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Luring the Passionate Fans

The increasing diversity of sports channels — combined with the growing number of African-American, Asian and Latino viewers — is driving a boom in sports programming aimed specifically at multicultural audiences.

“There is a lot of action,” says sports marketing consultant Jeffrey Bliss. “No. 1, [cable networks] need the programming. No. 2, they are going after small groups of passionate fans.”

Black Entertainment Television, College Sports Television, ESPN Classic and ESPNU each carry a number of football games between historically black colleges and universities. An industry source says ESPN paid close to $1.5 million for a seven-year agreement to transmit 12 games a year from those schools, a deal brokered by New Vision Sports Properties. New Vision also brokered a $1 million deal that gave CSTV a seven-year package of non-conference games.

Chris Bevilacqua, president of College Sports Television, would not confirm that figure, but he is enthusiastic about what happens on and off the field at black college football games. “These are weekend-long celebrations of black culture that include [events such as] arts festivals. We’ve tried to showcase the competition on the field, but more important, we showcase what is going on in terms of the cultural component.”

Victor Pelt, the owner of Oakland-based New Vision, says fans of those teams demonstrate “a loyalty only rivaled by NASCAR. There is a whole market there with like-minded spending habits.”

Reaching consumers in an emotion-laden environment has, of course, long motivated advertisers to sponsor sporting events that enjoy mass appeal. But the emphasis by marketers to reach ever-more targeted audiences has been a boon to multicultural sports programming. Among them is delivery service DHL Express, which just became the lead advertiser of Fox Sports en Español’s annual awards show.

Samuel Cuñado, head of marketing for the US Hispanic and Latin America division of DHL Express, says the company wants Spanish-language viewers to draw a direct parallel between striving athletes and recently arrived Hispanic immigrants “who go to great lengths to get ahead in this country.”

Immigrants are very much a factor in the sports strategies of Spanish-language broadcasters and cable sports networks. Several outlets go to great lengths to meet the viewing demands of Hispanic immigrants whose allegiance to hometown athletes and teams remains strong.

The emphasis is on soccer, particularly matches in Latin America. Azteca America and Univision each air roughly half the matches of the Mexican soccer league. In addition, next year Univision will broadcast the sport’s World Cup competition.

Telemundo airs the matches of the Mexican national soccer team. GolTV runs nothing but Latin American and European soccer matches as well as news coverage. ESPN Deportes programming runs the gamut from billiards and beach soccer to UEFA Champions League soccer and winter baseball in Mexico. Fox Sports en Español is heavy on Latin American and European soccer. All but GolTV run news programs that provide extensive coverage of other sports such as baseball, boxing and basketball.

The competitive landscape is intense, as the soccer rights are divvied up among so many channels. They are all chasing the same primarily male 18 to 49 demo. And in some cases they are using the same talent. Sportscaster Jorge Ramos hosts his own live sports program on Fox Sports en Español, as well as an ESPN Deportes radio show. And Fox Sports en Español is expected to announce that Ramos will also provide play-by-play commentary for its InterLiga matches.

“Considering the way the rights are distributed, we are complementary. Any fan of soccer is going to probably watch a little of each network,” says Eileen Montalvo, executive vice president of sales and marketing for Miami-based GolTV. “I don’t think there is any way to change a soccer fan’s mind or allegiance.”

Fox Sports en Español senior vice president and assistant general manager Raul de Quesada agrees you can’t separate a fan from his team and describes the mindset as “tribal.” He does go to great pains to differentiate his network from competing cable sports channels, though. According to de Quesada, Fox Sports en Español has 3.5 million Hispanic households out of its 7.5 million subscribers. That Hispanic base — coupled with rights to Latin American tournaments such as Copa Toyota Libertadores and Copa Nissan Sudamericana — boosts ratings and advertiser interest, he says.

No sports event provides as much Latino viewer interest and ratings as the World Cup. Univision outbid Telemundo for the rights to the 2010 and 2014 World Cup, spending a total of $325 million. The lucrative nature of the games was highlighted recently by Univision’s announcement that it has already sold $180 million worth of commercials for next year’s World Cup.

Jorge Hidalgo, senior vice president of news and sports at Telemundo, acknowledges the World Cup’s importance. “It is worth pursuing, but at what price? There is always a point you can’t pass.”

Instead, he focuses on the “guaranteed eyeballs” that come with the soccer rights he does have and plays up traditional rivalries in other sports such as boxing. “The type of boxing we do is nationalistic. In boxing, more than any sport, you have a deep, deep rivalry between Mexico and Puerto Rico. Coincidentally, our biggest groups of viewers are Mexicans and Puerto Ricans.”

At least as intense is the national rivalry that comes with other sports such as cricket, with bigs rivalries between India and Pakistan and England and Australia. The biggest difference between cricket and other sports is that cricket matches last so long that players actually break for tea.

EchoStar Communications Corp.’s Dish Network has been transmitting cricket matches in the U.S. for several years as a special pay-per-view package. Dish is currently offering a package of three test matches and five one-day internationals between Pakistan and England at a cost of $99.95. Other matches are offered on an individual pay-per-view basis.

Multicultural sports programming will also be increasingly available via streaming online video. GolTV has rights to more football matches than it has air time and will begin streaming games in January. Moves like that are likely to ensure that even matches that attract only a few, but passionate, fans will keep audiences happy.