Showtime Takes Sports Seriously in its Play for Subscribers

Showtime Sports Mayweather
Tom Casino/SHOWTIME

To a casual observer, there seems to be little resemblance between such tony Showtime series as “Homeland” and “The Affair” and the network’s boxing, sports documentaries and other such offerings.

But to Showtime’s programming team, the connection is clear.

“Thematically and strategically, our sports (shows are) modeled off our series and entertainment programming. We’re looking for high-quality, high-impact, provocative stories,” says Showtime’s executive VP and general manager of sports and event programming, Stephen Espinoza.

For Showtime, Espinoza says, sports is about narrative and character every bit as much as series and feature films are. “So we are looking for provocative stories, compelling personalities and exclusive, premium access,” he says.

Those principles are in evidence across the net’s lineup. On pay-per-view, Showtime is in the middle of a six-fight deal with Floyd Mayweather Jr., whom Showtime topper David Nevins calls the best boxer in the world (as do many boxing experts). Monthly series “Jim Rome” features the smack-talking radio host as he interviews major sports personalities. Upcoming documentary “Kobe Bryant’s Muse” promises to take an unprecedented deep dive into the mind of the Lakers star.

Compelling personalities? Check. So too, provocative, attention-grabbing stories: “60 Minute Sports” has featured hard-hitting segments, including a damning Lance Armstrong report that helped lead to the cyclist’s downfall. Documentary “LT: The Life & Times,” a warts-and-all look at the former New York Giants star, shocked many fans.

For Showtime Sports, says Nevins, “Success is usually some combination of ratings and talk in the wider culture.” Even though the net doesn’t sell commercial time, it carefully watches ratings and demos for their programs.

For example, Espinoza notes that boxing auds on Showtime are heavily male, slightly younger, and slightly more ethnic than the general network. “When we look at the programming of the network as a whole,” he says, “it looks like a mosaic, where each of the different elements in a quarter, or in a programming year, can bring in a different segment of the audience.” Sports helps fill gaps.

But most of all, Showtime wants attention-grabbing programs. Some have been brought to the network from elsewhere, like “Inside the NFL,” which moved from HBO to Showtime in 2008. Rome was ensconced at ESPN before he was lured to join CBS Sports’ fledgling radio network in 2012. The deal also put him on Showtime.

“Across the company, we’re very proud that we cross-pollinate our talent very effectively across all the sports platforms,” says Espinoza. That extends from Rome to boxing commentators to “Inside the NFL” personalities such as Phil Simms.

During NFL games on CBS, Simms mostly has to stay focused on the action, but on Showtime, he enjoys the freedom to talk about whatever’s on his mind.

“At ‘Inside the NFL,’ I hear them say all the time: ‘Let’s educate ’em a little, but let’s entertain.’ ” says Simms. “In other words we can have fun and be a little more loose.”

Nevins himself is a sports fan, and says he enjoys the “jocular camaraderie” of “Inside the NFL.” That camaraderie means everyone on air must be ready to be embarrassed in front of the cameras — Simms good-naturedly calls it being “stabbed in the back.” Producers will eavesdrop on the analysts’ dressing room conversations in search of topics they can spring on them later.

While the execs talk about ratings and buzz, Showtime Sports also generates considerable direct revenue. It’s been very successful with pay-per-view, especially the Mayweather fights. His bout last year with Saul “El Canelo” Alvarez is the highest-grossing PPV event in TV history. Over four fights in 2014, Showtime boxing has sold almost 2.5 million units, leading all PPV providers.

But for Nevins, the most important commodity, at the end of the day, is buzz. “A lot what you’re trying to do is have the programming that people talk about,” he says, “and create enough conversation to convince the public to subscribe.”

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