“With a mix of marquee live events and quality sports news and information shows, ESPN Deportes will become the primary viewing destination for Latino sports fans.” (Sarni)
When Lino Garcia, the General Manager of ESPN Deportes, uttered those words in January 2004, he set the tone for what would be, in just a few short years, one of the fastest-rising television networks in the United States. While ESPN Deportes may never be the most-watched U.S. television network (CBS earned that title in 2010 for the 7th time in 8 years) and while it is still nowhere near the popularity of its English-language older brother, ESPN, the Spanish-language sports network has positioned itself neatly in a market where its target audience just happens to be the fastest-growing minority in America.
Back in 2009, ESPN Deportes, for the first time, was able to proudly report that they were the most-watched Spanish-language sports network. (“ESPN Deportes Sales”) While this is a great accomplishment for the young network, in order for ESPN Deportes to maintain their position as the most-watched Spanish-language sports television network, they must continue to please their viewers of Mexican descent and gain the Spanish-language broadcasting rights to the FIFA World Cup. In this paper I will discuss why Mexicans are the most important demographic, why pleasing them is not as difficult as it may seem, and why ESPN Deportes needs to focus on gaining Spanish-language broadcasting rights to the FIFA World Cup.
ESPN Deportes is a U.S. cable television network dedicated to sports. The network is owned by Walt Disney Corporation and operates under the ESPN, Inc. family. Modeled largely after the ultra-successful cable sports network, ESPN, ESPN Deportes has much of the same programming as its English-language counterpart – only in Spanish. ESPN Deportes airs Spanish-language broadcasts of live sporting events in soccer, football, baseball, basketball, action sports, motor sports, and more. Also popular is its studio programming such as Futbol Picante, a roundtable show that discusses the world of soccer and their Spanish-language version of ESPN’s stalwart, Sportscenter. The biggest difference between ESPN and ESPN Deportes is the latter’s extensive coverage of soccer to which the former only lightly explores.
Launched in 2004, it came about as a result of ESPN’s commitment to, as Garcia put it, “serve the growing appetite of the Latino sports fan.” (Sarni) And as the 2010 U.S. Census showed us that the Hispanic/Latino population in the United States has grown 29% from 2000-2009, Latinos now make up roughly 15% of the entire population of the country. (Helguero) With the Latino market now too substantial to ignore, it seems as though ESPN Deportes entered the playing field just in time. In addition to being the most-watched Spanish-language sports network in the United States, ESPN is the 2nd most-watched network out of all U.S. Spanish-language networks, airing in 41% of all Hispanic households. (“ESPN Deportes Sales”) In a country where 91% of Spanish-speaking Hispanics consider themselves sports fans, this leaves ESPN Deportes with quite a large audience to market to, and makes them a television ratings “Wild Card” as demographics continue to shift in the United States.
Of sporting events watched by U.S. Hispanics on television, the most-viewed is Mexican League Soccer, followed by Major League Baseball, with the Copa Libertadores Central/South American soccer tournament coming in third. (Vannoy) While the latter two feature players and/or teams from multiple Latin American countries, thus appealing to many different types of Latinos (by country of origin), the fact that Mexican League soccer is the most viewed shows just how much “Mexican” dominates “Hispanic.” When 2/3 of all Hispanics in the U.S. are of Mexican origin – compared to 8.8% Puerto Rican (2nd biggest faction) and 3.5% Cuban (3rd biggest faction) – it is clear that the majority of the largest minority is Mexican. (Dockterman)
What does this mean? What should this mean? As Arlene Davila said, “it is Mexican language, accent, and mannerisms that are generally favored as the embodiment of generic Hispanicity.” (pg. 85) With Mexican as the norm for Hispanics in the United States for more traditional programming, such as the telenovelas and news programs aired on popular Spanish-language stations Univision and Telemundo, it is only natural that ESPN Deportes follows suit. After all, it is the Spanish-language leader in its market. It seems reasonable that they should focus on pleasing their Mexican viewers, even if it means relegating the needs of their South American and Caribbean viewers to the wayside. But do they even do that?
The biggest (and only real) competitor to ESPN Deportes is Fox Deportes. Formerly known as “Fox Sports en Español,” the network is similar to ESPN Deportes in that it airs Spanish-language sporting events and is owned by a company who has an English-language equivalent (Fox Sports). However, due to the competitive nature of broadcasting rights, what live sporting events are aired differs slightly between the two rivals. Fox Deportes, which launched in 1996 – 8 years before ESPN Deportes – holds the exclusive Spanish-language television rights to some major sporting events including the MLB All-Star Game and the MLB World Series championships. These major events alone help keep Fox Deportes competitive. In addition, Fox Deportes has been very obvious in their identification of Mexican-Americans as their target audience with programs such as Tribuna Fox Sports, whose premise is coverage dedicated to the Mexican Soccer League and the Mexican National Soccer Team. ESPN Deportes, on the other hand, has never singled out a particular Latino community and has tried to serve a “general Latino” audience.
According to Stuart Livingston, due to high immigration rates, the Hispanic community in the United States will continue to hold a strong cultural identity, relative to other minority communities. Essential to understanding this market is their undying love for soccer, or futból. Clearly the most popular sport in Central and South America, soccer is what brings the Mexican, Colombian, Peruvian, and many other ethnic communities together. So when deciding whether to air a prime-time Spanish-language telecast of an NBA basketball game between the Golden State Warriors and Denver Nuggets or a Copa Libertadores soccer match between León de Huánuco (Peru) and Junior Barranquilla (Colombia), you go with the latter. The only thing you have to consider is that there are over 30 million potential Mexican viewers in the United States while there are less than 1.5 million Colombian and Peruvian viewers combined, so airing a game featuring a Mexican team might be the best option of all.
But again, as we saw before, the Copa Libertadores tournament – which features teams from all over Latin America, not just Mexico – is the 3rd most watched sporting “league” amongst the aggregate and largely-Mexican U.S. Hispanic television viewers. If Mexican viewers only wanted to watch Mexican soccer, Copa Libertadores would not be as popular as it is. Currently, ESPN Deportes is the most-watched U.S. Spanish-language television network and not because they show Mexican League soccer, but because they show Major League Baseball, Copa Libertadores, and other professional sports leagues, like the NFL and NBA, that are growing in popularity amongst Hispanic viewers – Mexican and non-Mexican.
I believe that ESPN Deportes has enjoyed success early on despite not catering to its largest demographic (Mexican) because it operates under the ESPN family name. ESPN is recognized worldwide for delivering excellent sports productions and is respected just about everywhere. ESPN Latin America is a Spanish-language sports network available in 17 countries in Latin America, including Mexico. It is not available in the United States. It has enjoyed success in Mexico showing a wide array of sports coverage, namely soccer and baseball. But keep in mind, ESPN Latin America is a network that airs the same broadcasts in Mexico, Colombia, Peru, Guatemala, etc. It does not cater to Mexican audiences, so Mexican viewers have grown accustomed to watching sports aimed at the “general Latino” audience.
“[The audience’s] first preference would tend to be for material produced within their own language and local or national culture. Audience research tends to show a strong preference,” says the Cultural Proximity theory according to La Pastina and Straubhaar, “the audience’s second preference is usually for television programs produces within similar cultures.” Cultural proximity has been mostly applied to telenovela popularity. For example, Mexican telenovelas can gain popularity in other countries such as Colombia because of some shared cultural, social, and linguistic traits between the viewers from both countries. In applying this theory to this scenario, immigrants who watched ESPN Latin America in their country of origin would want to find a similar alternative in the United States.
Since both ESPN Latin America and ESPN Deportes operate under the successful ESPN brand umbrella, they both have similar aesthetics and production standards, giving ESPN Deportes an advantage over Fox Deportes. Now, the former ESPN Latin America viewer from Mexico feels comfortable watching sports on ESPN Deportes. It may not have a show dedicated to the Mexican National Soccer team, but it does show all of the sports they want to watch and follow – they have never seen an “ESPN Mexico” in Mexico and would not expect to see one in the United States, either. As these immigrants come to have families in America, they pass down their television viewing habits to their children who grow up watching ESPN Deportes because their parents watched ESPN Deportes because they used to watch ESPN Latin America.
However, ESPN Deportes cannot rely on this if they wish to grow as a network. Television is very competitive and even though they enjoy the most market power, undoubtedly, Fox Deportes will do all they can to reclaim the title of most-watched U.S. Spanish-language sports network. One key player that can lock in one of these two competitors as the market leader for years to come is the FIFA World Cup.
In 2010, sports fans were treated to the 19th edition of the FIFA World Cup. Played every four years and featuring the top 32 qualifying soccer nations in the world, the World Cup is the most viewed sporting event in the world. Not only is soccer the most popular sport in Latin America, it is the most popular sport in the world. According to FIFA, the 2006 World Cup contained 73,072 hours of television coverage over a 4-week span and generated a cumulative worldwide audience of 26.29 billion viewers across those 4 weeks, making it “the world’s most popular event.” (“FIFA”) Oddly enough, though, with the 2010 edition of the World Cup airing last summer, Spanish-speaking fans in the United States were not watching this major event on ESPN Deportes or even Fox Deportes – they were watching it on Univision.
While Univision is non-cable and, thus, more widely available throughout the United States, it is not dedicated to sports like ESPN Deportes is, and therefore is not the first place people would expect to find Spanish-language broadcasts of the World Cup in the U.S. It has been a successful home for these broadcasts, though, as the 2010 match between Mexico and Argentina was the most-watched sports telecast in U.S. Spanish-language television history (6.7 million viewers). (“FIFA”) Since Univision has held the Spanish-language broadcasting rights in the United States for the last few World Cups, ESPN Deportes has had to adapt, mostly offering pre- and post-game coverage of the matches.
In 2010, ESPN Deportes finally showed World Cup matches – in Portuguese. While it is obvious why Univision, who is not known for its sports programming, wants to air Spanish-language broadcasts of the World Cup, it is still baffling why ESPN Deportes, the most-watched U.S. Spanish-language sports television network, is not able to broadcast Spanish-language telecasts of the most popular sporting event in the world. ESPN Deportes, in 2010, was the only network in the ESPN family of sports networks (including ABC) to not hold the appropriate broadcast rights to the World Cup in the United States. And while the network tried to make the best out of the situation by trying to serve the Portuguese-speaking audience in the United States, what kind of message does this send to the Spanish-speaking audience?
Said Lino Garcia of the matter, “With Brazil, undoubtedly one of the most followed soccer teams in the world, and Portugal qualifying last week, we are leveraging our multi-language rights to better serve the passionate Portuguese-speaking fans. We will also continue to provide our core audience the most in-depth news and information coverage that they have come to expect from ESPN Deportes.” (“PR Newswire”)
According to the 2000 Census, the United States does not have a very Portuguese-speaking community (560,000 speakers); ESPN Deportes is better off airing the Italian – 1.3 million speakers (“U.S. Census Brief”) – or Sign Language – 2 million speakers (Pg. 10 Mitchell) – versions than Portuguese. Spanish, on the other hand, is spoken by over 10% of Americans, is the country’s second most-common language, and is the preferred language of ESPN Deportes viewers. When an event of the magnitude of the World Cup comes around, and when your viewers’ language-preference is clear, you must appease them. ESPN Deportes is unable to compete against the leverage of a network the stature of Univision, much like ESPN is unable to compete against larger networks such as CBS. However, when we consider that on ESPN Deportes’ side is ESPN, ABC, and Disney, a conglomeration who wields far more media power than Univision, it is downright embarrassing that ESPN Deportes was forced to air Portuguese-language versions of the World Cup in 2010.
ESPN Deportes has been dealt a very fortunate hand. Operating under the ESPN brand – the most powerful name in sports – ESPN Deportes has in only a couple of years risen to the top of its class. It is the most successful U.S. Spanish-language sports network and aspires to be for years to come. Just like Lino Garcia said, the network has “become the primary viewing destination for Latino sports fans.” But because of the competitive nature of the television industry, and because of the presence of an older but still relevant competitor (Fox Deportes), ESPN Deportes must make sure to adhere to their largest audience (viewers of Mexican descent) if they want to retain their high viewership numbers. Fortunately, due to cultural proximity of ESPN Deportes to ESPN Latin America, a popular sports network in Mexico and elsewhere in Latin America, showing “general Latino” programming is acceptable to Mexican viewers. However, even more important to the sustenance of ESPN Deportes as the market leader is the securing of Spanish-language broadcasting rights to the most popular sporting event in the world – the FIFA World Cup. While broadcasting marginally-popular sports amongst Hispanic viewers such as basketball and football can make slow gains in popularity in the coming years, the most popular event in the most popular sports amongst your viewers must become a priority. ESPN Deportes needs its parent company, Walt Disney Corporation, to leverage its media power to make sure its “Wild Card” network can continue to grow in coming years and beyond.
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