Column: Univision succeeds in tapping into a broader soccer TV audience
If Univision were to draw up its idea of the perfect soccer viewer, that person would be a lot like Edgar Navarro, a first-generation son of Mexican immigrants.
A 41-year-old USC alum from Downey, Navarro is bilingual and bicultural, as American as tacos on the Fourth of July. He watches ESPN, subscribes to the Athletic, and the soundtrack of his childhood was heavy in Vin Scully, Chick Hearn and Bob Miller.
But when he watches soccer, it’s usually in Spanish.
“If I’m at my parents’ house with my dad, we’re watching in Spanish,” he said. “If I’m home, if it’s the Mexican national team, I’m watching it in Spanish. That’s kind of what I’ve grown up with.
“A lot of that has to do with just the content and how it’s being delivered.”
That’s significant because numerous studies have found that the majority of U.S.-born Latinos prefer to watch television in English. Yet for many like Navarro, televised soccer remains more compelling en español.
For years, Univision dominated that marketplace, partly because it followed Mexico’s Liga MX but largely because it drew captive viewers who weren’t comfortable consuming media in English. Now the network — whose soccer coverage airs on Univision, UniMas, Galavision and the newly rebranded TUDN, a collaboration with Mexican broadcaster Televisa — has begun tapping into a broader, acclimated and anglicized audience.
Univision says it is in on pace to finish 2019 with more than half of the overall soccer viewership in the United States, regardless of language — or team. Eight times this year, the U.S. national team played on a Univision network and an English-language outlet at the same time, and on five of those occasions, the Univision audience was at least 28% larger according to Nielsen, which measures TV viewership nationwide.
Even in a year in which the United States won the Women’s World Cup (a tournament carried in Spanish by rival Telemundo), Nielsen numbers show that Univision had seven of the 14 most-watched soccer broadcasts in the coveted 18-49 age group. It outpaces the English-language competition in Major League Soccer as well.
“That’s a testament to the rise of soccer,” said Roberto Ruiz, Univision’s executive vice president of research, insights and analytics. “We have more soccer than anyone. And you are eventually going to gravitate to our screens.”
That’s especially true with coverage of Mexico’s domestic Liga MX. Univision says it aired 103 matches in last fall’s Apertura and this year’s Clausura and averaged 860,000 viewers, slightly better than the audience NBC drew for the 23 English Premier League games it carried last season — though much of the credit goes to the schedule makers. EPL games kick off as early as 4:30 a.m. Pacific, while most Liga MX games are played on weekend afternoons and evenings.
Interestingly, more than a quarter of that national audience is neither Mexican nor Mexican American, and 1 in 8 viewers does not speak Spanish as their first language. And in Southern California, the average Liga MX audience was nearly twice the size of the Premier League one.
“We made a big bet on soccer,” said Ruiz, whose flagship network, TUDN, averages 14 hours of live soccer programming a day, most of it from Mexico. “And we’re continuing to double down on it.”
The size of the audience is only part of the equation, though. Ruiz says the average viewer spent 61 minutes with TUDN’s coverage of this month’s friendly between the United States and Mexico in East Rutherford, N.J., while Fox Sports 1’s audience stayed for an average of 24 minutes, a difference Ruiz calls “the passion index.”
“People that are into this are with us,” he said.
The bet the network made on soccer could pay off big with advertisers too. Latinos already account for 20% of the people in the United States, making them the second-largest segment of the population, according to a 2019 report by the marketing-evaluation firm Claritas.
Population size matters, of course, but the economic power of the U.S. Latino market, estimated at $1.7 trillion annually according to a report by business-data company Statista, might matter even more. Claritas says the cumulative lifetime spending of the average Latino household is $2.5 million, about $539,000 more than the average non-Latino white household.
And Univision owns the demographic holy grail of that market: men aged 18-49. Men like Navarro, a college graduate who can move seamlessly between cultures but feels at home with Univision.
LAFC forward Adama Diomande has voluntarily entered the MLS Substance Abuse and Behavioral Health Program, the league announced Friday, making him ineligible for Saturday’s game.
“It’s just one of the things that’s always been part of the culture,” Navarro said in explaining his loyalty to the network. “A lot of us now, my age group, we’re all first generation, we all grew up with it. The people watching Liga MX are, for the most part, a certain demographic.
“You grew up watching it, and then you become a fan of it.”
The main platform for that is the 24-hour sports cable network TUDN, formerly known as the Univision Deportes Network (UDN). But unlike other round-the-clock sports networks in the United States, TUDN spends little time on golf, tennis, auto racing or Olympic sports.
“We’re not scared of having a game on Sunday night. We’re not scared of having a game on Saturday night,” said Juan Carlos Rodriguez, president of sports for Univision and Televisa. “While the NFL would beat anyone in the regular landscape, our audience doesn’t really [care] about the NFL. They care more about Liga MX than the NFL.
“We have become a destination, the ultimate hub of soccer in America regardless of language.”
Now Univision is trying to grow what has largely been a coastal audience even further, offering digital coverage of Liga MX games in English on TUDNxtra, answering a need for fans who want to see those games in that language.
“We have a lot of people with roots back to Mexico one way or another,” Navarro said, referring to Univision’s dominance in Southern California. “Is it going to play in Nebraska? Is it going to play in Brooklyn, Iowa? Maybe not.
“[But] if there’s enough following for boxing in English, there’s enough following for soccer content in Spanish. Because a lot of it is the same fan.”