Eleven years ago, few choices existed for U.S. Hispanics who wanted to keep abreast of the latest sports news pertaining to the star athletes, teams and leagues they cared about the most.
With dollars now flowing to the U.S. Hispanic market from advertisers eager to gain new customers from an increasingly important and fast-growing population, ESPN -- the pioneer in 24/7 sports entertainment -- noticed and enthusiastically committed to extending its wildly successful brand to Spanish-speaking audiences nationwide.
To help accomplish this task, ESPN plucked a rising sales star -- Lino Garcia (pictured), who’d served three years as vice president of affiliate marketing and local ad sales at USA Network -- to serve as GM of what was set to become ESPN Deportes.
More than 11 years after taking the position, Garcia is still the network’s GM. From his perch, he’s witnessed a sea of changes in a space that’s grown more competitive than ever. In October 2010, competing network Fox Sports en Español changed its name to Fox Deportes after some 14 years on the air in the U.S.
In April of 2012, Hispanic media giant Univision entered the fray by launching the Univision Deportes network, placing an emphasis on soccer. Four months later, Qatar-based beIN SPORT launched in North America, with distinct Spanish-language and English-language feeds focused on soccer.
Meanwhile, Univision’s Galavisión cable network and its Univision and UniMás networks continued to attract Hispanic sports fans thanks to their coverage of first-division Mexican League soccer and the FIFA World Cup. And GolTV remains a draw for the soccer enthusiast, although a shuffle in U.S. broadcast rights has left the Miami-based network with a handful of agreements (namely, games from Germany’s Bundesliga; Everton of the Barclays Premier League; and Portugal’s Benfica soccer club).
Now, NBCUniversal is set to make a big splash with the transition of cable network mun2 on Super Bowl Sunday (Feb. 1) to “NBCUniverso” — a channel set to feature a plethora of sports, including the National Football League and upcoming FIFA World Cup soccer showdowns.
Despite the tumult surrounding ESPN Deportes, Garcia is hardly concerned about his network’s trajectory. He prides his team on the groundwork it laid in June 2003, seven months before its broadcast debut, and the decision-making process that has allowed the network to carve an identity that goes beyond live sports.
“It was a pretty exciting time,” Garcia said of his first few months on the job. “So much work went into it.”
Garcia’s first decision was on an origination point for Deportes’s version of SportsCenter, ESPN’s signature news program. “We were considering Argentina, or U.S. sites including Charlotte,” he said. “We eventually settled on Mexico City. There was some debate on whether a team based there could embrace U.S. sports. I voted for Mexico City, but it took some convincing for us to build out from there.”
In the Mexican capital, a single set grew out to house several concurrent studio shows. Meanwhile, the stateside team worked to secure carriage — a difficult task that took time and patience.
“Distribution was challenging from the very beginning,” Garcia said. “One of the very first places you could watch the network was on Grande Communications’ systems in Texas. We then closed other deals, but it was over a period of several years.
“Two to two and a half years after we launched, we landed [No. 2 U.S. MSO] Time Warner Cable,” he added. “It was not an easy road.”
The slow path to carriage came despite the strong brand recognition that comes with the ESPN name.
“When ESPN comes knocking, one or two things operators think about are the value of the content … and price points,” Garcia said. “Yet we have proven through ESPN, and then ESPN2, and then ESPN News and ESPNU that we were able to carve out a unique identity.”
Still, the first few years of ESPN Deportes’ existence relied on viewer estimates, the strength of the ESPN brand and a leap of faith by marketers.
“We weren’t able to measure viewership until 2008,” Garcia said. “One of the early properties we had on ESPN Deportes was [UEFA] Champions League soccer. We had it … but had no idea how many people watched it. We lost it, and just as we had given it up, we started to see just how many viewers were tuning to it. But now we have it back.”
SAME CONTENT, DIFFERENT HOMES
Losing the Champions League and welcoming it back is perhaps a side story to ESPN Deportes’ winning recipe: studio shows with their own brand and strong identity. From Fútbol Picante, a Mexico-centric soccer news and information show, to Cronómetro, a news and debate show focused on Latin American sports stars and Jorge Ramos y su Banda, a successful simulcast of ESPN Deportes Radio’s afternoon-drive soccer-talk program, ESPN Deportes has a full slate of weekday programs that allow it go beyond live play-by-play.
Thus, Garcia seems rather unfazed about the changing fortunes of its U.S. Hispanic sports competitors.
“There’s not that much more content,” he said. “It’s more of a reorganization of sports properties.”
To that end, Garcia credits his network for introducing new sports content -- national telecasts of Major League Baseball; National Football League games; and the aforementioned Champions League coverage en Español -- as other networks entered the fray for grabbing the broadcast rights to top-tier sports at ever-escalating prices.
In 2011, Telemundo parent NBCUniversal plunked down an estimated $600 million for just the Spanish-language FIFA World Cup TV rights from 2015-2022. Previous rightsholders ESPN (English- and Portuguese-language) and Univision combined to spend $425 million for the 2010-2014 FIFA World Cup rights. (Fox Sports scored English-language rights for 2015-2022 for $400 million, more than four times ESPN’s outlay for the world’s biggest sporting event.)
While ESPN Deportes can pride itself on its unique programming, Garcia also credits the plan from the get-go to become a multiple-touchpoints content brand for being an innovator in the digital space.
“Our digital platform has grown,” he said. “But even in January 2004, we had a plan to launch a radio network and a magazine. There was a digital and mobile platform, although it was in its infancy. We created more ways of informing people, and we created more studio shows than had ever been done before.”
As ESPN Deportes hits its 11th birthday, soccer continues to serve as the key audience driver. However, “American” sports are gaining traction with its viewers in the U.S. -- a sign that a significant percentage of Hispanics desire Spanish-language content, even if similar English-language choices abound.
“Since we started airing the properties, we’ve seen a 33% jump in our ratings for the NFL year-over-year and we’ve seen a 70% jump in ratings for our [National Basketball Association] coverage year-over-year,” Garcia said. “But I’m proud to say that we have a lot of the same programming that we had in 2004 when we launched, using a ‘see what works and see what doesn’t’ approach.”
He also admits that “filler programming” was put in place with ESPN Deportes’ launch, out of necessity. That programming is not on the network today. Instead, it’s looked to new opportunities and has seen some early successes with it, such as the Central American and Caribbean Games.
The games set the stage for ESPN Deportes’s coverage of next year’s XVII Pan American Games from Toronto, to take place July 10-26. The event features Olympic sports and top athletes from 41 nations across the Americas, including the U.S. and Puerto Rico, which fields its own team.
Garcia is also pleased with the network’s continuing relationship with the World Baseball Classic, which it “enthusiastically” signed on with in 2006.
“Any competitor has to be nimble enough to continue to be attractive to the consumer,” Garcia said. “I think we’ve demonstrated that over our 10 years on the air.”