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SBJ/November 10 - 16, 2003/Forty Under 40
Published November 10, 2003
It was the summer of 1998, and David Sternberg and a colleague had just finished a meeting in downtown Buenos Aires. They walked through the streets of an eerily deserted downtown. Then, in a flash, people started streaming out of every door, jumping on cars and rejoicing. Argentina had just beaten arch-rival England in overtime in the World Cup.
Sternberg found himself smack in the middle of a borderline riot, and boy did he stand out from the crowd.
"We certainly looked like a couple of gringos," Sternberg said. "I wouldn't say we feared for our lives, but it was a long walk back to the hotel."
Looks aside, Sternberg can hold his own in Latin America, or, for that matter, the Middle East, or right here in the sometimes equally chaotic U.S. of A. Fluent in Spanish and a student of the culture, business dynamics and economies of the many countries in which Fox Sports has a presence, Sternberg brings both a global and hometown perspective to Fox's vast international business.
As senior vice president of emerging networks at Fox Sports, Sternberg directly oversees the international Fox Sports business that reaches more than 120 million homes around the world, as well as Fox Sports World, Fox Sports En Español and the new action sports channel Fuel in the United States.
Fox Sports En Español and Fox Sports World are both profitable, as is Fox Sports in the Middle East.
Latin America has been a challenge, because of the economic free fall of the region and competition from an overzealous, overspending Hicks, Muse, Tate & Furst venture PSN that eventually merged with Fox Sports.
But Sternberg thinks Latin America will be profitable for Fox within the next two years.
"We've come a long way since we launched in Latin America," he said. It started in 1998 with a single feed from Los Angeles, mostly showing American sports such as the NFL. "Very quickly we realized no one cared and acquired a lot of local rights and broke off different feeds in different countries."
What helped Sternberg get a better handle on the region was his command of the language.
"If you have language skills and understand the different cultures you're working with, you're going to come up with much more successful product than if you're just trying to superimpose things from the outside," he said.
Although he fits the mold of an American corporate executive in that he is sharp, articulate and driven, Sternberg also has a personable demeanor that goes a long way in any country, and especially south of the border when speaking the same language as the local cable operators.
"Latin American business is very relationship-based," he said. "If you can connect with someone on that level [by speaking Spanish], it opens up a whole new level of comfort."
When doing business in the United States, Sternberg wins allies by earning trust.
"David's a very straightforward kind of a guy," said Paul Archey, senior vice president of MLB International, which has several deals with Fox Sports. "The best part of doing business with him is that you always know where he's coming from."
Sternberg grew up around Latino culture because his grandmother was Mexican-American. He studied several languages as an undergraduate at Princeton, studying comparative literature, which involved reading texts in several languages.
Fox Sports En Español now reaches about 2.6 million Spanish-language homes and averages a respectable 0.5 Nielsen prime-time rating within that universe. For events like the Latin American soccer tournament the Copa Libertadores or the MLB World Series, ratings can hit a 5.0 or more.
Sternberg also oversees Fox Sports World, which is the primary U.S. television outlet for British Premier League soccer, which has a following in the United States.
And he's been handed the reins for Fuel, a start-up action sports channel that launched in June. For that, Sternberg has tried to learn a whole new language, one with words like "groms" and "keel flips."
"It's a lot harder than Spanish," he said with a laugh. "I make no pretense of understanding it. It makes me feel older than I am."