By Ian Thomas, Staff Writer
Univision Deportes’ bet on the Copa America Centenario this summer paid off, propelling it to strong ratings results compared with English-language sports networks in prime time in June. But can the network sustain that surge long term, especially when rival networks hold the rights to the next wave of tent pole national team soccer tournaments? Increased hours and investment in Liga MX, including an over-the-top English-language coverage option, is where it’s starting its pursuit.
“The highest-rated Mexican teams are the highest-rated soccer teams in the world as it relates to the U.S. market, which no one ever believes when they hear it for the first time,” said Univision Deportes President Juan Carlos Rodriguez.
Liga MX’s 2016-17 season began earlier this month. Last season, the Mexican league’s matches averaged more than 629,000 viewers in the adults 18-49 demographic on Univision Deportes, up 13 percent compared with the previous year. New this year is Univision featuring more than six hours of live matches every Saturday night in prime time, including two matches on Univision proper.
Previously, many of the Saturday night matches kicked off within the same window. The network also worked with Liga MX to relaunch the Fin de Semana de Campeones, or Weekend of Champions, a doubleheader of soccer matches featuring recent championship-winning clubs. The network helped to create an awards show that it aired the night before the matches, as well.
Univision’s commitment to Liga MX is important to the network in part because of what it won’t have in the years to come. The network in 2011 lost out in the bidding for the Spanish-language rights to both the 2018 and 2022 World Cups to NBC’s Telemundo, which put forth a nearly $600 million bid — nearly double what Univision had paid to air the 2010 and 2014 competitions. FIFA then extended those rights to the 2026 World Cup in a no-bid sale last year. So the 2014 World Cup marked the end of a 36-year run for Univision with the event.
Additionally, beIN Sports holds both English- and Spanish-language rights to the next Copa America tournament, in 2019.This year, for the special Centenario edition of the tournament, Univision Deportes averaged 2.9 million viewers across the 32 matches, besting its 2014 World Cup viewership. Its coverage also brought Univision Deportes a 0.9 average prime-time rating for June, higher than the marks for ESPN (0.8), Fox Sports 1 (0.6) and NBC Sports Network (0.3), though by viewership, ESPN (995,000) and FS1 (753,000) still ranked higher. Univision Deportes averaged 701,000 viewers.
Rodriguez admits that more can be done to expose Liga MX to an English-speaking audience. Some of that needs to be done by the league and its clubs through marketing and investment directly in the United States, but he said the network has a role to play too. Liga MX rights are decentralized; each club can sign deals for its individual home matches. Univision holds the rights for 13 of the 18 teams in the league. Univision’s distribution team also is working on a plan to offer an over-the-top option for English-language coverage of the league’s matches, Rodriguez said. Last year, the network began offering an English-language commentary alternative via SAP for its MLS games.
The network is also in the beginning stages of preparing its bid for the next cycle of UEFA Champions League Spanish-language rights, currently held by Fox Sports. Those rights are expected to go to market later this year. Other Univision-held contracts include: MLS; U.S. Soccer; Mexican national team matches played in Canada, Mexico and the United States; and CONCACAF’s slate of events and tournaments.
“We would love to have the rights for the World Cup and these other great tournaments, but if we’re going to compete in a landscape in which we’re going to be the kings of the soccer world for 1,430 days every four years, and then have to stop for 30, then I’m not concerned,” Rodriguez said.