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ESPN tries to make accent mark

Spanish-language sports market is growing fast, and ESPN Deportes has tapped into it.

June 09, 2007|Larry Stewart | Times Staff Writer

Not long ago, Lucas Bongarra, a former college soccer player and now coach, was watching ESPN2 when a promo came on for ESPN Deportes.

He switched. And stayed.

"I now can watch 'SportsCenter' in Spanish," said an almost jubilant Bongarra, 30, who grew up in Buenos Aires and now lives in West Hollywood. "It's the same format as the 'SportsCenter' on ESPN, only it's in Spanish."

He doesn't deny that he is hooked. And yet, on Sundays at noon, Bongarra is also watching Argentine soccer on Fox Sports en Espanol (FSE) , or has been sure to TiVo it.

This kind of enthusiasm is why Spanish-language coverage is the fastest-growing segment of sports broadcasting, with ratings to prove it.

And nowhere is that dynamic more in play than in Los Angeles, the nation's No. 1 market for Latino viewers.

The growth can be seen in the coverage of the CONCACAF Gold Cup, which opened Wednesday and concludes June 24. Galavision, FSE, Univision and its sister network Telefutura all have a piece of the six-city soccer tournament, which includes a doubleheader today at the Home Depot Center.

During the 2005 Gold Cup, Univision (Channel 34) televised six games, including the final. Those telecasts averaged an impressive 7.7 national rating and 2.9 million viewers.

Numbers like those are why these networks, along with the upstart ESPN Deportes, are trying to win the loyalty of sports fans such as Bongarra -- and the revenue that comes with them.

And it is the marketing of Deportes by the ESPN juggernaut that has signaled the shift in importance of Spanish-language coverage. Already, Deportes is being promoted on ESPN's "Sports-Center," as viewers get used to hearing, "And now for your Deportes minute."

And it's not just soccer that brings the viewers. Boxing, baseball, basketball, Ultimate Fighting Championship and NASCAR are all gaining.

ESPN Deportes, only 3 years old, hasn't had many of those viewers but is out to change that.

Although it has its own version of "SportsCenter" that originates from Mexico City and has studios at ESPN headquarters in Bristol, Conn., Deportes has lacked visibility in L.A. Its flagship radio station, KWKW, is here, but on the television side there is only a small bureau headed by reporter Jaime Motta and producer Brandon Clark.

That will be changing. Its profile is already being raised through the ESPN marketing machine, and a facility that ESPN is building next to Staples Center could be a boon as well when it opens in 2009.

"It will give us the opportunity to do a lot more out of here, a lot more local stories," Motta said, noting that the network's coverage has slowly expanded.

"It's been a process. When we first launched, we did a little bit here and a little bit there. As time has gone by, we have covered more events. We covered the BCS championship game for the first time this year. We've always covered the Final Four, but at first, it wasn't something that was put on our calendar. Now it is automatic."

ESPN Deportes also recently wrapped up two distribution deals. It now is on DirecTV's Spanish-language tier -- giving the network more than 3 million homes, an increase of about 1 million -- and beginning July 13 will be on a Time Warner Cable digital tier. Right now, Time Warner's 1.4 million digital subscribers in the L.A. market are getting it for free in a promotional push.

Meanwhile, Fox Sports en Espanol, which has been around for 10 years, reaches 4.5 million of the 11.5 million Latino television households in the U.S., Telemundo reaches 91%, and over-the-air network Univision reaches 99%.

ESPN Deportes has two good reasons to think big.

First, there are an estimated 45 million Latinos in the U.S. today, based on the latest figures from the Census Bureau. That number has been projected to grow to 70 million by 2020. Latinos are not only the largest ethnic group, but also the fastest-growing, accounting for 1.4 million of the national population growth of 2.9 million between July 1, 2005 and July 1, 2006.

In Southern California, it's even faster. Of the estimated 10.3 million people now in L.A. County, 4.6 million are Latino.

ESPN chief George Bodenheimer said the numbers make the Deportes push "a no-brainer." All of ESPN's platforms -- TV, radio, print and online -- are now cross-promoting Deportes. "You can see where we're going," he said. "We want to emulate essentially what we've done with our English-language networks."

Second, according to the Selig Center for Economic Growth, Latinos wield the most buying power of any minority group in the U.S. at $863 billion a year.

"And that is expected to pass $1 trillion by 2010," Bodenheimer said.

A 2002 survey by USC's Tomas Rivera Policy Institute that tracked viewing habits of Latinos found that watching sports was prevalent in 36% of Latino households compared with 30% of English-speaking households.

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