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Showtime’s Stephen Espinoza looks for sports programming that punches through

Showtime’s Stephen Espinoza looks for sports programming that punches through
Stephen Espinoza, executive vice president and general manager for sports at Showtime Networks, at Title Boxing Club in New York this month. (Jennifer S. Altman / For The Times)

Stephen Espinoza, executive vice president and general manager for sports at Showtime Networks, can often be seen alongside the glitterati who show up at major boxing spectacles.

But he’s never forgotten the first fight that moved him to tears. Watching on a black and white TV screen almost 39 years ago at the El Paso home of his Mexican emigre grandfather, he saw heavyweight legend Muhammad Ali lose a shocking decision to upstart Leon Spinks.

"I think I had my head down and my cousin turned to me and said 'Are you crying?'" Espinoza, 46, recalled during a recent conversation in his Manhattan office. "I didn't have an appreciation that by 1978 Ali wasn't the same Ali. But I had a sense this guy is the hero and here's this loud mouth guy, Spinks, who has seven fights – 'what is he doing?' It was so manifestly unfair the way it happened."

The epic loss gave Espinoza a passion for boxing that would eventually intersect with his career as an entertainment attorney and TV executive — and a feel for the human drama that sports can deliver even after fans know who won.

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While boxing is still the bread and butter of Showtime Sports, Espinoza is rapidly pushing the premium cable channel to expand its sports programming beyond the ring. Showtime is ramping up its documentary slate in an effort to lure — and retain — viewers who have many more options in a fast-changing TV world.

These days, sports fans can watch martial arts, with its fast-paced shorter fights, on a smartphone. Then there are YouTube alternatives such as Dude Perfect, where a group of former Texas A&M students perform extreme sports stunts.

Showtime has to up its game in the face of rising competition at a time when gathering around the TV has become less of a ritual.

"If our sports programming is just a miniature version of a sports network, it's not going to be very satisfying," Espinoza said.  "There has to be a different texture, a different substance, and that's what we're trying to do."

Under Espinoza’s watch, Showtime developed “60 Minutes Sports” in 2013, giving the network CBS News’ resources and its prestigious brand name platform to do investigative reporting (the program recently revealed the depth of the sexual assault scandal at Baylor University).  The channel has also unscripted behind-the-scenes series that give viewers inside access to pro and college teams, this season allowing them to listen in on the conversations in Florida State football Coach Jimbo Fisher’s headset.

"The viewer now expects to be embedded," he said. "We've been with players as they were wheeled into surgery for career- or season-ending injuries."

Espinoza’s next move is stepping up Showtime’s production of original feature-length sports documentaries  — debuting five between November and mid-2017 — starting with “One & Done,” a fly-on-the-wall look at the journey of Philadelphia 76ers rookie forward Ben Simmons. The film chronicles the Australian basketball phenom’s mandatory year playing at Louisiana State University before his inevitable move to the pro league.

“One & Done” is far from being a paean to the American spirit of amateurism, as Simmons is seen skipping classes while counting off the days to his big NBA contract. While the NCAA may not appreciate that attitude, fans now demand candor and authenticity from their sports heroes.

"Our goal is not to whitewash it or to criticize anybody," Espinoza said. "What institutions like the NCAA and the NFL have realized is you can't control the message anymore. This is going to get out there."

Espinoza said he wants films that will be as buzz-worthy as Showtime's hit scripted series such as "Homeland," "The Affair" and "Billions,"  which viewers seek out to watch live, on demand or online thanks to the channel's fast growing over-the-top business. While it still trails industry leader HBO in subscribers, Showtime's programming push has led to sustained growth in recent years, contributing to a 14% increase in cable revenue to $598 million for parent company CBS in its most recent quarterly earnings.

Showtime executives would not reveal how much they are investing in sport documentaries, but the programs' value is clear. Unlike live sports, documentaries have a shelf life and can keep contributing to Showtime's revenue well after the initial investment — typically in the high-six-figure to $1-million range — is made in producing or acquiring the rights to the films.

"Sports fans love classic stories to be told," said Lee Berke, president of LHB Sports, Entertainment & Media. "They love history and great emotional moments and they want to re-live them again and again. From an economic standpoint they are relatively inexpensive."

The formula has long worked for ESPN, which earned sustained praise for its recent 10-hour series "O.J.:  Made in America," and for HBO. (Ross Greenburg, the former HBO Sports president regarded as the godfather of the sports documentary genre, is now making films for Espinoza).

Espinoza wants Showtime's films to evoke more than nostalgic pangs. He has added topical projects to his slate, including such films as "Freedom Fighters," which reveals a stunning practice in Thailand where convicted criminals can train and compete in boxing matches that can lead to early release from prison.

"People may ask why do you need sports at a premium network like Showtime?" he said. "The simple answer to that it's just another form of storytelling."

Espinoza's rise to his job at Showtime is a compelling narrative of its own. The grandfather who introduced him to boxing (and the Dallas Cowboys, thanks to an allegiance to the team's Mexican-born kicker Raphael Septian) was an undocumented immigrant who was deported several times before gaining legal status and becoming a welder for the Army.

Espinoza's mother was raising her two sons alone when she enrolled at the University of New Mexico School of Law in the early 1980s. She was unable to afford childcare, so Espinoza and his younger brother became campus fixtures as they accompanied her to the library and lectures.

"There were times when we were doing our schoolwork in the back in the class while my mom was listening to a lecture and taking notes," Espinoza recalled.

After earning her law degree, Espinoza's mother did pro bono work to improve the employment conditions of migrant workers. She also inspired her son to attend Stanford Law School.

He had been practicing at an entertainment law firm for five years when one of the firm's partners, Bert Fields, dropped several phone book-sized legal files on his desk and told him "You're now representing Oscar De La Hoya." Espinoza became a key member of the legal team that enabled De La Hoya to take control of his career and become the promoter of his own fights. At his next firm, former heavyweight champion Mike Tyson was added to his roster.

"Other attorneys saw me as a way to get some of the more challenging clients off their desks," he said.

But Espinoza's cool demeanor turned out to be well suited for a sport known for its volatile participants. Between representing De La Hoya and five years at Showtime, Espinoza played a role in the top five grossing pay-per-view fights of all time, including the $600-million pot generated by last year's Floyd Mayweather-Manny Pacquio bout. A 12-foot-long panoramic photo from that event at the MGM Grand hangs on the wall above his desk.

Boxing promoter Richard Schaefer, who has been friends with Espinoza for more than a decade, said the executive's experience of growing up in a border town where he saw the struggles of immigrants inside and outside his family probably made him empathetic to the hardscrabble backgrounds of many fighters, enabling him to gain their trust.

"His calmness comes in very handy when you're dealing in the world of boxing, which in a way is dealing with the Wild West," Schaefer said.

Espinoza once had to talk down a fighter who was unhappy over his purse and threatened to eat a steak dinner so he would fail to make his weight requirement for a De La Hoya fight. Advising Tyson could also be a "roller coaster," he noted, recalling his stunned reaction when the fighter got a face tattoo just days before entering the ring with Clifford Etienne in 2003.

"Mike's reaction was, 'what's the big deal?' " Espinoza recalled. "He genuinely thought we were upset about how it looked aesthetically."

Even as Espinoza tries to broaden Showtime's sports program lineup, he's still committed to boxing at a time when his network's chief competitor, HBO, has shown signs of pulling back.  The sport remains a big draw for Showtime customers – 30% of them say it's a factor in subscribing to the service.

“If you got to Vegas or the Barclays Center or the Staples Center or the Forum for a big fight, it’s not an old crowd,” he said. “It’s a multiethnic, multigenerational crowd — in many ways what sponsors are going to be chasing for the next 20 years, given the demographic shifts that are going on in our country.”

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Twitter: @SteveBattaglio

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