By John Consoli
Special to TVWeek
Rule of life: Don’t screw around with sports fans. Rule of the universe: Especially don’t screw around with fans of the world’s most popular sport, soccer.
It’s a rule that is testing NBC Universal executives as you read this. NBCU will televise the English-language version of the World Cup qualifying match between the United States and Mexico on Aug. 12th on mun2 rather than offering it to one of NBCU’s broader distributed cable networks, such as USA.
Some fans are so upset that they’ve organized petitions to send to NBCU.
Don Browne, president of NBCU’s Telemundo, which also runs mun2, makes two immediate points. First, he said mun2 will televise the match in English to more than 30 million potential viewers on cable systems such as Comcast, Cablevision and Time Warner.
Second, he noted that in addition the match will be shown on Telemundo. While the primary audio feed on Telemundo is in Spanish, the network will offer the mun2 voice feed in English via secondary audio feature SAP, Browne said. Telemundo is available to more than 59 million households.
“We honestly believe that this configuration will service the entire country and make the match available to everyone who wants to see it, otherwise we wouldn’t be doing it this way,” Browne said. “Anyone who doesn’t have access to mun2 can watch the game in English on Telemundo using the SAP feature.”
Since word leaked out late last week that ESPN had failed in a bid to buy the English-language U.S. TV rights to the match from Telemundo, and that the Hispanic network was going to put the English language telecast on mun2, petition drives were started aimed at trying to get Telemundo parent NBC to take the match away from mun2 and put it on an NBC Universal owned cable networks like USA or Bravo.
However Browne believes his parent company’s executives understand the importance of offering the match on mun2. “This decision has been vetted a lot internally before we announced it,” Browne said.
“We have invested a lot of money in getting TV sports rights, particularly in soccer,” Browne said. “And this is a residual benefit. It’s an opportunity to draw viewers to mun2 and to give that network a higher profile among viewers.”
Unlike Telemundo, which programs entirely in Spanish-language, mun2 programs primarily in English and targets a younger, Hispanic-American audience, that it is trying to grow.
“This soccer telecast will bring viewers to both Telemundo and mun2 that are not regular viewers of these networks, and give us an opportunity to promote our other shows to them,“ Browne said. The World Cup qualifying match will be the first time mun2 has televised a live sporting event.
Browne said some major advertisers like Ford and AT&T are on board to advertise in the telecast on both Telemundo and mun2. Each network will have its own set of announcers and advertisers can buy each network or both for the match.
“You make these investments [for TV rights to sporting events] for this very reason,” Browne said, wondering why the network should be expected to give up the rights.
While Browne would not comment on whether ESPN made a bid for the U.S. English-language rights, insiders at ESPN confirmed that discussions were held and Telemundo’s asking price was too high.
While ESPN has the rights to the regular World Cup matches in 2010, and has English-language rights to the qualifying matches, Telemundo has the specific TV rights for both Spanish and English to games the Mexican national team plays in Mexico, including the World Cup qualifying game. The Aug. 12 match will be played in Mexico.
The televised soccer matches between the U.S. and Mexico have drawn solid ratings, another reason why Telemundo is hesitant to give up the English-language telecast.
The last time the U.S. team played Mexico, in Feb. 2009, the match on ESPN2 drew 1.2 million viewers, the largest TV viewing audience of 26 prior World Cup qualifying matches. And that same match in Spanish on Telemundo rival Univision drew 5.9 million viewers. Telemundo did not have the rights to that match because it was played in the U.S.#