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ESPN Leaps Into Spanish-Language Arena

September 24, 2002|JAMES BATES | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ESPN is finally playing ball in Spanish.

After considering the move for more than three years, the sports network said Monday that it would launch a 24-hour Spanish-language sports channel next year, ESPN Deportes (ESPN Sports).

The move taps into one of television's fastest-growing markets: the 10.7 million Latino households in the U.S., a potential viewing audience of more than 35 million.

But it also puts ESPN in competition with Spanish-language networks that use sports as a cornerstone of their programming and that have locked up some key broadcast rights to sports popular with Latino audiences.

Broadcasting giant Univision Communications Inc., for example, has rights to 10 of the 20 Mexican League soccer teams, including the popular Guadalajara and Club America.

The Century City-based Spanish-language broadcaster also has rights to a host of major soccer tournaments, including the 2006 World Cup for men and the 2003 Women's World Cup. In July, Univision's Los Angeles station, KMEX-TV Channel 34, outdrew ABC's local station, KABC-TV Channel 7, by more than 2 to 1 in airing Brazil's victory over Germany in the World Cup finals.

Spanish-language networks Telemundo, Azteca America and Fox Sports World Espanol also have significant sports rights.

ESPN President George Bodenheimer said the ESPN name's international popularity would give it a leg up. In recent years, ESPN has emerged as the crown jewel of the television operations of parent Walt Disney Co.

"I think right off the bat we will be very effective competitors. Our brand will carry us a long way," Bodenheimer said.

Univision spokeswoman Stephanie Pillersdorf said the network welcomed ESPN's move because it recognizes the importance of sports broadcasts in Spanish: "The entry of any new competitor brings additional and much-needed attention to the growing Spanish-language sports market, especially among advertisers."

Media analyst Gordon Hodge of Thomas Weisel Partners in San Francisco said that while the number of Latino homes with cable TV remains relatively low--about 40% in Los Angeles--the potential is huge.

"I think there's a big opportunity in the Hispanic media space, so I can understand why ESPN would want to explore this option. Having said that, I don't look at this as much of a threat to either Telemundo or Univision at this stage," Hodge said.

ESPN plans to offer a diverse slate that includes major league baseball, the National Basketball Assn., Mexican college football and the "X Games" in Spanish. In addition, the network will introduce a new version of SportsCenter with Spanish-language anchors and the show's trademark, an irreverent tone.

But "this is not going to be a warmed-over version of ESPN," Bodenheimer said.

For the sports network overall, the new channel is another means to sustain growth.

According to Merrill Lynch & Co., ESPN in the last fiscal year generated $900 million in operating income for Disney, nearly half the income from its entire Media Networks group, which includes ABC network, its TV stations and Disney Channel. ESPN is 80% owned by Disney, with Hearst Corp. owning the rest.

"In 10, 20 or 30 years we'll look back at this decision and cast it as a no-brainer," Bodenheimer said.

ESPN is building its programming by leveraging a Sunday night block of Spanish-language baseball, football and boxing that it currently offers cable operators, as well as sports it now airs in Latin America through its ESPN International unit, Bodenheimer said.

The difference is that the Sunday night programs now are offered when time is available, which often means on public access channels.

ESPN Deportes is expected to launch in the third quarter of 2003. It will be the network's fifth major channel. The others are ESPN, ESPN2, ESPN News and ESPN Classics. Bodenheimer said he has studied the move for three to four years and that the growth of digital systems allowing cable operators to carry more programming was one factor in the timing of the launch.

In addition, ESPN launched extensive market research among men who watch its Sunday night sports package. Some 96% said it should continue to broadcast in Spanish, more than half said they watch sports frequently and 43% said they watched either ESPN or ESPN in the previous week, the network said.

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