and in future meetings — has featured far too many mismatches (Randy Caballero this coming weekend), steps backward (Jessie Vargas’ bout) and the occasional “Huh?”  (over-the-hill middleweight Jermain Taylor making his second consecutive appearance on the program [the first was in 2011, under the previous regime]). ShoBox needs to shape up in its matchmaking and do it quickly. Otherwise, the name brand will lose its luster.

Stated Philosophy

We’ll conclude with an examination of things Espinoza has said he plans to do, and how much that matches up with what he’s actually done, and whether any of it’s savvy or possible. The overall tenor from Espinoza is solid, but some of what he said is… problematic.

In an interview with Ring:

–He said the network needed to do a better job of making televised boxing more like attending a boxing match in person. I wish him luck on this; live boxing is pretty amazing, and it would be hard to replicate. He offered no specific on how that might happen.

–He said CBS would be more active in promoting Showtime’s boxing programming. This, too, would be a welcome development. Boxing always needs more mainstream exposure, and while CBS wasn’t as involved as I would’ve liked in Manny Pacquiao-Shane Mosley, its involvement was likely only to have helped.

–He said he plans to continue the tournaments that Showtime innovated in recent years, but sounded more like he was interested in the shorter bantamweight tournament than the longer, round-robin super middleweight tournament. I get this; I personally really enjoyed the Super Six, but it took a lot of time and resources and there was no real major ratings payoff. The problem is, it’s harder to build the storylines Espinoza talked about in a shorter tournament. Either way, I like tourneys and more of them is something I, at least, look forward to seeing.

–He said he would “do his best” not to cannibalize dates when competing with HBO. I sure hope he means it. DVRs and TiVos and the like have made this less of a problem than it once was, but not everyone has those options, so competing cards are only destructive. Of course, some of that will be up to HBO.

–He talked about wanting to do more long-term planning, say a year out, with fighters and promoters. That sounds intelligent, but when he elaborated, it sounded like he was endorsing multi-fight deals with those fighters and promoters, and that rarely if ever works out for the best from a standpoint of matchmaking.

In an interview with ESPN:

–He said OK, maybe multi-fight deals. Ugh.

–He explained why he passed on Bute-Froch. And the reason, he said, was that he wanted Bute to face the winner of the Super Six tournament, Andre Ward. That, of course, is not what Froch’s promoter said — the claim was made that Showtime offered Andre Dirrell, then advised by Haymon. Huh. Anyway, passing on Bute-Froch ensured Showtime would retain the rights to Bute-Ward if it does come to fruition, since Showtime is only guaranteed to get one more fight out of Bute thanks to the multi-fight deal they signed with him. Which is a viable explanation, in a void away from what Froch’s promoter alleged. (If true: See how these multi-fight deals affect things for the worst, Stephen?)

–He denied favoring Golden Boy or Haymon, saying he only wanted the best programming. The track record, though, as laid out above, is not convincing on that point.

In an interview with Maxboxing:

–He defended his non-Golden Boy favoritism by pointing out that, in one upcoming stretch, he was working with a bunch of different promoters. Technically true. Not reflective of the big picture.

–He said he would respect the fighters’ needs, citing as an example how after a card involving Cloud got canceled, he got Cloud back on the network as soon as he could. This is an honorable thing to do. From a business standpoint, you hope it pays off for him so that fighters will be loyal to the network when HBO makes a higher bid. Hope.

–He said he wouldn’t necessarily look only at ratings when deciding which fights to air, but which fights were most likely to satisfy customers. This was an interesting thing for him to say. Ratings matter, of course. But those who think a pay channel like Showtime or HBO should primarily or only care about ratings, well, they’re not understanding the business model.

About Tim Starks

Tim is the founder of The Queensberry Rules and co-founder of The Transnational Boxing Rankings Board (http://www.tbrb.org). He lives in Washington, D.C. He has written for the Guardian, Economist, New Republic, Chicago Tribune and more.