SBJ/Jan. 6-12, 2014/Media

ESPN Deportes marks 10th anniversary

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.”

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