Sugar Ray Leonard, Stephen Espinoza agree NBC deal is great for boxing

Kevin Iole
Boxing
Boxing legend Sugar Ray Leonard waves during a news conference in New York, Wednesday, Jan. 14, 2015. NBC plans to air boxing matches on broadcast television beginning with an event on March 7, 2015. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

Boxing returns to prime-time network television on NBC

Boxing legend Sugar Ray Leonard waves during a news conference in New York, Wednesday, Jan. 14, 2015. NBC plans to air boxing matches on broadcast television beginning with an event on March 7, 2015. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

Sugar Ray Leonard became one of the most popular athletes in the world, not just in boxing, in large part because he so frequently fought on network television.

Leonard, who on Wednesday was named the blow-by-blow analyst for the new Premier Boxing Champions series that will air on NBC and NBC Sports Network, said he expects the series to have a similar impact on today's fighers.

NBC and Premier Boxing announced three fights at Wednesday's New York news conference. Robert Guerrero will face Keith Thurman and Adrien Broner will meet John Molina on March 7 at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas. On April 11, Danny Garcia will square off with Lamont Peterson.

Leonard said some, or all of them, could become stars as a result of their participation. The fighters are expected to compete three to four times a year on the Premier Boxing Champions series.

"It's going to have a major impact upon their lives," the International Boxing Hall of Fame member told Yahoo Sports. "They will see right away a difference from being on network TV in prime time. People are going to recognize them everywhere they go. This is the best thing that could happen to their careers. I lived this and I know."

Stephen Espinoza of Showtime Sports. (Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports)
Stephen Espinoza of Showtime Sports. (Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports)

Surprisingly, one of those who agrees with him is Stephen Espinoza, the executive vice president and general manager of Showtime Sports. On the surface, Espinoza and Showtime were the biggest losers in the NBC deal because most of the fighters who are going to appear on NBC had been working with Showtime.

But Espinoza insisted it was a net positive for his company and said the fighters are going to appear again on Showtime. Having appeared on NBC before a significantly larger audience will make them bigger than they were previously, and that will be to Showtime's advantage.

"I'm thrilled about the deal and I think it's a tremendous opportunity, not just for those individual boxers but for the sport overall," Espinoza said. "None of this came as any surprise to us. We were consulted about the fights that were announced [Wednesday] and we were given the opportunity to retain them for Showtime. But we encouraged them to go to NBC.

"What we're trying to do here is build for the long-term in this sport. We don't want to worry about one or two good fights. We want the sport to be healthy and the fighters will get huge fan bases. That will just benefit us when the boxers come back to us in the very near future."

Espinoza, who said he's on the verge of making several big fight announcements, also said he's confident in the depth of his roster.

And so while the likes of Broner, Garcia, Thurman and Guerrero may fight less frequently on Showtime as a result of their commitment to NBC, he believs there are still plenty of great fights to be broadcast.

The 2014 Yahoo Sports Fight of the Year between Orlando Salido and Terdsak Kokietgym was not shown on English language TV in the U.S. and wasn't promoted by a major U.S. promoter. Nor was ESPN.com's Fight of the Year, a strawweight battle between Francisco Rodriguez and Katsunari Takayama that was Yahoo's No. 2 choice.

"I would be concerned about losing individual fights if we didn't have such a deep roster of young stars," Espinoza said. "The cupboard is far from bare. It's going to become apparent very quickly that there is still a deep stable left here. Between now and when we get Broner back, and Garcia and Thurman and Guerrero back in the very near future, we have plenty of guys, from [Amir] Khan to [Marcos] Maidana to potentially [Lucas] Matthysse and even the younger guys who are going to provide some really exciting fights."

Espinoza said there is an untapped market of fighters who compete mostly in Latin America that are available. And he mentioned women's boxing as a possibility on Showtime.

"I've been wanting to do women's fights for well over a year and haven't had the capacity to fully explore it," Espinoza said. "So if this loosens up things and we can explore some of these things that have been on our to-do list for a while, it's another positive."

Boxing legends Sugar Ray Leonard, left, Roberto Duran, center, and Thomas Hearns joke around while posing for pictures during a news conference in New York, Wednesday, Jan. 14, 2015. NBC plans to air boxing matches on broadcast television beginning with an event on March 7, 2015. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)
Boxing legends Sugar Ray Leonard, left, Roberto Duran, center, and Thomas Hearns joke around while posing for pictures during a news conference in New York, Wednesday, Jan. 14, 2015. NBC plans to air boxing matches on broadcast television beginning with an event on March 7, 2015. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

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