Facing fierce competition even with HBO's boxing exit, Showtime remains committed to the fight game

Kevin IoleCombat columnist
Yahoo Sports
Floyd Mayweather Jr. (L) and Stephen Espinoza have helped grow Showtime’s boxing audience. (Getty Images)
Floyd Mayweather Jr. (L) and Stephen Espinoza have helped grow Showtime’s boxing audience. (Getty Images)

HBO’s decision last week to leave the business notwithstanding, this is probably a golden age for American boxing fans. There are more fights, including more significant matches, available on television and streaming services, then ever before.

Showtime, which since signing Floyd Mayweather Jr. away from HBO in 2013 has stormed from the back of the pack to become the leader in televised boxing in the U.S., has no plans to back off.

Its competition is as fierce as it has ever been. For much of the past 30 years, Showtime’s primary competition was HBO, which had a subscriber advantage over Showtime that measured in the single-digit millions during that period.

Now, while it is no longer competing against HBO, it must compete against ESPN, which is available in more than three times as many households. And it is doing battle with Fox, one of the giants in the land of television broadcasting which is available in over 100 million homes.

In addition to that, ESPN and DAZN both have streaming services which are competing aggressively for fighters.

Les Moonves, the former chairman and CEO of CBS, was a huge backer of Showtime’s boxing initiatives, but the premium cable network’s commitment to the sport won’t decrease even though Moonves resigned.

“The reality is that we remain very committed to boxing,” said Stephen Espinoza, the president of Showtime Sports. “That’s certainly because we have a long history in the sport and we’re fans of the sport, but it’s primarily for business reasons.

“It drives our business and it is popular with our viewers. That point has been proven time and time again, certainly for as long as I’ve been here and for many years before that and it hasn’t changed. If anything, our numbers are showing that the sport is becoming more popular and is gaining more momentum. We’ve seen a rise in enthusiasm.”

Part of that is because of its deal with Mayweather, Espinoza signed. When Showtime landed Mayweather in 2013, the undefeated champion was only days shy of his 36th birthday. But Showtime discovered that Mayweather resonated with a very young audience and many of them followed him to Showtime.

While Mayweather’s fights were all on pay-per-view, and not on regular Showtime, his shoulder programming was and his promotional company did fights on the network. In addition, Showtime made him a centerpiece in much of what it did.

“What we saw in the latter stages of Floyd’s career is that he continued to draw his original fans, who sort of grew up with him during his career,” Espinoza said. “But because of his social media presence and his persona and the social groups he hung out with, he attracted a second younger generation that loved the spectacle and loved the social media presence he had. They were drawn to the sport through him.”

In explaining HBO’s decision to walk away from boxing starting next year, Peter Nelson, its executive vice president of sports, told Yahoo Sports, “We’ve had consistent audience research that indicates boxing was no longer a factor for our subscribers.”

Showtime’s data shows differently.

A 2018 tracking study it commissioned showed that 29 percent of respondents said boxing was “very important” to continue subscribing to premium cable and 54 percent considered it “important” to “very important.” In addition, 90 percent perceived Showtime boxing favorably.

Showtime’s average boxing audience is significantly more male and more diverse than the network’s average prime time audience composition. Those are people it is desperate to reach.

Showtime and Fox each have a deal with the Premier Boxing Champions for fighters, and Espinoza knows that means that some fights which otherwise would have wound up on Showtime may end up on Fox.

To him, the reach Fox has will make that worth it.

“I do believe there needs to be a free platform for the health of the sport,” he said. “We alone can’t support all of the sport or even the majority of the sport. There has to be multiple networks in the sport. That does mean that occasionally, we’ll probably be a little bit jealous of a big fight that we would have liked that maybe goes to Fox.

“Overall, though, in the long-term view, that builds new viewers. We believe if they become fans of boxing on Fox, they’ll eventually become fans of boxing on Showtime. Competition is generally a good thing and in this specific case, the multiplicity of outlets can only be healthy for the sport.”

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