Money Talks in Spanish During U.S.-Televised World Cup

PORTLAND, Ore. (TheStreet) -- In U.S. World Cup broadcast negotiations, the biggest players are speaking Spanish.

It's lovely that ESPN, ESPN 2 and ABC have seen their World Cup viewership jump by 23% since last year's World Cup, but Spanish-language Univision, is getting the far better end of the bargain. Free to most households via antenna and stocked with on-air talent including Enrique "El Perro" Bermudez, Felix "El Gato" Fernandez and Jesus "El Profe" Bracamontes, and Luis Omar Tapia that makes ESPN's Ian Darke look awfully lonely by comparison, Univision has watched its World Cup viewership soar by 54% since 2010.

ESPN, ESPN 2 and ABC have been averaging roughly 4.1 million viewers per World Cup match this year. Univision? A cool 7 million. This is why ABC and ESPN paid only $100 million for the English-language rights to the 2010 and 2014 installments of the World Cup while Univision shelled out $325 million: Because the Spanish-language portion is where the money is at.

That's balancing out a bit, but not by a whole lot. Fox  (FOXA) paid $425 million for the English-language rights to the 2018 and 2022 World Cup broadcasts. Comcast (CMCSA), however, snipped the purse strings and let its Telemundo network spend $600 million on the Spanish-language rights to those events. It's money well spent.

World Cup sponsors including McDonald's  (MCD) and Coca-Cola  (KO) go all-out for the World Cup and dedicate big portions of their U.S. marketing budget to network-specific Spanish-language ads. When an advertiser fails to do so -- as Nike discovered with its epic animated ad that's been airing on Univision with awkward subtitles -- it makes the company stand out in a tone-deaf fashion that it may not have intended. That's a lot of revenue to gamble with.

ESPN and ESPN Deportes are generating $50 million a year in revenue from broadcasts of Mexico's Liga MX soccer league. That hasn't prevented Univision, Telemundo, Azteca America and TeleFutura from broadcasting that league's matches for free in Spanish and generating similar revenue of their own. When the Mexican national lost to the U.S. in the 2007 CONCACAF Gold Cup Final, it was the third-largest Spanish-language television audience in U.S. history. The top two such audiences tuned in for World Cup finals.

Currently, Spanish-language broadcasts on Univision are faring about 7% to 10% better than those on ESPN, with some notable exceptions. While ESPN outdrew Univision by 11.1 million to 4.8 million for the U.S. match against Ghana, those with access to the WatchESPN app only accounted for 1.4 million of the match's streaming viewers compared to Univision Digital's 1.7 million streams to the cause. Altogether, that's 19 million viewers who caught the U.S. men's national team's first match of the first round. Meanwhile, Univision drew 12.2 million viewers for Mexico's match against Brazil compared to to ESPN's 4.2 million for the same match.

The knee-jerk reaction is to credit a growing Hispanic population and increasing Spanish-speaking viewership. There's a bit of truth to that, but U.S. soccer fans of all backgrounds made Spanish-language commentary mainstream in 1994, when U.S. viewers dissatisfied with the dull, flat delivery of English-language announcers who seemed detached from the World Cup their nation was hosting turned to Univision and the room-filling "Goooal!" call of renowned Argentinian announcer Andres Cantor. NPR, playing cultural interpreter as it tends to do, earlier this year examined why non-Spanish-speakers gravitate toward Spanish-language soccer broadcasts.

It concluded that, just as the English accents of ESPN's Ian Darke and beIN's Ray Hudson convey a familiarity with the game to a U.S. audience, Cantor's calls and the work of those who followed him had a fluidity and familiarity that English-speaking U.S. counterparts just never had. While ESPN has stepped up its game considerably in recent years, it does a whole lot of work just to do what comes so seemingly easily to its Univision counterparts -- engage the viewer in a steady, visceral fashion and punch up what, at times, can be a tedious exercise.

Part of Telemundo's $600 million price for the 2018 and 2022 World Cup broadcasts is Cantor's return to the event's coverage. His voice was a gateway to televised soccer for millions of U.S. viewers 20 years ago. Those who haven't been patient enough to hand around and watch ESPN, ABC and Fox try to improve their coverage over the last few decades have looked to consistent -- and consistently free -- Spanish-language coverage as their standby.

With like GOL TV and al-Jazeera-run beIN -- which has a Spanish-language equivalent -- establishing themselves as as go-to sources for coverage of Spain's La Liga, Germany's Bundesliga, the Dutch Eredivisie, Brasil's Serie A, Italy's Serie A, Argentina's Primera Division and the U.S. Open Cup, die-hard U.S. soccer fans are already getting their games from plenty of Spanish-language sources. As the World Cup continues to prove, those Spanish language broadcasts continue to wield power that Fox's English-language Major League Soccer and NBC's English Premier League still have a tough time matching.

Soccer and the World Cup are a much easier sell to U.S. viewers than they were two decades ago, but fans, broadcasters and sponsors know that it's been mostly Spanish-speaking voices making the sport's strongest pitch.

-- Written by Jason Notte in Portland, Ore.

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Jason Notte is a reporter for TheStreet. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Huffington Post, Esquire.com, Time Out New York, the Boston Herald, the Boston Phoenix, the Metro newspaper and the Colorado Springs Independent. He previously served as the political and global affairs editor for Metro U.S., layout editor for Boston Now, assistant news editor for the Herald News of West Paterson, N.J., editor of Go Out! Magazine in Hoboken, N.J., and copy editor and lifestyle editor at the Jersey Journal in Jersey City, N.J.

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