SBJ/February 27-March 5, 2017/Franchises

NHL clubs dip toe in Spanish-language radio

When the Chicago Blackhawks partnered with Univision Chicago last year for the team’s first Spanish-language radio broadcast, the announcers faced some challenges. Among the biggest: There is no obvious English-to-Spanish translation for “icing.”

Despite that hurdle, the debut was successful, leading the team and the station to partner for 14 broadcasts this season.

While hockey has traditionally lagged in popularity among Spanish speakers in the U.S. compared with the other major pro sports, recent efforts have many across the NHL optimistic for the future.

“In a broad sense, the more options and gateways you have into your sport, the better,” said Jay Blunk, executive vice president of the Blackhawks. “We never want language to be a barrier to our product.”

Doug Levy, Univision Chicago’s general manager, approached Blunk with the idea last year after seeing how the station’s audience connected with the Blackhawks through social media and some of the team’s community initiatives, much of that driven by the team’s recent Stanley Cup success.

It also speaks to the broader demographics in Chicago, which has the fifth-largest Hispanic population among U.S. cities. About 520,000 Hispanics said they either had watched or listened to a Blackhawks game and 162,000 said they had attended a game in the previous 12 months, per data from Scarborough. Blunk said those figures are up more than 400 percent since 2007.

While how many listeners have tuned in is unknown due to the way that radio is tracked, more by time slot than by individual programs, both Blunk and Levy said anecdotal evidence indicates to them that the partnership has been successful. The Blackhawks have seen larger turnouts across the city for their grassroots hockey programs, including many fans who speak Spanish, and Levy said the network continues to get good feedback from fans.
The Florida Panthers had long been the only NHL team that had a Spanish-language broadcast, but even that effort was shelved in 1998 after moving from Miami Arena to the BB&T Center in Broward County. The team relaunched the broadcasts in 2014 after its acquisition by Vincent Viola.

“With our market having such a large Latin and Hispanic demographic, we felt it was very important to have a real long-term strategy to be a part of that marketplace,” said Peter Luukko, executive chairman of the Panthers. “We’re trying to show that the Panthers want to be part of all of the communities around Broward County, and it’s much better to be invited in, as opposed to trying to break the door down.”

Along with its radio broadcasts, Luukko said, the team has worked to connect with local business leaders, the chamber of commerce and other Spanish-speaking community groups.

As with the Blackhawks’ broadcasts, information on ad buys during the games was not available.

Tapping into the same demographic trends is something the expansion Vegas Golden Knights believe will be key to their success, President Kerry Bubolz said.

“One of the first pieces of due diligence I did was looking at the people that make up this market, and 30 percent of it is Hispanic, and it is one of the fastest if not the fastest growing segments,” said Bubolz, who joined Vegas from the Cleveland Cavaliers. “If you have 30 percent of your market being of one demographic, you have to find a way to reach that audience. It’s a no-brainer.”

The team is in discussions with Spanish-language radio broadcasters in the market ahead of its 2017 launch.
“In Cleveland,” said Bubolz, “we were in our third year of doing Spanish-language broadcasts for the entire season, in a market that had a much smaller Hispanic audience,” he said. “While the broadcasts are great, it is far more important that you reach out to that community and show how much you want them to be a part of what you’re doing.”

David Proper, NHL executive vice president of media and international strategy, said that while the league has considered bringing foreign-language broadcasts back in an on-demand capacity, it has learned that many second-generation bilingual fans prefer to listen in English. National Spanish-language television broadcast rights are held by NBC, and Proper said if NBC wanted to do a broadcast on Telemundo, he’d be happy to have that discussion. However, he said, the team efforts are steps in the right direction.

“This is not something that turns quickly, and you need to be dedicated to that audience over time,” he said.

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