Despite ongoing licensing-fee battles with cable operators, ESPN will launch its first full-time Spanish-language service ESPN Deportes Jan. 7 with high expectations, but thus far limited distribution.
The digital service, borne in 2001 from a Sunday-night programming block offered through the parent channel, expects to gain carriage in the top 10 to 20 Hispanic markets by year-end, according to general manager Lino Garcia.
He said the service, which will offer Spanish-language produced games from the National Basketball Association, National Hockey League, National Basketball Association and National Football League, as well as professional soccer, has distribution deals with several operators, but refused to name any.
"We have a few deals that we've signed and we're negotiating with a few key affiliates — a lot of those negotiations are wrapped up in bigger negotiations for ESPN and [The Walt] Disney [Co.] deals," Garcia said.
Garcia is optimistic that the network will gain adequate distribution despite the public carriage disputes ESPN is currently embroiled in with major MSOs, notably Cox Communications Inc.
While network will rely on ESPN's programming deals with the four major sports leagues, it will feature its own announcers and analysts to provide a different flavor for Hispanic audiences.
Some industry watchers question whether Hispanic viewers will gravitate to a network featuring mostly U.S.-based programming. But Garcia said network research shows that pro baseball, basketball and football in particular — along with boxing and soccer — appeal to the lion's share of Hispanic sports fans.
"The reality is that the Spanish-speaking sports fan is not just interested in one sport — there is a high affinity for sports such as football and baseball," he said.
Deportes will also create its own version of ESPN's popular SportsCenter, replete with dedicated anchors. Last week, the network named Michele LaFountain, Heriberto Murrieta, Fernando Palomo and Jorge Eduardo Sanchez Perez as hosts.
On the soccer watch, the network in February will kick off European-based UEFA events, which Garcia touts as arguably the best soccer in the world, featuring various players from Latin America.
The network will also feature Fuera de Juego, a roundtable show airing Mondays and Wednesdays, and the weekly Futbol Pecante, focusing on Mexican soccer.