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Showtime Sports exec says Mayweather deal just part of plan

Long before he was named executive vice president and general manager of Showtime Sports in November 2011, Stephen Espinoza had a plan.

The smart ones always do.

The 43-year-old lawyer from Southern California knew that his network needed star power to close the gap on rival HBO.

And in boxing, there is no bigger star than Floyd Mayweather Jr. Like him or loathe him, there’s no denying Mayweather can get people to buy his pay-per-view fights. And after spending his entire career fighting on HBO, where his PPV buys averaged over one million, he switched sides to what he likes to call “my new family.”

Showtime and Mayweather announced a six-fight, 30-month deal two weeks ago, coinciding with word that Mayweather will return to the ring May 4 against Robert Guerrero at the MGM Grand Garden. The TV deal sent shock waves throughout the sports world. It’s reportedly worth at least $200 million and could top out at over $300 million for the 36-year-old WBC welterweight champion who calls Las Vegas home.

The challenge for Espinoza and Showtime? Maximize their time together with Mayweather and make sure the investment pays off at their end.

“I had been on the job maybe six weeks, and I made a run at Floyd when he fought Miguel Cotto,” said Espinoza, who was named as Ken Hershman’s replacement a month after Hershman left for HBO in October 2011. “I knew for us to be successful and achieve what we wanted, Showtime had to get back to the big names. Back in the ’90s, we had Mike Tyson and Julio Cesar Chavez. So when we looked at the current landscape, one name stood out — Floyd’s.”

But why commit to such a lengthy deal?

“Actually, it was Floyd’s idea,” Espinoza said. The boxer and his co-manager Al Haymon came up with the timetable and numbers. “Their goal was to keep him active. But the thing was, it had to make sense to us.”

Espinoza found allies within CBS, Showtime’s parent company. Both CBS president Leslie Moonves and Showtime chairman and CEO Matt Blank follow boxing. When Espinoza told them he could deliver Mayweather, they gave him the green light to make the deal.

Their hope is that by exposing nonboxing fans to Mayweather through CBS’s various platforms, Showtime can grow its brand. Currently, it has 22 million subscribers compared with HBO’s 30 million. But CBS is available in 111 million homes in the United States, and that is where Espinoza can sell the fight and begin to recoup his investment.

The network is still deciding how to sell Mayweather-Guerrero, Espinoza said. “The home run potential is broader exposure to the mainstream audience,” he said.

Yes, there will be a reality series showing the two fighters’ preparations. “All Access” will air four episodes on Showtime as well as on CBS. But the other CBS platforms will be used to promote the May 4 pay-per-view telecast. Don’t be surprised to see Mayweather on “60 Minutes” or Guerrero and wife Casey, who won her battle with leukemia, on “The Talk.”

“It starts with the superstardom of Floyd,” Espinoza said. “Anytime he fights, it’s boxing’s version of the Super Bowl. It’s also a very risky fight for Floyd. Guerrero is no pushover.”

Beyond Mayweather, Espinoza’s challenge is to put compelling sports programming on Showtime. He has added a sports version of “60 Minutes.” He signed talk-show host Jim Rome and is trying to put an edge on the weekly pro football show, “Inside the NFL.” One way to do that might be to have Mayweather, who is known for making large bets, do a regular gambling segment during football season. But Espinoza said the NFL would likely frown upon that kind of programming.

Even though he has Mayweather, Espinoza said Showtime needs to consistently put on better fights if it wants to keep current fans tuning in while cultivating new viewers. And he needs to show those fights live on the West Coast.

When Las Vegas’ Ishe Smith won the IBF junior middleweight title from Cornelius Bundrage in Detroit on Feb. 23, Smith’s fans in Southern Nevada and California had to watch on tape delay unless they owned a satellite dish and could pick up Showtime’s East Coast feed. Many knew the outcome before the telecast aired in Las Vegas.

“I’m a boxing fan. I want to see the best fights,” Espinoza said. “I think boxing is healthy. It has its flaws like any other sport. But it hasn’t kept up with the times. We need fighters to fight more than once or twice a year. We need to connect more with our fans.

“We’re trying to close the gap with social media. We use Twitter and Facebook during our telecasts, and we’re looking for more ways where fans can interact with us during our telecasts.”

Espinoza said he hopes to have the West Coast delay situation resolved later this year.

And if Espinoza is serious about providing quality fights to Showtime’s customers, it’s going to mean reaching beyond his former employer, Golden Boy Promotions, and doing business with Top Rank and other promoters. His relationship with Top Rank chairman Bob Arum is nonexistent. But Espinoza gets along with president Todd duBoef and vice president Carl Moretti, and he believes the two sides will be able to work together.

Last March, Showtime aired the WBO featherweight title fight between Juan Manuel Lopez and Orlando Salido, which Top Rank promoted. It also did the pay-per-view of Manny Pacquiao’s 2011 win over Shane Mosley. But that fight was before Espinoza’s arrival. Pacquiao is promoted by Top Rank.

“Yes, I have a long history and relationship with Golden Boy,” he said. “But I have a lot riding on this job. I didn’t pick up and move 3,000 miles to New York so I could fail. So I’m willing to work with anyone who can provide us with compelling fights that our fans want to see.”

Contact reporter Steve Carp at scarp@reviewjournal.com or 702-387-2913. Follow him on Twitter: @stevecarprj.

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