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Q&A: GolTV COO Rodrigo Lombello

In 2003, Rodrigo Lombello received a phone call from Enzo Francescoli, the Uruguay-born soccer legend. Francescoli had just launched 24/7 all-soccer TV network GolTV, and he needed someone to be in charge of the finances. Lombello couldn’t be more suited for the job: He had completed his MBA in North Carolina, had worked for top corporations including McKinsey, The Bosch Group and Dell, and, like most Brazilians, was crazy about soccer. As GolTV prepares to announce the release of three new shows -- and just released its best ratings ever in December 2007 -- Hispanic Television Update spoke to Lombello, about bilingual soccer fans and the challenges of running a start up. An edited transcript follows:

Q: Four years ago, you left your job at a large, established corporation to join an unknown Spanish-language all-soccer TV start-up. How did that come about?

A: For someone who follows soccer, getting a phone call from Enzo [Francescoli] was really something to pay attention to. From the time I was 16 until I was about 25, Enzo was playing for Uruguay and he was the best player of the Uruguayan team. It’s just one of those things you don’t forget. He interviewed me and we thought we were the right fit. For a Brazilian to work in anything that’s related to soccer was great. Soccer is my No. 1, two, three and four sport.

Q: Was that a difficult decision?

A: Yes. For me it was not a no-brainer decision. I was attracted emotionally [to the job] but in terms of stability and the future -- compared to a corporation such as Dell -- it was a risky proposition. Actually, my wife was key in that decision. She said, “You have to follow what you feel is better.” She was right. The move was a great decision. In April 2003 we moved to Miami and I started as CFO. At the beginning of 2006, I was promoted to [chief operating officer].

Q: What was the hardest thing for you at the beginning?

A: At the beginning, even to sell the idea or the concept [of GolTV] to distributors and advertisers was a very tough proposition. For the most part, everybody thought it was a great niche but that it was not economically feasible. They thought an all-soccer network wouldn’t work in the U.S.; that there weren’t enough viewers to support a 24/7 soccer network. But then things started to change. One after the other, advertisers and distributors began to see the value of the proposition of GolTV. We now have over 16 million subscribers.

Q:How are those subscribers being served and which are GolTV’s most important markets?

A: Out of those 16 million subscribers, 3.2 million are Hispanic households. We are very strong in markets such as Los Angeles, New York and South Florida, which makes sense because of the high concentration of Hispanics. In terms of satellite and cable, we are roughly half and half; maybe roughly a little bit more in satellite. We are in Dish Latino and DirecTV Más platform and also their sports package. With Comcast you see the same pattern: We are on their Comcast Hispanic tier but also in its sports package.

Q: GolTV launched as a Spanish-only network and has since become 100% bilingual, with viewers able to choose between English or Spanish. What is the language of choice for GolTV viewers?

A: There are many English-speaking viewers who prefer to watch in Spanish, simply because of the feelings and emotions that Spanish-language announcers put into the action. It’s about the content, not about the language. When you have a good game, people want to watch the game, regardless the language. But then among second- and third-generation Hispanics, you also have a lot of them who prefer to watch the games in English.

Q: Who are GolTV’s top advertisers? And what type of sponsorship you have secured with them?

A: Our top five advertisers are the U.S. Navy, AT&T, All State, Verizon, Terra. A couple of years ago, it was hard for the industry to understand how to more effectively put ads in a soccer game. But now they understand that integrating their brand during the game is what really brings results. So whenever we sell a package, there is always integration in a game, including lower thirds, billboards and the clocks. Think about it: a soccer game is a two-hour event out of which 1:45 is an actual game with no breaks, so a 30-second spot is not the right way to advertise. You have to have a presence during the game.

Q: How is GolTV planning to cover the upcoming 2010 World Cup?

A: We’re going to do the whole road to the qualifiers for the World Cup. Starting Feb. 6 we’ll have qualifiers matches from all over the world, from Europe, Latin America, Asia. On Feb. 6 we’ll have Italy vs. Portugal live (played in Switzerland); we’ll also have Colombia vs. Uruguay. Then we’ll have a number of games from around the world, all leading up to the 2010 World Cup. The key here is to secure the best games of the date.

Q: Do you think soccer has really taken off in the U.S.?

A: If you compare 2007 with 2003, I think people watch more soccer, follow more soccer news, etc. The sport has become more visible. I have no doubt about it. Not only for GolTV. If you look at Univision ratings, for example, every year they bring record ratings on soccer games. And it is a matter of more people watching. But the key question is: Is it because they are more Hispanics who already follow soccer or because more people who were already in the U.S. are becoming soccer aficionados? I’ve not seen statistics explaining this growth. Think about it. 40 million Hispanics here; it’s a market bigger than Argentina.

Q: Is GolTV planning to hold an upfront presentation this year?

A: We have been in New York for upfront season for the last three years, and it had been very successful. This year [in May] we’ll have new shows to present to our sponsors. But there’s a lot of talk about not being an upfront week in New York. It’s not reasonable for us to expect everybody to travel to New York just to watch GolTV’s presentation. If there’s an upfront week, we’ll be there. If not, we’ll do smaller more targeted events in key markets (Los Angeles, Dallas, New York, Miami). In a sense, that would be more effective than just doing a one-time presentation in New York City.

Q: What are some of the new shows you will be announcing?

A: One of the shows is a type of reality show, involving the soccer that’s played every weekend by hundreds of thousands of people across the U.S. The final format is still in negotiations between GolTV and a presenting sponsor. But it should be ready to be announced in April. Overall, we are going to present three new shows.

Q: How would you describe the last four years at GolTV?

A: It has been the greatest experience professionally. It’s fun most of the time and challenging all the time, but it’s very rewarding to see what we’ve achieved in terms of advertising and distribution.