SBJ/May 12-18, 2014/Media

Univision shows MLS the love with new deal

“We F%[*!^& Love Sports.”

That’s what it says — in English, with those symbols — in red, blue and green letters in Univision Deportes President Juan Carlos Rodriguez’s office at network headquarters in Miami. It was in that room that Univision and MLS on Oct. 21 began serious negotiations on a new deal for the league’s Spanish-language broadcasting rights.

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Univision has carried MLS matches since 2007. Rodriguez and Univision were determined to demonstrate how much they love MLS and U.S. Soccer.

Six months later, an agreement was reached on an eight-year, $120 million deal during a two-day retreat at the Four Seasons Hotel in Miami. Those discussions started in the early morning of April 24 and ended late in the evening of April 25.

“No one was leaving Miami without an agreement,” said Rodriguez of the climactic round of negotiations.

Over the two days, breakfast, lunch and dinner were served and dozens of bottles of Diet Coke were consumed. Representing Univision Deportes were five executives: Rodriguez; Glenn Dryfoos, senior vice president of business affairs; Eric Conrad, vice president of sports programming; Olek Loewenstein, vice president of planning; and Marco Liceaga, vice president of marketing and promotion.

MLS was represented by Gary Stevenson, president and managing director of MLS Business Ventures; Mark Abbott, MLS president and deputy commissioner; Kathy Carter, president of Soccer United Marketing; and counsel from Proskauer Rose.

“There were a lot of times when we had to break to talk amongst ourselves or with our counsel,” Rodriguez said. “Same with MLS. It was a tough negotiation, but there was a real spirit in the room of doing something big.”

Rodriguez had already told MLS executives last summer that Univision wanted to continue its partnership with the league and the U.S. national teams. (SUM, MLS’s commercial arm, represents U.S. Soccer.) But the framework of a deal was constructed during the first formal discussion in October.

Rodriguez’s office is rectangular, with a round table in the middle, the profane declaration of Univision’s love for sports, and whiteboards covering large sections of the four walls. Rodriguez, Stevenson, and the other network and league executives took turns using markers to write on the boards about their expectations of a deal and partnership.
Rodriguez listed two priorities. His first scribble on the board read, “Long term.”

Stevenson agreed, noting that either a four-year, eight-year or 12-year agreement — trailing the cycle of men’s World Cups by one year, beginning in 2015 — made the most sense. An eight-year term was agreed to fairly quickly.
Rodriguez also wrote, “Exclusivity.”

Univision received plenty. For the next eight years, it will own Friday nights, exclusively broadcasting a minimum of 34 games each season on UniMás at 7 p.m. or 11 p.m. ET. It has the exclusive rights to two matches in the opening round of the playoffs, and the Spanish-language rights for MLS Cup, the MLS All-Star Game and all U.S. men’s national team matches. Univision also obtained digital rights across all platforms and mobile devices for the games it televises.

Besides the $15 million annual rights fee, MLS is receiving increased coverage on Univision’s networks, including two hours of “ancillary programming” around many of its Friday night telecasts and a weekly Sunday, one-hour MLS wrapup show. Univision also has pledged to include an MLS segment in all of its sports news shows and make MLS players a part of telecasts of its non-sports events, like the Latin Grammy Awards.

“Univision really wants to integrate MLS and U.S. Soccer into the network brand and culture,” Stevenson said. “That’s a big boost to our strategy to reach Hispanic audiences.”

Said Rodriguez: “I told MLS that ‘The Big U’ would be a very helpful resource for the league growing its business. We want to give the U.S. national team the same level of coverage that we give the Mexican national team. We believe that if the planets align, the U.S. is going to host the World Cup in 2026 or 2030.”

Univision will begin planning for a new era of MLS and U.S. Soccer coverage in 2015 after its coverage of the FIFA World Cup is complete this summer. Rodriguez, who joined Univision from Mexico’s Televisa Deportes in 2012, laughed when he was asked if he felt any pressure to prove that the eight-year commitment of money, resources and programming was a wise one.

“For the sake of my own long career at Univision,” said Rodriguez, “we’d better provide good results.”

Staff writer John Ourand contributed to this report.


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