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Showtime’s Stephen Espinoza On Living During Lockdown, Dana White’s Recent Conduct

Michael Woods

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He lives downtown, the Battery Park area, and he’s been outside twice in four weeks. 

The Showtime sports boss, Stephen Espinoza is adapting to the coronavirus incursion into the state, it sounds like, as well as can be.

His live-in galpal has an auto-immune issue, so, he told me during a mid-week chat, he doesn’t want to take any chances on a random viral globule glomming onto him while tracking down groceries, or the like.

So, he has time to think. Of course, he makes rounds of calls, discusses what Showtime has cooking to keep their boxing-centric subscribers happy, and digs into Netflix, catches up on his reading. 

Espinoza is a deliberate sort anyway, regarding his business style, and he’s the same way in interacting with media. He’s not a blurter, or combustible, but temperamentally is easy-going. So, we got into a range of topics, starting with the most obvious, that being “this world” during this “interesting” time. 

I was curious, how does he see things playing out…what are the ramifications of this shutdown, in boxing and beyond?

“Every day, we’re learning more about about the virus and its transmission and figuring out what’s effective and what’s not and for that reason,” said the Texas native, who started out as an attorney, getting into the entertainment side, and then nichified even more, into boxing.

Showtime head of sports Stephen Espinoza talked about coronavirus and the need to be a selfless citizen during this difficult period.

“I don’t think anybody can really reliably tell the future and that’s the difficult part right now. Not just for the sport of boxing but life, business, the economy has never been in the scenario, where there’s a complete shutdown with no end in sight. No one knows when things are going to get back to normal. And that’s the most difficult type of uncertainty to deal with now in terms of boxing. What will normal look like? Will it necessarily look like what normal looked like before? You know, there’s some people who think that this is really going to break the backs of movie theaters, is this going to really turn people towards staying at home?”

And what about boxing? Lou DiBella thinks we will take longer to come back than most, because we need to have ambulances at events and docs have to do medicals, so that might put us back. Larry Merchant told me he thinks our independent status could help boxing get back on its feet quicker, because we aren’t constrained in the same way the different leagues are.

“So, you know the question from economic and sociological standpoint is, will one of these habits is going to carry over for the sport of boxing,” Espinoza continued. “You know, what we don’t want is people deciding, ‘Well, you know what, actually, life is ok without the sport.’

Absence might not make the heart grow fonder, so Showtime is going into the archives, and re-introducing classic fights to old fans...and maybe grabbing new ones.

Absence might not make the heart grow fonder, so Showtime is going into the archives, and re-introducing classic fights to old fans…and maybe grabbing new ones. Ever Friday, watch a classic..Easy to do, Sho has a free trial going.

 

He mulls, and wonders whether people will want to go to the big arena, and cluster?

“You and I are here in the epicenter, Manhattan and you’re in Brooklyn, correct, right? So we’re probably a little bit more sensitive than you know, the rest of the people around the country are to this unless you’ve had a loved one who has tested positive? You know, the real question is what about the psychological damage. Let’s just say, it’s three months, six months, nine months, a year. We get the green light to start to return to normal and people say, ‘I’m not sure I want to go to the Garden with 20,000 other people, I think I’ll just watch the game at home.’ That can go for any sport. So the real question is, you know, when we’re back will psychological scars slow people down from doing the things that we’re doing or is it just going to return to normal?

“I’m probably more engaged in more existential questions, you know, how do we get to that point where we’re having fights? You know, what is the future of live sports, live sports on TV? Are we getting back into having crowds?

“You know, there was a statement by one of the public health officers in California saying in his view he didn’t expect that there would be sports back before September…What’s going to change during this period and not just how to make it through financially and health-wise, but what’s going to change, if I was in the venue business, or the team business, I’d be thinking about that. Well, what does what does the stadium look like? What does an arena look like, are we going to be serving the food differently, or we going to be seating people differently? You know, I think there’s going to be a lot more focus on on hygiene and hand washing and things like that. How do you make that adjustment so you don’t have lines out the door of every bathroom? So I think now is the time for us to be asking what will the sport look like? What should it look like? Are we going to be in a scenario where consumer behavior fundamentally changes? When are people going to be comfortable going back into movie theaters or are we seeing the end of movie theaters, maybe we’re going to see the rise again of drive-in movie theaters. These are the kinds of things that all of us I think can lose sleep thinking about.”

We talked about current events, about how Dana White was wanting to go ahead with UFC 249, on April 18.

I didn’t pretend, I made clear I haven’t been impressed with some of White’s behavior of late, railing against media, acting like a bully, trying to buck the trend of social distancing and being first to get back to market. (We talked before ESPN and Disney bosses told White to chill.)

People know the phrase, the concept, about how adversity reveals character, we touched on that.

“I think when you’re in times of stress, of unpleasantness, you find out people’s true character and you know where their priorities are,” Espinoza said.

Talking White, basically, Espinoza touched on a choice Dana had as he pondered trying to get his show rolling again.

“You can be community-minded versus selfish versus self-interested versus, you know, considerate of others and that’s really what we’re talking about here. No one’s happy at home, there’s not anyone who wouldn’t love to return to normal. Right?”

You five times a day probably want to bolt and get out and about, but you don’t, because you realize we all need to get on the same page, stay at home, chill, go a little crazy in solitary, maybe, but we have to sacrifice for a greater good. 

“We’re all making this choice for the good of the community and it’ll probably slow down the spread,” Espinoza continued. “So yes, that requires some sacrifices and if people start saying look, ‘I’m not willing to sacrifice for the health of the community, for the greater health of the society at large, so I’m going to play a pickup basketball game. ‘I need to see my ma.’ You know, ‘I’m going to you know, go see the the docking of the Comfort when it pulls into New York City,’ that’s that’s the kind of thing where you sort of see, OK, I understand where people are are coming from.”

White is right there with President Trump, eager (overly so?) to get back to “normal.” Doesn’t seem like anyone in boxing is in that same mode. Does Espinoza agree?  “I think so,” he said.  “I can’t really think of anybody….I mean certainly fighters and fans and the sport are anxious to get back. But I don’t see anyone really pushing to say, let’s really push the envelope, on getting back and doing things more aggressively than other sports leagues or business in general are doing. I think for once boxing is on the the side of common sense.”

Espinoza really wasn’t buying it that White was trying to portray it like he wanted to get the show on track for the people, for all those cooped up in homes.

The spin of, “This will help people feel better. But nothing is going to make people feel better. You know, we’ve got countless millions of people out of a job, the worst economy arguably since the Great Depression and you’ve got all kinds of threats to people’s health,” Espinoza continued. “There’s nothing that boxing can do or other sports can do that’s going to be anything other than sort of a minor distraction. So, it really bothers me when people say, ‘it’s going to help us heal and get everything back to normal.’

White told ESPN he wanted to get the fights going so people don’t get too stir crazy on lockdown.

“No, it’s not when you get six or seven hundred people dying a day in New York State, having a game on is not going to be a distraction, is not going to make people feel better. That’s the rationalization by somebody who wants something to happen is going to come up with a reason to do it,” said Espinoza. “But there’s nothing that’s going to make this better other than a return to normalcy and safety, not from one game or one fight.”

Editor/publisher Michael Woods became addicted to boxing in 1990, when Buster Douglas shocked the world with his demolition of the fearsome Mike Tyson. The Brooklyn-based journalist Woods has covered the sport since then, for ESPN The Magazine, ESPN.com, ESPN New York, RING, and he was editor of TheSweetScience.com from 2007-2015. Woods is also an accomplished blow by blow and color man, having done work for Top Rank, DiBella Entertainment, EPIX, and numerous other organizations.

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