To a man, they all made a point to thank Ken Hershman.
From Gary Shaw to Scott Coker, from the wild days of Kimbo Slice and EliteXC to the rise and fall of Strikeforce, if it wasn't for Showtime's executive vice president and general manager of sports & event programming, who on Thursday departed the premium cable network to a head a similar post at HBO, it's doubtful many mixed martial artists, male and female alike, would have fought and made money the way they did in recent years.
Hershman brought MMA to Showtime in 2007. He saw an opportunity to court an expanding segment of sports fans who, based on the data in front of him, seemed passionate enough to fork over the necessary monthly subscription fees. Hershman was generally correct, and he indicated the presence of MMA (and NFL and NASCAR) helped grow Showtime's subscriber base to its highest numbers.
Showtime's MMA venture wasn't all good times, though. EliteXC took a hard and embarrassing fall. Last summer, Hershman felt it necessary to defend Showtime's hands-on handling of Strikeforce after it became fodder for blogs and red meat for critics like UFC president Dana White. And the Strikeforce saga, which took a stunning turn in March after the sale of the promotion to Zuffa (according to insiders, Hershman was caught by surprise at the announcement of the sale), will now be left for others to wrap up.
Hershman's departure from Showtime, where he ran the sports division starting in 2003 after working under the CBS Corporate umbrella since 1992, raises important questions at a time when he was thought to be the point man for negotiating with Zuffa over the fate of Strikeforce's future.
If the HBO gig was waiting in the wings, how seriously was he taking discussions with UFC CEO Lorenzo Fertitta?
Is getting a deal done with Zuffa more or less likely now that Hershman is out of the picture? Showtime, after all, owns the option to re-up with Strikeforce.
Bigger picture: Will the next Showtime Sports boss, who according to a company representative is not ready to be named, view MMA as desired programming for the network? If so, in what form?
They need to hurry up and figure it out. The deadline to make a decision on the fate of Strikeforce is here. Unless an extension is agreed to, the deal is expected to die at the end of next February. With it, perhaps the fate of MMA in a venue that was very kind to it.
Hershman's tenure at Showtime proved he's pro-MMA. And this raises other interesting questions.
Will he continue to be at HBO?
If yes, that represents a 180-degree turn in the way MMA is regarded at the top of HBO Sports. (Ross Greenburg, who resigned as president in July, wasn't a fan, though the UFC reportedly flirted with HBO in spots.) If not, it's hard to view all of this as anything but the death of MMA on premium cable.
It seems doubtful that HBO would, even with an advocate like Hershman at the top, take this moment to step in the space.
There were rumblings that options beyond Strikeforce were being explored for Showtime, including a boxing-centric model with mixed martial artists contracted to the network, which would essentially serve as its own matchmaker. It makes no sense for Showtime, no matter who’s running the ship, to enter into an exclusive arrangement with another promoter. There aren't any on firm-enough footing for Showtime to take that risk. And they’ve been burned twice.
MMA dimming on major broadcast platforms is bad news for fighters. Options were already limited. Thursday's news calls into question the future of non-UFC MMA in the U.S.
Without real TV partners, what options do prospective promoters or fighters have?
Hershman stepped into MMA at a unique time in the sport's history. He can, again, have a major impact on MMA if he finds a home for it on HBO. But will someone who just became the de facto commissioner for boxing -- such is the power HBO holds over that sport -- view it necessary to stay in the MMA business?