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 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.

Then Ken Hershman left Showtime to head
up HBO’s sports division. Not long afterward,
Espinoza got a phone call from Jack Tiernan,
an agent friend at Creative Arts Agency, who
asked him if he’d be interested in the Showtime
gig. “Once [Jack] asked me that question,
I thought, ‘Why not?’”

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 “! rst 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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