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Tuesday, January 10, 2012
Showtime gets 'Extreme' with undercards

By Dan Rafael

Many times over the years, Golden Boy's Richard Schaefer and I have talked about the fact that he would have an HBO or Showtime card coming up with some good fights or prospects on the undercard, but unless you were in the arena, you wouldn't have a chance to see those fights or fighters.

We agreed that it would make a lot of sense for everyone if the networks could find a way to televise those bouts on one of their multiplex channels prior to the beginning of the regular show on the main network.

Vicor Ortiz, Andre Berto
When Victor Ortiz and Andre Berto rematch on Feb. 11, some of the card's up-and-comers and lesser lights will enjoy valuable exposure on Showtime's multiplex channel.

Like most folks who subscribe to the premium networks, I receive numerous secondary HBO and Showtime networks as part of my package. Those channels are essentially dumping grounds for the same movies and shows to be repeatedly aired over and over. They have virtually no original programming.

But how cool would it be if a network would turn the cameras on early -- they're already there and set up -- and show some of the young fighters or solid matches that weren't ticketed for the televised part of the card?

It would be good for everyone. Good for true Fight Freaks, who want to see the bouts. Good for the undercard fighters, who could gain valuable exposure early in their careers. Good for the promoter, who is trying to build a young fighter into an attraction. Good for the network, which could feature original programming for one of its numerous channels that otherwise would be showing the 87th rerun of whatever movie was on.

Cost-wise, the additional money it would take to show the undercard would be minimal because the production would already be in place for the main bouts.

HBO has never shown the remotest interest in doing this, which I have always felt was a mistake. Showtime has been more open-minded and now has embraced it. Last week, for the first time, the network televised preliminary bouts on its Strikeforce MMA card on the Showtime Extreme platform, which is the regular home for replays of the network's various sports programming. Now Showtime will do the same for boxing, beginning with the first "Showtime Championship Boxing" card of the year.

On Feb. 11 at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas, Showtime will televise a tripleheader -- the rematch between Victor Ortiz and Andre Berto, Erislandy Lara against Ronald Hearns and a fight involving 2011 ESPN.com prospect of the year Gary Russell Jr. The broadcast will begin at 9 p.m. ET/PT. But at 7 p.m. ET/PT, other undercard bouts -- which aren't yet set -- will air live on Showtime Extreme.

"This is huge," Schaefer said. "It's huge for the sport, for us, for the fans, for Showtime. It's really groundbreaking. It will help create a connection between the fighters and the Showtime audience much earlier on in their careers."

Top Rank, Golden Boy's promotional rival, has done a great job offering its undercard bouts via live stream on its website for the past couple of years. But Showtime's move to put the fights on television is another big step.

"Some of the people don't want to watch the fights on a computer, and now they can watch on TV from the comfort of their couch just by putting on Showtime Extreme," Schaefer said. "Watch and see -- HBO will follow."

The credit for Showtime finally taking this fan-friendly measure goes to Stephen Espinoza, who recently took over as executive vice president and general manager of Showtime Sports. This was one of his first acts in the new role. It showed me that he has the best interests of fans in mind.

"I can't say we will do this with every single card," Espinoza said. "It's incumbent on the promoters to provide compelling, attractive undercards. But as long as they do that, we will have air time for them on Showtime Extreme."

Espinoza said the decision was an easy one for him to make once he crunched the numbers with his bosses.

"Our production people are already there," he said. "You're just turning the cameras on a couple of hours early. It's an inexpensive opportunity for additional programming and it's all upside for everybody involved. It's a no-brainer. We're not expecting championship-level fights on the undercards, but something interesting. There is no reason we shouldn't expose the young fighters to our audience."

Espinoza said the usual Showtime announcers will call the undercard bouts and that the last portion of the Showtime Extreme telecast, maybe 20 or 30 minutes, would likely be used for prefight build-up and features ahead of the main televised card so that when the broadcast begins on Showtime proper, the network can get to the action more quickly.

Showtime's plan sounds like something that hard-to-please fight fans should have no problem embracing.