For many viewers, Spanish-language sports programming has historically been a matter of Separate Audio Program, the function by which an English-language telecast is translated into Spanish.
But with the expanding Hispanic population demanding more targeted programming, several 24-hour Spanish-language networks are looking to sate the voracious appetite among U.S. Hispanic males for sports.
Industry executives concur that Fox Sports en Español, ESPN Deportes and soccer-based Gol TV are positioned to capitalize on the exploding Hispanic marketplace.Yet, the networks face the dual challenge of trying to secure significant distribution within the cable and satellite ranks while trying to serve the many ethnic divisions within the Hispanic community.
Throughout the 1980s and into the early 1990s, the only options many Spanish-speaking viewers had to watch live sports came through the clumsy and awkward SAP Spanish translations of English-speaking telecasts or select athletic fare from broadcasters Univision and Telemundo.
In 1992, Fox Sports Net launched Fox Sports en Español, which offered not only sports programming found on the various Fox Sports Net regional networks, but network-specific soccer and boxing events that appealed to U.S. Hispanic viewers.
"We always thought there was a strong niche there," Fox Sports en Español general manager David Sternberg said. "It's always been attractive precisely because it is a genre that we thought wasn't being adequately served by the large, Spanish-language broadcast networks, which are geared toward female audiences, through their novellas and other entertainment programming."
Until recently, though, such fervor hadn't translated into additional subscribers for Fox Sports en Español: the network barely had more than 2 million subscribers prior to 2002. Things began to change with the 2000 Census and a more concentrated effort among cable operators to reach the Hispanic viewer.
With Census data released in January underlining that Hispanics are now the largest minority group in the country — and their ranks are expected to grow even more over the course of this decade — Sternberg said operators are finally beginning to place greater emphasis on reaching Latino viewers. To that end, the network now reaches some 5.1 million households.
"It's something that everybody is aware of, especially since the 2000 Census," he said. "There's an understanding that networks like ours will help cable operators stem the flow of Latino households to DBS and that will also enable them to make up the overall penetration gap between Hispanics and non-Hispanics in the cable industry."
ESPN, also looking to reach this growing base, in 2000 launched a weekly Sunday night primetime block of programming dubbed ESPN Deportes.
The block, which ESPN offered to operators free of charge, carried, among other programming, simulcasts of ESPN's regularly scheduled National Football League and Major League Baseball games. The contests, though, feature different anchors and a perspective aimed at the Hispanic audience, according to ESPN International senior vice president and managing director Russell Wolff.
Full day deportes
"It's not just Spanish language, but putting that action into a U.S. Hispanic relevant context," said Wolff. "You can see that when you tune in and put our coverage of the Sunday night NFL game side by side with the [Deportes] block — there are different cameras and presenters."
Now reaching about 10 million households on a part-time basis, ESPN will launch a full-day version of the Deportes service this fall.
Proffering NFL and MLB games and an exclusive, Spanish-language version of SportsCenter
as its programming staples, Wolff believes the network is poised for significant growth once it launches. He would not reveal a rate card for the network, nor would he estimate how many subscribers ESPN expects at launch.
When ESPN Deportes debuts, it will join Fox Sports Español and upstart service Gol TV, which kicked off last month. The channel is funded and operated by Tenfield, S.A., a media production-and-rights company based in Uruguay and owned by ex-soccer players, including co-founder Enzo Francescoli. Gol TV plans to air about 800 soccer matches annually, 250 of them live, said network representatives.
Currently, households taking EchoStar's Dish Latino package are receiving the 24-hour service. The network may be available to digital-cable subscribers in some areas later this year.
Indeed, digital tiers — particularly ones clustered with other Spanish-language networks — figure to house these three services. Most operators now offer a tier of Spanish-language networks as part of their digital-cable service, a greater incentive for Hispanics to sign up.
But Sternberg said that forcing viewers to buy through basic tiers to get to Spanish-language programming would discourage, rather than encourage, viewers to buy basic. While Hispanic buying power is on the rise — estimated today at $580 billion per year and expected to increase another 60 percent by 2007, according to Hispanic Business
magazine — Sternberg said household income still lags behind that of the general market, making cable a high-priced luxury for many.
"Our thought is that these Spanish-language tiers, especially when it's a buy-through proposition on top of basic cable, are really not successful," he said. "They really price networks like ours beyond the target audience and you need to be sure that the products are accessible and affordable to Latino households."
But one mid-sized operator who wished to remain anonymous said such networks are vital in driving the penetration of Spanish-language digital tiers. "Sports is a major draw for Hispanic viewers, so it would be natural to tier those networks with other Spanish-language services," said the operator.
ESPN's Wolff is more pragmatic about the situation, and is preparing for the inevitable tiering process. "It is certainly likely that we'll end up on Spanish-language tiers," he said. "It'll be a mix of distribution and operators will look to put it in different places, and we will get basic distribution in other markets. It will depend on the operator's business."
Even with Spanish-tier carriage, Kagan Associates sports analyst John Mansell believes that Hispanic-targeted sports services face an uphill distribution climb. "There are pockets where there are huge Hispanic populations that such networks could find basic carriage," Mansell said. "But mostly these services will find limited digital distribution."
Appealing to diverse ethnic subgroups within the overall Hispanic community may also present a major challenge to these networks. Wolff said Fox Sports has to be very sensitive to remaining authentic and attentive to the preferences of the various cultures within the Hispanic community when presenting sports events from different countries.
"If you're doing Mexican soccer, you want to concentrate on skewing toward announcers with a Mexican accent," Wolff said. "If you're doing Major League Baseball and Caribbean baseball, you have to focus more on Venezuelan and Dominican accents. You have to tailor [programming] to the appropriate content so that you maximize the appeal of each property."
In fact, the overall presentation of programming — from player profiles, to camera angles to the actual announcer's call of the game — has to be distinctly different from how traditional games are telecast if the network is to have any credibility within the Hispanic community.
"You need to be sure your commentators are reputable, that they're credible and that they're suitably objective," Sternberg said. "One of the things that strikes people when they tune into a Spanish-language broadcast for the first time is how critical the broadcasters can be of the players. I don't think you get that same level of intensity on the English-language broadcasts."
Futbol is king
Programming lineups also have to be tailored to meet the interests of Hispanic viewers, whose preferences differ from their Anglo counterparts. That means more soccer and boxing and less golf, tennis, basketball and hockey coverage, the executives said.
"The Hispanic audience in the U.S. tends to gravitate to the traditional sports that are popular in their country of origin. You're looking at soccer, baseball and boxing as being the big three," Sternberg said.
Soccer, which also airs on cable network Galavision, in particular is a major draw among Hispanic viewers, despite its historically poor ratings on general-market television. Gol TV hopes to take full advantage of the sport's appeal by providing wall-to-wall coverage of international soccer events.
"We're aiming at the die-hard fans that are underserved with information beyond games of the week," said Francescoli, who serves as Gol TV 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."
All of this is not to say there isn't interest among U.S. Latinos — particularly second- and third-generation Latinos — in other sports like pro football and basketball, according to the executives. Of the major U.S. professional sports, MLB, in particular, has found a significant audience on Fox Sports en Español. The network's carriage of baseball's playoff and World Series games over the past two years has averaged around a 5 rating within the Hispanic household universe.
"That's pretty impressive considering all of the other viewing options out there for Latinos," stated Sternberg.
Fox Sports en Español will also gauge the appeal of auto racing with the airing of several Championship Auto Racing Teams races. Sternberg said the 19-week series is very popular among Hispanic viewers, particularly given the fact that four CART series drivers are Latino.
But while the Copa America soccer tournament may be more popular among Hispanics than the U.S. Open tennis tournament, Wolff said it's imperative that all sports be represented on the network. ESPN Deportes is currently negotiating with the NHL and NFL for exclusive Spanish-language rights to games and library programming in an effort to reach all Hispanic sports fans. "You'll certainly see more soccer on ESPN Deportes than you do on ESPN2, and the content that goes into the SportsCenter
will be distinctly different than on ESPN," Wolff said.
Along with soccer, Wolff said the network will feature ESPN Profales, a series profiling Hispanic athletes. "They are similar to SportsCentury, but Hispanic versions," he said.