SBJ/March 5-11, 2012/Media

As Spanish-language field grows, channels look to stand out

John Ourand
Every spring, ESPN develops a list of corporate priorities that it will put special focus on during the next 12 months.
Last April, it pledged to “intensify ... efforts to serve U.S. Hispanic sports fans.” For ESPN, that meant not only building up its Spanish sports channel, ESPN Deportes, but also making ESPN more accessible to Hispanics.

ESPN isn’t alone. Media companies are clamoring to get a piece of America’s fastest-growing demographic — particularly among the younger advertiser-friendly demos — like never before.

It has all the feel of a media gold rush.

At least three Spanish-language all-sports TV channels are planning to launch this year alone. Spanish broadcasting giant Univision is launching a Spanish-language sports channel this spring, Univision Deportes. Time Warner Cable is launching a Spanish-language RSN in Los Angeles this fall with rights from the Lakers and Galaxy. And the NFL is preparing to roll out a Spanish-language version of NFL RedZone this fall.

Those launches add to a landscape that already seems cluttered with Spanish-language sports channels, which includes Spanish language channels ESPN Deportes, Fox Deportes and Gol TV, not to mention the sports offerings from Univision and Telemundo.

Even if the U.S. Hispanic market continues to grow at its current rate, it’s hard to believe that all these channels will be able to survive. Hispanics account for more than 16 percent of the U.S. population and make up 22 percent of the 18-49 demographic.

Still, some executives in the market question whether there are enough viewers or ad dollars to support all the planned channels. Executives with ESPN and Univision told me that while the Hispanic market is as hot as any they’ve ever seen, they wouldn’t be surprised if some Spanish-language sports channels aren’t successful.

“There may be a natural selection process that may happen eventually,” said Lino Garcia, general manager of ESPN Deportes. “But I still think there’s a good opportunity to serve the Hispanic market.”

Some media industry veterans, like Park Lane managing director Carlos Silva, believe the Hispanic market is big enough in the United States to support these channels, especially if you look at the number of English-language all-sports channels that are vying for the same advertising and programming rights.

“It’s almost dizzying to think about how many English-speaking sports channels are operating,” said Silva, who is an executive-in-residence at the planned kids sports cable channel, The Whistle. “I don’t see any reason why all these Spanish-language sports channels can’t coexist.”

Though U.S. media companies have been trying to establish a foothold in the Hispanic marketplace for a long time, the current rush to enter the market suggests that the Hispanic TV audience has been underserved so far.

The Hispanic sports TV market is seeing the same wild increases as the overall sports TV market in the United States. This year’s Super Bowl, for example, set a Hispanic viewership record of 10.4 million. Just five years ago, the Super Bowl attracted just 6.2 million Hispanic viewers.

In describing the pending launch of a Spanish-language NFL RedZone, for example, the NFL’s senior vice president of media strategy and development, Hans Schroeder, said it “addresses a very big growing demographic here.”

How can networks stand out? Univision Deportes will focus on its programming lineup, which includes exclusive rights to the Mexican Primera División soccer league and FIFA rights through 2014.

“There’s no real magic to it,” said Sandy Brown, president of Univision Sports. “Programming is going to be the driver. We are going to use content to generate viewership. If we choose the right content, we’ll be the one standing at the end of the day.”

ESPN’s plan to woo the Hispanic audience has as much to do with ESPN as it does with ESPN Deportes, Garcia said. For example, in January, ESPN hired respected boxing writer Bernardo Osuna to host a studio show around “Friday Night Fights” as well as shows on ESPN Deportes.

“We are looking at making ESPN a more hospitable environment for English-speaking and bilingual Hispanics,” Garcia said.

John Ourand can be reached at jourand@sportsbusinessjournal.com. Follow him on Twitter @Ourand_SBJ.

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