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Showtime Gets Game Face On

Showtime's scripted department is pumping out hits such as Homeland and House of Lies to critical acclaim that gobble up more viewers each week. And in a winning and competitive statement that complements his position, Stephen Espinoza, the network's recently installed executive VP and general manager of sports and event programing, doesn't want his department to ride their coattails.

"With the momentum that the entire network has gotten, particularly the scripted side that's incredibly successful, I need to make sure our sports programming is keeping pace," says Espinoza.

Espinoza credits the network's "insider" strategy in sports programming as a giant plus. Showtime's reality boxing series, Fight Camp 360, features no narration or predetermined story lines, preferring to tell the story through the boxers' voices. "There's nothing artificial about it," says Espinoza. And the series Inside NASCAR features a segment called "Inside Wire" that offers uncensored intercom interactions between a driver and his crew. "We come at [sports programming] in a slightly different way that resonates with our audience," Espinoza says

With series like Inside the NFL, Inside NASCAR and The Franchise to go along with boxing and mixed martial arts programming, Showtime has cemented its place in premium cable sports, boasting five major franchises. "It is the deepest and broadest slate of programming, certainly of any premium network," says Espinoza, who knows that even with all of that, there is room for more.

"Whether it's other franchises or other personalities, one thing that's clear is that there is an insatiable appetite for sports programming," he says.

Earlier this month, longtime ESPN personality Jim Rome, who hosted his popular Rome Is Burning for the past eight years, left the sports network for CBS. Aside from hosting a new weekday show on the CBS Sports Network, Rome will also be hosting a series on Showtime, which promises to be about more than Rome riffing on the day's hot sports topics.

The exact format for the series is undetermined, and Espinoza says Showtime and Rome will be "in the lab" for the next few months.

"He's such a distinctive and iconic voice, with strong, compelling opinions," says Espinoza. "There's no risk there."

One of Espinoza's first deals as head of Showtime Sports was the new agreement reached with MMA outfit Strikeforce, which Espinoza describes as a "very complex and delicate negotiation" with UFC (which owns Strikeforce). But by the time a deal was struck, UFC president Dana White remarked, "I never thought I would say this, but I am very much looking forward to building Strikeforce and working very closely with Showtime." Espinoza adds that Showtime has "a soft spot in our heart for them."

A communications major at Stanford, Espinoza initially wanted to go into sportscasting. Admitting that after graduation he got "a little sidetracked," he moved to Los Angeles, where he got a job working for super-agent Leigh Steinberg, and stayed for three years. Choosing to stick with the agent path, Espinoza enrolled at UCLA's School of Law. "Leigh only hired attorneys," says Espinoza. "[His agency] is structured as a law firm." He calls working with Steinberg "a great experience."

Although he represented athletes, Espinoza says that the majority of his legal career was on the entertainment side. In 2002, Espinoza went to the firm of Ziffren Brittenham, where he eventually made partner. At the firm, he represented athletes such as boxers Oscar De La Hoya and Mike Tyson. Espinoza also served as lead counsel for De La Hoya's Golden Boy Promotions after the formation of the company.

While he enjoyed the agent life, the position caused a lot of wear and tear. "The lifestyle of being a sports agent is difficult," says Espinoza. "Everything that was fun and exciting when you're 25 is miserable at 35 and 45." However, up until last November, he didn't really figure on moving to something else.

A mere eight days after meeting with Matt Blank, chairman and CEO of Showtime Networks, Espinoza was signing a contract. "Once I sat down with Matt, even though I'd never met [him] before, I found out we spoke the same language," says Espinoza. "We talked the ‘TV' language."

Blank, for his part, couldn't help but agree. "Stephen has had a great career that spans sports, entertainment, television and film," he said in his statement announcing the hire, adding that Espinoza has a "deep experience in a variety of fields and incredible knowledge and contacts within the boxing and mixed martial arts communities."

Among many other things, Espinoza is working to improve one aspect of programming where Showtime has been lagging: documentaries. HBO has been pumping out sports docs for years, and fresh off the heels of its successful 30 for 30 series, ESPN created its ESPN Films series. In late December, Showtime debuted Game of Honor, which took an inside look at the Army-Navy football game.

"Documentaries is something we want to get more active in," says Espinoza, saying that Game of Honor was hopefully the "first step in a series of meaningful, high-quality documentaries."

Though Espinoza describes his first few months at Showtime as a "whirlwind," he is enjoying the new opportunity. "I haven't had a second thought for any moment."

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