Latin Sports Nets Gain Muscle

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A decade ago, the only place Latino viewers could watch a soccer game from Mexico, a Spanish-language boxing match or a Hispanic-tinged pro wrestling event was via over-the-air station affiliates of Telemundo or Univision.

Fast-forward to 2004, and the cable-television industry now offers three full-time networks proffering a multitude of Spanish-language sports events, news and specials to a fast-growing Hispanic subscriber base.

Networks such as Fox Sports en Español, ESPN Deportes and Gol TV are providing cable operators with valuable sports programming as well as content to help sell Spanish-language or sports tiers.

The three sports networks are also targeting a Latino sports marketplace that’s woefully underserved, according to Joe Schramm, president of Schramm Sports & Entertainment, a marketing and advertising firm focused on multicultural markets.

There is enough quality content and a broad enough audience base to keep all three networks in business, says Schramm.

Indeed, the three networks rarely if ever duplicate one another’s content. The eight-year old Fox Sports en Español offers more than 1,000 hours of exclusive programming, including coverage of such soccer tournaments as Copa Toyota Liberatadores. The network also offers Spanish-language coverage of the Major League Baseball playoffs and the World Series.

The one-year old, all-soccer network Gol TV offers league and tournament competition from Mexico, Central and South America, as well as news, highlights and analysis shows on both English and Spanish-language channels.

“Any soccer fan can watch a game on Telemundo or Univision, but they can then go to Gol TV to get more information about the game than they saw on the other networks,” says Roger Huguet, COO of the 5 million-subscriber service.

Relying on more traditional U.S.-based sports, the recently launched ESPN Deportes will offer more than 200 live events this year, including Spanish-language versions of the National Basketball Association, Major League Baseball and National Football League games. The network also features UEFA Champions League soccer and selected boxing events.

“Latino fans want their sports fix just as much as anyone else, and getting sports on an occasional basis just isn’t enough for fans that are into a variety of sports,” said ESPN Deportes general manager Lino Garcia.

Carriage of the sports networks have grown over the past few years, although they have been relegated for the most part to Spanish-language or sports-only tiers.

But network executives say that may change as advertisers begin to look for more outlets to reach an Hispanic base that spends an estimated $580 billion per year — a figure expected to increase another 60% by 2007, according to Hispanic Business magazine.

ESPN Deportes’ Garcia said blue-chip companies, including Anheuser Busch, Volkswagen, Master Card, Visa, and Sears have all signed on, and the prospects for local ad sales could spur more robust distribution of the network beyond specialized tiers.

“It serves the operator to best serve their clients [with basic carriage],” Garcia said.

Although the rates for Fox Sports, Gol TV and ESPN Deportes combined don’t come close to the $1 to $2.50 per month for mainstream national and regional sports networks, operators fear that those rate cards could climb as the three networks bid for popular soccer and other content rights.

All three executives admit that such bidding wars are inevitable, but they believe that costs can be contained.

“We’re certainly going to be opportunistic and aggressive in terms of acquiring programming that makes sense for our viewers, but we’re not going to get into a situation where we’re bidding up prices,” Garcia said.

Adds Sternberg: “We’re comfortable that we have a good lid on our expense growth, and I would expect that that’s something we’ll be able to continue. When it comes to the big ticket items like the World Cup, people are paying some hefty prices for U.S. Spanish-language rights, but I don’t see the same sort of explosive growth that’s been the issue in the general market."

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