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Lino Garcia was running affiliate marketing for NBC Universal in 2002 when he read the announcement that ESPN was planning a Spanish-language sports channel.
Fresh off a couple of years as general manager of Canal Sony, a pan-regional network that delivered subtitled shows from the U.S. to 26 countries across Latin America, Garcia was intrigued.
He began working everyone he knew in management at ESPN, including former network president George Bodenheimer and head of affiliate sales Sean Bratches, lobbying hard for the role as general manager, which he eventually landed.
“I was one of the people who read that announcement and said, ‘This is a job I really want,’” said Garcia, the network’s first and only GM.
On Tuesday, ESPN Deportes will celebrate the 10th anniversary of its launch as a 24-hour, Spanish-language sports channel.
Garcia still has vivid memories of his first day as an ESPN employee, which he spent at the NCTA Cable Show, where he, his new boss Russell Wolff and network programming head Mark Shapiro pulled together a conference call to discuss plans for the Spanish-language version of “SportsCenter,” which would serve as the new network’s hub.
There already were two Spanish-language sports networks up and running: Fox Sports en Español and the soccer-only channel GolTV. But ESPN was the first that planned to make news and information a cornerstone, creating an operation meant to mirror the broader philosophy of ESPN, which had a strong rights lineup but distinguished itself through “SportsCenter” and its studio shows.
The first decision to be made was the location from which Deportes’ “SportsCenter” would emanate. There was strong support for Los Angeles, the nation’s No. 1 Hispanic market. And Miami, the gateway to Latin America. They also considered taking the show out of the United States, to studios in Buenos Aires or Mexico City.
Garcia favored Mexico City. He saw the network’s strongest content play as coverage of teams, leagues and events in Latin America, and especially Mexico and Puerto Rico. It was clear that would be easier if the studios were in Mexico City, but some of ESPN’s executives worried that a Mexico City-based “SportsCenter” would look too much like Mexican television and not enough like ESPN; that it would lose its “U.S. sensibilities,” Garcia said.
Having spent time in Mexico City while at Canal Sony, Garcia was convinced it was the right choice. A decade later, he thinks of that decision as a seminal moment for ESPN Deportes. Though Deportes often has been beaten out for the most watched event programming by Univision and Telemundo — which typically have carried the best of Mexican soccer — its Mexico City hub has allowed it to produce quality news and studio shows.
“One of the things we said to ourselves was, if nothing else, we’ve got to get ‘SportsCenter’ right,” Garcia said. “It’s a brand tied to ESPN. That was very important to everybody on that call. That was the first call, the first day of my job, not even in the office and it was one of the most important calls of my days working here.”
As with most startup channels, ESPN Deportes’ greatest hurdle in its early days — and for years, really — was distribution. ESPN began making short blocks of Sunday night Deportes programming available to about 13 million cable and satellite subscribers free of charge in July of 2000. But when it flipped the switch on Deportes as a 24-hour network on Jan. 7, 2004, it found that few cable and satellite systems were willing to pay for it.
After 18 months, the network still had fewer than 1 million subscribers, putting it well behind Fox Sports en Español (7.5 million subscribers, including 3.5 million Hispanic households) and GolTV (8 million/2.2 million). Even today, ESPN Deportes (available to 17.3 million households) trails Fox Deportes (21.2 million) and newcomer Univision Deportes (35 million) in the distribution race.
“My expectation was [distribution] was going to be a whole lot more, a lot faster, but it didn’t turn out that way for various reasons,” Garcia said. “I’ll tell you something: There is a blessing and a curse to being part of a large media company and a large group of networks. It really affects [distribution] negotiations. It can affect them in a good way, but also a not so good way. Sometimes it takes longer because you’re negotiating for a whole lot more than just one network.
“Our network has grown fairly slowly, but it’s been a steady growth. We’re profitable and our prospects are very bright. We’ll take some time on Jan. 7 to look back, but what’s really exciting is what we have ahead.”
> Distribution battles will be tough.
Like the Big Ten Network and Pac-12 Networks before it, Southeastern Conference officials are preparing for distribution battles that will keep fans from watching SEC Network games.
“There will be angst,” said SEC consultant Chuck Gerber.
Managing that angst will be the hardest part of the SEC’s launch, just as it was the hardest part of the Big Ten Network’s launch in 2007.
“[Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany] told the schools up front that we don’t want blood in the streets, but there are going to be some tense times,” said Larry Jones, executive vice president of Fox Sports Media Group. “The only way to [manage the schools] is if you have that credibility.”
Mike Slive has that credibility with SEC schools. Still, expect a difficult job.
> SEC Network will cover news events.
Don’t expect an in-depth exposé on graduation rates or off-field transgressions, but the SEC Network is committed to news programming, regardless of whether stories put them in a bad light.
Gerber said he told the SEC presidents that they have to be prepared for some negative stories on the channel.
“If you are going to do a network and you’re going to have a news program, you have to have a news program,” he said. “You don’t necessarily have to give opinion or commentary — because I don’t think that’s our place. ESPN can do that. But on the network itself, if there is an issue with one of the institutions, we are going to report on it.”
Gerber said the SEC learned from the Big Ten Network, which was criticized for not covering the Penn State scandal thoroughly enough in 2011.
“They should have reported it right away and it took them three days,” he said.
> College sports rights still have room for growth.
People who talk of a sports bubble usually point to college sports, the area that has seen the biggest media rights increases. But each of the sports media panelists last month played down talk of a bubble.
“Despite the rise of college rights fees, particularly among the five power conferences … people will continue to compete over them,” said Dean Jordan, managing executive of global sports rights for Wasserman Media Group. “There’s still room for growth.”
> The football playoffs aren’t expanding.
I believed that the new college football playoffs would expand from four to eight teams in the next five years. But I’ve changed my mind because none of the executives on the panel agreed, including Gerber and Jordan, the media consultants who sold the playoff media rights to ESPN.
The main reason: They believe a playoff expansion will dilute the regular season.
“When a conference tells me that they are willing to take less money for their regular-season package for more money that they’re going to split with a bunch of people in the postseason is the day that I’ll tell you that there’s going to be an eight-team playoff,” Gerber said.
Jordan said a playoff expansion would not bring in as much money as some have suggested. “The majority of the value of the playoff is in three games — two semifinals and a championship,” he said. “You’re not creating any more of those when you expand the playoff.”
> The ACC is taking notes.
The ACC hasn’t decided whether it’s going to launch a channel. But Jordan, the conference’s media consultant, said it is keeping a close eye on the SEC Network’s launch. That’s because the ACC’s media deals are similar to the SEC’s, with ESPN set up as the primary rights partner.
John Ourand can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @Ourand_SBJ.