Telemundo Has a Big Goal: Win the World Cup

MIAMI — Nearly seven years before this year’s World Cup began, Eli Velazquez, a sports television executive for Telemundo, was awakened by an early morning phone call from his boss six time zones away. It was earth-shattering news.

For the first time, Velazquez’s longtime employer, Telemundo, one of the main Spanish-language broadcast networks in the United States, had wrested away World Cup broadcast rights from Univision, its archrival. For the hefty sum of $600 million, the 2018 and 2022 World Cups were theirs. Still in bed, Velazquez, who had helped prepare Telemundo’s sales pitch, struggled to absorb the welcome, but overwhelming, news.

“I knew,” he recalled, “that our world was going to change dramatically.”

And it has.

The takeover of the World Cup broadcast in Spanish (Fox Sports has the English broadcast rights in the United States) has helped propel Telemundo’s rise as a major player in the world of Spanish-language sports media in the United States. It has also illustrated the big-money maneuvering in recent years by media companies hungry for a piece of the growing Spanish-speaking market. Nearly 58 million Latinos live in the United States, about 18 percent of the population.

Telemundo, whose origins date to the 1950s, recently moved into a new $250 million headquarters here, replacing its previous home in a former shoe warehouse in nearby Hialeah. With the acquisition of other rights over the past two years, Telemundo has been able to broadcast the World Cup, the Super Bowl and the Summer Olympics, for which it has the Spanish-language rights through 2032.

Even with the United States not at this World Cup, having failed to qualify, Telemundo’s pursuit of the tournament has paid a few early dividends. Telemundo said its broadcast of Mexico’s upset of Germany last Sunday was the most-watched sporting event in its history — with an average audience of 7.4 million viewers on television, its website and apps. That was three million more than watched on Fox.

But through the first round of group play over all, Telemundo is averaging 1.87 million viewers, compared with 3.3 million for Univision four years ago, according to Nielsen data. That is a staggering drop of 43 percent.

Similarly, Fox’s viewership is down 44 percent compared with ESPN’s four years ago, when the United States was a part of the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. That suggests that the Americans’ absence from this tournament, along with first-round games that start as early as 8 a.m. on the East Coast; increased live streaming; and cord-cutting are all taking a toll.

Still, Telemundo views its current World Cup ratings as a part of the process of chipping away at Univision. Last year, it even beat out Univision as the most-watched Spanish-language network in the United States in some prime-time categories.

“This is like the knockout punch,” Ray Warren, 64, who joined Telemundo in 2016 to serve as president of sports, said recently as he described the impact of acquiring the World Cup rights.

Backed by its corporate owner, Comcast, Telemundo has grown by modernizing its programming and focusing on a generation of Latinos in the United States who are bilingual and whose viewing habits are varied. Aside from sports, Telemundo has also attacked Univision’s undisputed dominance of soap operas — known as telenovelas — with a new class of edgier productions.

As recently as five years ago, Univision had more than double the numbers of viewers as Telemundo, but the gap has been closing: During the last broadcast season, which ended in September, Telemundo averaged 1.4 million viewers in prime time compared with Univision’s 1.7 million, according to Nielsen.

Univision had dominated Spanish-language sports television, including holding the rights to the World Cup, by far the largest sporting event for Latino viewers, from 1978 until 2014.

But as Latinos grew rapidly to become the largest minority group in the United States, various networks saw the potential of the Latino viewing audience, which was younger than the English-language one. Those networks calculated that sports, especially soccer, were a way to gain inroads with this group.

As a result, the number of channels and the amount of sports programming in Spanish have multiplied and can even be bewildering. The Mexican national soccer team? On Univision. Nascar and Major League Baseball? Fox Deportes. The next Super Bowl? ESPN Deportes. Women’s World Cup? Telemundo.

Recognizing the declining trends in television viewership, Telemundo is pushing on the digital front, too. All 64 World Cup games in Russia — 56 on Telemundo and eight on Universo, a cable channel also owned by Telemundo’s corporate parent — will also be streamed live on its mobile app. Producers also push clips onto social media, where they occasionally sprinkle in some English.

The landscape “is more fragmented than it used to be,” said Mario Flores, a co-founder of Sportivo, a public relations and marketing company based in Los Angeles that is focused on sports and Latinos.

“But people who have been here for some time, their children are not just watching more English-language sports, they’re watching in both languages,” added Flores, who has done consulting work for Telemundo, ESPN Deportes and Fox Deportes.

For Latinos in the United States, regardless of generation or language preference, soccer has long been associated with the Spanish language.

“The connections to a sport in a person tend to be passed down,” said Lia Silkworth, who is Telemundo’s senior vice president for insights and consumer development and whose parents are Cuban. “Whether you realize it or not, it’s something that’s emotionally hard-wired into you at a certain age, whether it’s memories of watching with a certain family member or how you come together.”

That passion is what Telemundo is hoping to capitalize on during this World Cup, and it has been used as one of its marketing campaigns: Soccer is better in Spanish.

Network executives said the United States team’s failure to qualify for the tournament was a blow, but not a crippling one: There are eight teams from Spanish-speaking countries in the first round of the tournament, most notably Mexico.

Any significant success by the Mexican team could be a bigger boon for Telemundo than for Fox, which paid $425 million for its rights for the 2018 and 2022 World Cup. (And both networks will also have the 2026 World Cup, from a side deal with FIFA.) People of Mexican origin account for more than 60 percent of the Latino population in the United States, and Telemundo is banking that many will prefer to watch the team in Spanish for cultural or familial reasons.

Telemundo’s announcing team is led by the broadcaster Andrés Cantor, an Argentine who first became well known, even to English-speaking fans, in the 1994 World Cup for bellowing “gooooool” when a player scored.

“The World Cup is an important event that transcends sports, that awakens feelings of belonging and nationalism, and we’re going to have a lot of people that don’t know Telemundo that will now get to see us,” Cantor said in Spanish.

When the Mexican star Javier Hernandez joined West Ham United of the English Premier League, Telemundo broadcast those games on the weekends and saw a 20 percent jump in ratings, said Warren, Telemundo’s sports president.

Telemundo’s sports offerings have grown so much over the years that the network now has the welcome struggle of finding enough airtime to show everything.

During a Telemundo staff meeting before the World Cup, Velazquez, 48, and his staff juggled planning for the World Cup, along with their regular sports, soccer and boxing coverage. And just like a large chunk of their audience, they bounced between Spanish and English when talking.

“I’m in awe of where we’ve come,” Velazquez said later. “When you look at the investment that our parent company has made with us and our new facility, that’s a little microcosm on how fast and big this industry has become.”

Even though Telemundo has made strong inroads with the Mexican population in the United States, it is also cognizant of the two dozen nationalities that also speak Spanish, with varying accents and vocabulary, and also have a presence in the United States.

On the air, broadcasters try for universal terms, knowing that even something as basic as the word for “cleats” can vary across countries.

“In Peru, it’s ‘chimpunes,’ but people also say ‘tacos’ or ‘ganchos,’ ” said the Telemundo commentator Sammy Sadovnik, who is from Peru.

When Peru qualified for the World Cup for the first time in 36 years, Velazquez said Telemundo beat out others to employ Teófilo Cubillas, one of Peru’s best players and a member of its 1982 World Cup team, as an on-air analyst.

To cover the World Cup in Russia, Telemundo is combining its own 90-person sports crew with NBC Universal’s work force to create a staff of hundreds of people, including four announcing teams from Telemundo traveling around Russia. (NBC Universal is owned by Comcast.)

Velazquez, who is Telemundo’s executive vice president of sports, grew up in the Bronx to Puerto Rican parents and dreamed of being on air because few sports broadcasters were Latino. He has pushed his staff to focus more on story lines that would interest Latino viewers, whether it be where players come from, their families or larger themes.

“The experience in this country of being a minority with common language also provides us with common purpose from time to time,” said Velazquez, who has been involved in World Cup coverage since 1994, with both Univision and Telemundo, which he joined in 1999.

Now, with the United States, joined by Canada and Mexico, playing host to the 2026 World Cup, Telemundo is hoping to build on its legacy with coverage on home turf.

“I really believe we’re on an ascendant trend,” Velazquez said. “And the World Cup is going to pave the way for additional opportunities for us and, frankly, for all Hispanics.”

Kevin Draper contributed reporting from New York.

Follow James Wagner on Twitter: @ByJamesWagner.

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