This year, a classic Miami sports rivalry will be hotter than ever: the contest for Spanish-speaking fans.
Univision’s sports division holds the Spanish rights for soccer’s World Cup finals in Brazil this summer, giving the Doral-based network exclusive access to the hottest athletic event in the Hispanic market. It will also be the first World Cup scrum for Univision’s new sports cable network, launched in 2012 to steal market share from long-time cable leaders ESPN Deportes and Fox Deportes.
Despite the crowded field, Al Jazeera saw enough of an opening to start its own Spanish-language sports network in the summer of 2012, picking studios in Miami for its base. And while Univision’s cross-town rival, Telemundo, is staying out of the cable-sports game for now, it signed a reported $600 million deal to wrest Spanish-language World Cup broadcasts from Univision after Brazil.
“Nothing delivers what a World Cup can deliver,’’ said Jorge Hidalgo, executive vice president of sports at Telemundo. “It’s the biggest thing under the sun.”
As with all things Hispanic, Spanish-language sports has gotten hotter than ever. With advertisers pursuing the U.S. Hispanic market on as many fronts as possible, sports has emerged as an even more important battlefield.
“There is a realization that sports is the one DVR-proof content available, with an incentive to watch it live,’’ said Lino Garcia, general manager of ESPN Deportes. “There is value to that. Obviously, the fact that the Spanish-language audience continues to grow just adds to the opportunity.”
Garcia spoke from the lobby of South Beach’s Colony Hotel, a few steps from the oceanfront broadcast studio ESPN set up last week to promote its 10th anniversary. While ESPN produces most of its Spanish-language television shows at its headquarters in Bristol, Conn., its popular Jorge Ramos y su Banda program airs daily out of studios in Coral Gables. The Ramos show shares space ESPN’s Deportes radio operation, with about 60 workers in all.
ESPN launched its Spanish-language network on Jan. 7, 2004, with a basketball game between Oakland’s Golden Warriors and the Dallas Mavericks — two NBA teams in Hispanic-heavy markets. Even so, ESPN struggled to meet sales goals, with major cable operators reluctant to pay to offer the network to basic subscribers, Garcia said.
But in the years that followed, ESPN benefited from a sharp pick-up in demand from Hispanic subscribers, including in markets like Oklahoma and North Carolina far from Spanish-speaking strongholds of New York, Miami and Texas. “You’ve seen triple-digit growth in some of these places. Places like Akron, Ohio,’’ Garcia said.
Between 2008 and 2012, ESPN Deportes held the top ratings spot for sports on Spanish-language cable. It lost the title to the current leader, Fox Deportes, which is based in Los Angeles. Univision Deportes Network, which launched in April 2012, briefly claimed the No.1 slot on cable last fall before Fox returned to the top.
While the networks keep score by ratings, the larger audiences often come with a cost. ESPN, Univision, Telemundo and Fox bid for the Spanish rights for fan favorites. Mexico’s soccer leagues consistently deliver the biggest audiences, and networks compete for their slice of the games.
Univision holds rights to air most games by Mexico’s national team, while Telemundo has a contract to broadcast the team’s World Cup qualifying matches played outside of Mexico. As a sign of Mexican soccer’s rabid following in the United States, Univision signed a deal to let ESPN broadcast the national team’s games in English.
As Telemundo’s Hidalgo put it: “When it comes to sports with Hispanics, soccer is No. 1, soccer is No. 2 and soccer is No. 3.”
Despite soccer’s role as the top ratings driver, Spanish-language sports can be as nuanced as the Hispanic population at large. The live ESPN radio and television shows airing off Ocean Drive during a recent weekday morning offered a case study of the complexities.
Garcia said soccer drives most of ESPN’s Spanish-language ratings. That’s in large part thanks to the popularity of Mexican soccer among a U.S. Hispanic population where Mexican heritage dominates. In South Florida, where the Mexican influence is slight compared to the presence of Cuban-Americans and immigrants from South America, other sports tastes rule.
“When we talk about baseball, people take it personally,’’ said Octavio Sequera, morning host in Miami of ESPN’s local Spanish-language station, 1210 AM. “When we talk about Mexican soccer, people call us and say: ‘Stop! Stop!’ Because they hear about that so much.”
At Univision’s Deportes studios inside a Doral industrial park, set designers created a glossy scaled-down soccer field to be the floor in one corner of the production area. The sports studios produce about 10,000 hours of programming a year, with a team of about 180 producers, engineers, stagehands and on-air talent.
“We compete with the world here,’’ said Juan Carlos Rodriguez, president of Univision Deportes.
Al Jazeera picked Miami for its launching base into the U.S. Spanish-language sports wars. Its Spanish-language network debuted in the summer of 2012, and this month Al Jazeera combined its global sports operations under the new “beIN Sports” brand. A small staff operates out of a broadcast center near Doral, and Al Jazeera has been ramping up its talent hunt.
“I was with the Boston Globe for 23 years,’’ said Frank Dell’Apa, a senior producer for beIN Sports USA. “I don’t think I would have moved anywhere else but Miami.”
Univision hopes to snag a No. 1 ranking with the upcoming World Cup frenzy this summer. The network plans to have a team of about 150 people in Brazil for the games -- roughly equal to the number of people the Univision sports division employs in Miami.
Despite the heavy competition, sports on cable chases after a relatively small audience. Univision’s franchise show is Contacto Deportivo, a dual-anchor highlights show generally described as the Spanish version of ESPN’s Sports Center. It drew an average audience of about 200,000 people in December, the network said.
Filming for the five nightly shows generally begins at 6 p.m., and can stretch into 3 a.m. if late games require new segments for the West Coast feed.
While soccer drives ratings, Univision competes with other Spanish-language channels for rights to broadcast the sports most popular with English-language viewers. Univision will have a broadcast team in New York for the Super Bowl, where its pregame programs include a flag-football match with telenovela stars and other Latin celebrities.
Shortly after 8 on a recent weeknight, Contacto host Lindsay Casinelli killed time before taping by calling Marlins pitcher José Fernández on his cellphone and asking him to come for an interview. Then she grabbed a baseball, stepped before a camera, and rattled off a wrap-up of that day’s Baseball Hall of Fame elections.
“Baseball is my sport,’’ Casinelli said. Growing up in Venezuela, she said, gave her long-standing relationships with some of the Major League’s top stars — most notably eight-time All-Star Miguel Cabrera.
“They become your friends,” she said. “Then you get the interviews — and the exclusives.”