Showtime winds down busy year in fight space

By Adam Stern

As Stephen Espinoza sat ringside in Las Vegas this month during the Canelo Alvarez-Caleb Plant fight, he cheekily tweeted praise of Dana White, who was pictured across the country watching the boxing bout while at his UFC event in New York City.


“Smart man,” Espinoza, the president of Showtime Sports, quipped about White, the UFC president.

While UFC might be the most buzzworthy property in combat sports at the moment and is aligned with ESPN, ViacomCBS-owned Showtime has remained heavily active in the fighting space at a time when some of its competitors have dialed back. It’s on track to air 44 fighting events in 2021, the second most in its history in a single year. The record is 48 live events in 2011.

Espinoza, who has been with Showtime since 2011, has invested more heavily in Showtime’s longtime presence in traditional boxing as well as adding Bellator MMA fights and novelty boxing matches with Jake Paul.

Espinoza says the network has the business results to show that it’s been a smart strategy to spend more in the space, with its reunion with Alvarez being the latest example. The Alvarez-Plant fight on Nov. 6 at the MGM Grand Garden Arena generated a gate of around $18 million and sold 800,000 pay-per-view units in the U.S., according to sources. At $79.99 a unit, the fight earned around $64 million in PPV revenue.

Alvarez was reportedly paid $40 million while Plant received $10 million, but with overall revenue of at least $80 million, the network appears to have pulled a profit.

This was Showtime’s first time working with Alvarez since 2014, and it was a one-fight deal that Espinoza now hopes to extend for another bout. “From ticket sales, to sponsorship, to domestic pay-per-view and international sales, we couldn’t be happier with the results,” Espinoza said last week.

Espinoza said a perfect storm led to Showtime airing so many fights this year. The pandemic created a backlog of fights in 2020, so fans were ready to see a heavy dose of action in 2021. Showtime also saw an opportunity to snap up more rights as other networks de-emphasized boxing.

“The sport of boxing works for our business,” Espinoza said. “It works for our audience, drives subscriptions and creates business opportunities, so it made sense for us to delve further into that investment and we’re seeing the returns of it across the network.”

Showtime still has a handful of big fights left this year, including one Dec. 5 with Floyd Mayweather’s protégé, Gervonta Davis, as well as an event that will be headlined by Paul fighting Tommy Fury, the half brother of WBC heavyweight champion Tyson Fury. That novelty event, which will be Dec. 18 at Amalie Arena, also will feature a fight between former NBA player Deron Williams and former NFL player Frank Gore.

Espinoza acknowledged that boxing still has flaws to work through – many feel it’s too hard to keep track of, with dozens of belts and champions and no singular organization running the sport. But Espinoza believes Showtime’s long history in, and know-how of, the sport has allowed it to keep succeeding anyway.

“Some come into the sport seeing it as an opportunity for filler content or to put it on a streaming platform and are getting in without a full understanding of how it works, who their audience is and how to market and feed that audience; that’s one advantage we have,” Espinoza said. “We have an understanding and commitment and a lot of patience and thick skin because there are a lot of challenges, egos and financial considerations from different stakeholders in the sport.”

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