All-Soccer Network Takes U.S. Shot

2/16/2003 7:00 PM Eastern

Gol TV, a new television channel devoted to a single sport — soccer — and aimed at the U.S. Latino population, is set to premiere this week.

Households that take EchoStar Communications Corp.'s Dish Latino package are expected to get the service when it boots up Thursday (Feb. 20).

Digital-cable subscribers in some areas may have Gol TV available a few weeks later. Distribution agreements with two major MSOs are almost done and will be announced by the end of the month, Gol executives said.

The channel, funded and operated by Tenfield, S.A., a media production and rights company based in Uruguay and owned by former soccer players, anticipates it will program about 800 soccer matches per year, 250 of them live.

At the start, most games will originate from league and tournament competition in Mexico, Central and South America. News, highlights-and-analysis shows and clinic series will round out Gol TV's schedule, most of which will originate from studio space in Miami.

Programming will mainly be Spanish-language, but a few shows will air in English and there will be an English-language secondary audio program feed, network officials said.

Coverage of U.S. soccer action, whether games featuring the national soccer team which made the World Cup quarterfinals last summer, college contests or various pro factions (Major League Soccer, the Women's United Soccer Association or the Major Indoor Soccer League) will be limited initially to news and highlight shows.

But Gol TV has held conversations with college and pro leagues about game packages, while exploring rights to unusual approaches to the sport. Opening week, for example, will show finals action from the World Beach Soccer Championship, featuring a U.S. team.

Gol TV will kick into the multichannel field amid a plentiful array of world soccer action available elsewhere, including Spanish-language weekend games on Univision and Telemundo; substantial coverage on Fox Sports World Espanol and Galavision; and MLS matches in English on ESPN/ESPN2 and WUSA contest on Pax TV, respectively.

Telemundo also runs MLS games in Spanish. Dish Latino's 20-channel tier includes Telemundo, as well as Fox Sports World Español.

Not huge here

Soccer is also expected to be a major element in ESPN Deportes, which will expand from a Sunday night option on ESPN to a standalone 24-hour service this fall.

Beyond what's already available, Gol TV is building its business on a sport that, despite its position as the most popular across the globe, largely draws miniscule U.S. TV ratings. World Cup action on ESPN and ABC performed solidly, and weekly games on Telemundo and Univision bring consistent audiences. But ESPN's MLS coverage and Pax TV's WUSA contests barely go beyond ratings of 0.1 or 0.2.

Carving out a full-time TV home for soccer will ultimately raise the roof on the sport's TV picture, declared Gol TV sales and marketing vice president Enrique Carrillo. "Having a continuous menu, on a day-in, day-out basis, will affect the viewership," he said. "We're looking to be the soccer point of reference."

"We're also aiming at the die-hard fans that are underserved with information beyond games of the week," added Enzo Francescoli, a Tenfield co-founder who serves as Gol TV's senior vice president. "Our programming is set up to have a logic or order, where the fan of a specific country's league knows when to catch the action of their favorite teams."

EchoStar believes the network is differentiated enough to warrant immediate placement on Dish Latino. The channel also can qualify for placement on the Dish Network "America's Top 150" package, provided it meets certain undisclosed performance goals. EchoStar has more than 8 million DBS customers; company spokespeople declined to release customer counts for either Dish Latino or America's Top 150.

By the amount of soccer games carried and extensive programming rights, Gol TV meets the differentiation standard, according to EchoStar senior programming vice president Michael Schwimmer.

"Fox Sports World Español has more than soccer, and no one knows what ESPN Deportes will be. This is a 100 percent dedicated-to-soccer network, with a good fan base available," he said.

For cable, Gol TV will charge per-subscriber fees for placement on full digital cable, sports or Latino network tiers. In return, operators will get marketing support and three minutes of ad sales and promotion time per hour.

The channel keeps nine minutes an hour for national ad buys.

Profit in '05

With two revenue streams covering cable and DBS, plus some ancillary radio and Internet deals in the works, Gol expects a profit in 2005.

"Tenfield will fund the channel themselves through the breakeven stage," added Roger Hughet, Gol's COO. "While 2005 is the target, there's a good chance that we'll get there sooner."

Separately, EchoStar was scheduled to introduce a Spanish-language film pay-per-view feature this past weekend. Up to five films will run each month at $3.99 apiece.

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