Bellator Reporting to Showtime Sports: What it Means for the Promotion

By Patrick Auger Jan 21, 2020
Editor’s note: The views and opinions expressed below are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Sherdog.com, its affiliates and sponsors or its parent company, Evolve Media.

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Stephen Espinoza is now technically in charge of Bellator.

On Jan. 15, Variety reported that, amidst the reorganization taking place at ViacomCBS following the merger of the two multimedia conglomerates last year, Bellator MMA will now fall under the purview of Showtime Sports. The move is one of many organizational restructures the company has made since reuniting last December and probably won’t be the last as it continues to tweak its operations and management. While Scott Coker will remain president of Bellator, he will now report directly to Stephen Espinoza, who has played a pivotal role in overseeing boxing at Showtime, including the infamous Floyd Mayweather vs. Conor McGregor fight. When Coker was asked about Bellator changing networks from Paramount to Showtime or CBS by MMAFighting, he stated that “Nothing’s decided yet.”

For more recent fans of the sport, Espinoza was famously called a “fuc*ing weasel” by McGregor during a press conference in the buildup to his fight against Mayweather. For those who have been around longer, Espinoza was an integral piece in the collaboration between Showtime and Strikeforce, all the way up to the promotion’s demise in 2013. Even after Strikeforce officially folded, Espinoza continued to shop around for other organizations that would keep Showtime in the sport, stating that the network and himself were huge proponents of MMA.

"There's definitely a lot of enthusiasm and a big appetite for MMA [at Showtime], both [from] me personally and the company as a whole," he told MMAFighting at the time. "This company, this network, has been a pioneer in the sport in many ways. It's been a huge supporter of the sport and done some of the most-watched events in recent history.”

Seven years later, the restructuring at ViacomCBS will finally allow Espinoza to satiate his appetite for MMA. Unlike Showtime’s arrangement with Strikeforce, where the network was merely its broadcasting partner, the 50-year-old media executive will now have input and ultimately final say on Bellator MMA’s product. The move will also reunite Coker and Espinoza for the first time since 2013, rekindling a working relationship that dates back to when Coker used to work for K-1. While it’s not yet known how hands-on Espinoza and Showtime Sports will be with Bellator, it’s safe to assume that they’ll have a few ideas for the promotion.

Besides the potential added influence from Espinoza and Showtime, the move will also give Bellator the opportunity to shine on a larger stage. While the company inked a lucrative streaming deal with Dazn in late 2018, when it comes to television Bellator has been limited to Viacom’s Paramount network for the past several years, where the promotion’s ratings have steadily declined. Under the newly formed entity of ViacomCBS, it seems likely that Bellator could end up broadcasting some of its larger shows on CBS or Showtime in order to help build its brand and fill out Showtime’s combat sports offerings, despite Coker’s previous comments.

There’s also the potential of a crossover event between Bellator and Showtime Boxing. Bellator is no stranger to putting on events featuring multiple martial arts disciplines and the synergy between the two groups could lead to an increased overall audience. Whether the network decides to stack an event with the biggest names from the two promotions or simply create a mid-tier hybrid event that might draw interest from hardcore fans of both sports, it’s not out of the realm of possibility that the two entities could work together given the new corporate structure. Newly signed Bellator athlete Cristiane Justino has already spoken about her desires to step into the boxing ring and Michael Page has been allowed to compete in professional boxing matches during his tenure with the MMA promotion. Seeing those and other name-value fighters under contract with Bellator making the jump to Showtime Boxing undercards seems all but inevitable.

With Showtime Sports now in the picture, Bellator’s cross-promotion with Rizin Fighting Federation may also be affected by the changes. The two mixed martial arts organizations have worked together on multiple events over the past several years, most recently uniting for Bellator Japan and Rizin 20 to close out 2019. Now that Bellator will have to technically run those types of decisions by Espinoza, there is no telling if the collaboration between the two companies will continue, even though both Coker and Rizin promoter Nobuyuki Sakakibara have both expressed interest in continuing their business relationship. Coker had previously stated that former two-promotion bantamweight champion Kyoji Horiguchi would be granted an immediate title shot upon his recovery from a knee injury he suffered late last year, but as the 29-year-old is currently under contract with Rizin, that may now be in jeopardy.

Overall, Bellator MMA moving under the Showtime Sports umbrella is probably a good thing for the promotion in the long run. It will most likely give the organization a bigger television audience, allow for some interesting crossover opportunities with Showtime’s current combat sports mix and hopefully keep its current business relationships intact. Given Espinoza’s eagerness to work in the MMA business, good things will most likely come from the new arrangement, though for now we’ll just have to wait and see what happens with the company’s 2020 plans.

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