By Jason Keidel

Twitter: @JasonKeidel

We’re used to a montage of athletes splashed against these online walls, though we give no regard to the people behind the lights, camera, and action.

The public often sees the fruit from the grind, the result of endless calls and flights and meetings, which usually ends with an athlete, flanked by their camps, signing a contract.

You see the stars on television. But what about the stars of television?

Stephen Espinoza, Executive Vice President & General Manager of Showtime Sports, is hardly a boxing fledgling. Beyond his handful of years with Showtime, he has been entrenched in the sport for decades. And his task — taking the premium cable equivalent of the Ali-Frazier rivalry and working out a dual deal with dueling cable behemoths — is no small matter.

Espinoza spoke with CBS Local Sports about the ardors of negotiating the Floyd Mayweather-Manny Pacquiao fight, perhaps the most complex and lucrative fight deal in history.

JK: Did you grow up a big sports fan?

Espinoza: I was heavily influenced by my grandfather, who had two passions – the Dallas Cowboys and boxing. The first fight I ever cried over was Ali-Spinks I. I was eight years old.

JK: Did you plan to get Mayweather the moment you joined Showtime?

Espinoza: One of my primary goals when I started here was to elevate the boxing program. Showtime has done a lot of memorable fights. We wanted to continue that and bring even more to the marketplace. If you want someone, there’s one name that’s above everyone else — Floyd Mayweather. I wanted to go for broke, shoot for the stars. He’s No. 1.

JK: How did you land him? Were there layers, or was it just a case of cash?

Espinoza: There were many factors involved, like explaining what we had to offer. Before he came here, he was already a megastar. So the conversation became what we could do to continue the meteoric rise. How can we expand his brand?

The critical part was collaborating with our approach in how he’s marketed, how the previews are produced, the ALL ACCESS promotion. Maybe more importantly, how we could use the CBS Corporation, through marketing, outlets like CBS Radio, etc. It was a combination of things.

JK: Talk about odd bedfellows. How about Showtime making a deal with HBO? Was this fun or odd or both?

Espinoza: For people who don’t understand the industry, it’s like McDonald’s and Burger King, Coke and Pepsi, working together. It’s not completely foreign to me, however, because I was involved with Lennox Lewis vs. Mike Tyson, as Tyson’s attorney.

Now I fully appreciate the experience for what it is. Two companies with two cultures, personalities. In order to undertake those challenges, there had to be something very special at stake. Everyone was more than willing to get this done because of what we’re getting as a result. The last thing either of us wanted was to be the reason it didn’t happen.

JK: Why did it happen this time as opposed to any other time since ’09?

Espinoza: This was different for two reasons. The first was the involvement of Leslie Moonves. Not just as the CEO and boss of the parent company [CBS owns Showtime], but also as a dedicated, devoted boxing fan who wanted this very much. Not just for the network, but also for the sport. He was the difference maker. Sometimes he was a mediator, bad cop, good cop…

The second unique element was the meeting between Floyd and Manny at the Miami Heat game. Not sure the fight would have happened without that game, without that meeting. Floyd called Manny after the game to clear the air. That meeting removed all the doubts in their minds. They walked out knowing the other sincerely wanted the fight.

Check out other Boxing Insider interviews.

JK: Do you buy the premise that boxing is as relevant as the heavyweight division?

Espinoza: I don’t think the fortunes of boxing rise and fall solely with heavyweights. But it’s important. Whenever I’m speaking to casual fans, I get two questions: how are the heavyweights, and what about Mayweather-Pacquiao? I’m glad we could answer one.

And now we have Deontay Wilder — a passionate, articulate heavyweight champion. His last fight was one of the most watched fights in recent Showtime history. He looks the part, and can walk the walk.

JK: Do you see him [Mayweather] fighting past his current Showtime contract? If so, how important would it be for you to capture his final fights, with Floyd possibly breaking Marciano’s record?

Espinoza: Any boxer at his level, near 50-0, it would be tough to stop without taking that next step. It will be very tempting. If he does continue, I expect him to stay with Showtime. I’d love six more fights but the reality is he’s had a long successful career. We all see the finish line. However long it is, we’d love to remain partners.

JK: Was drug testing a thorn in the negotiations?

Espinoza: It was not a big deal this time. It has been in the past. But Floyd was ahead of his time. He was making this an issue in 2009. It’s essential to a fighter’s safety. Floyd was the only one who banged the drum for drug testing. He’s been that way all along.

JK: Can you at least understand why people felt Floyd didn’t want this fight?

Espinoza: Absolutely. Some saw drug testing as an excuse to not fight Manny, but it wasn’t. Since Floyd was the only one asking for it, I understand why there was that perception. But now we know it’s a sincere issue. He asks for testing from all his opponents.

JK: What’s your take on the recent story about the Pacquiao camp’s proposed $5 million penalty for a failed drug test?

Espinoza: The timing of the request for a drug testing penalty is somewhat surprising. The agreements between the fighters and the networks were signed without any contractual penalty for a failed drug test, and to my knowledge, the Pacquiao side didn’t even make the request for a penalty until a couple of weeks after the contracts were signed. At that point I don’t think anyone on the Mayweather side was interested. I can’t speak for Floyd, but I think his rejection of the penalty had more to do with not wanting to reopen negotiations than with anything else, since Floyd has consistently been one of the most outspoken advocates for expanded drug testing in boxing.

JK: Is this the last epic bout?

Espinoza: The fight is really important for two reasons. One, it’s bringing a huge, unprecedented light upon the sport. Just the mainstream media coverage is unprecedented. It’s only going to grow. More people are talking about boxing today than at any point in my lifetime.

This is a chance for boxing to address its flaws. Making the best fights between the best fighters. It establishes a precedent: Two [of the] best fighters in the sport up for a big challenge.

JK: How do you see Showtime after Mayweather retires?

Espinoza: We have the biggest and deepest crop of young fighters in television. And when you have guys like Keith Thurman and Danny Garcia and other fighters we’ve been grooming for years, some of whom back on network TV, it does nothing but help our growth.

JK: How do you see the sport after Mayweather retires?

Espinoza: The sport, like any business, is cyclical. There was a time when we wondered what would happen after De La Hoya retired, when Roy Jones retires. The sport constantly renews and refreshes itself. You can’t replace Floyd Mayweather. But there are always guys who step up, who will surprise us.

JK: Prediction?

Espinoza: Hard to pick against a guy who came out victorious 47 consecutive times. Having said that, Manny has an unorthodox style. He’s unique. He presents a unique challenge for Floyd. Floyd has solved every puzzle up to this point, so it’s hard to pick against him.

It’s going to be an exciting fight. Some worry it’s going to be a technical or defensive fight. People have been asking for this fight for five years, which also means the two fighters have been thinking about it for five years. It’s going to be incredible.

Each will bring every weapon they have.

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