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Telemundo lands historic CONCACAF World Cup qualifier rights deal

NEW YORK – Telemundo and NBC Universo have won Spanish-language broadcast rights to all CONCACAF World Cup qualifying matches played outside of the United States and Mexico in the 2018 and 2022 cycles.

The deal was announced Tuesday night in New York at the glitzy upfront presentation for the over-the-air network and its sister cable channel. Both brands' sports properties have been merged into a new NBC Deportes division within Philadelphia-based Comcast's multimedia empire.

For some time now, Telemundo has bought broadcast rights to Mexico's road World Cup qualifiers, wherever they have been. As many of you know all too well, each CONCACAF nation owns the rights to its home games. Mexico games have long drawn an audience worth the expense.

When it came to United States games, though, the demand didn't always exist to justify paying the ransoms demanded by Caribbean and Central American nations. So Traffic Sports, CONCACAF's marketing agency, put the games on closed-circuit or pay-per-view television.

Early in the 2014 cycle, beIN Sports struck a deal with CONCACAF and Traffic that allowed it to sweep the board. For the first time ever, one package unified all games in the region except U.S. and Mexico home contests. The deal also gave the network leverage with fans of CONCACAF nations at a time when it faced an uphill battle for carriage by mainstream cable and satellite providers.

But it came after the cycle had started, which left the Americans' opening road qualifier at Guatemala on pay-per-view. And even after the deal, beIN didn't have the carriage to reach a widespread audience.

Now we can say that the era of limited distribution of World Cup qualifiers is officially dead.

Among those celebrating the news was, of course, Telemundo's lead soccer broadcaster Andrés Cantor.

"Every game is very good, but you know how it is for Mexico and the U.S. when they go abroad," he told me.

(And as someone who has watched a fair few such games in bars carrying closed-circuit feeds, allow me to join the chorus singing good riddance.)

In addition to the World Cup qualifying rights, Telemundo and NBC Universo also gained Spanish-language rights to the CONCACAF qualifying tournament for the 2016 Olympics, which will be held later this year at venues still to be determined in the United States.

Given that NBC has long been the home of the Olympics - with Spanish-language coverage on Telemundo - the deal makes sense.

(If you're wondering why Olympic qualifying isn't part of the extensive deal Univision signed with CONCACAF for 10 years starting in 2012, it seems the tournament was specifically excluded. And if you're wondering about English-language rights for all of these events, I don't have official confirmation about which network has them, so I don't want to jump the gun by speculating.)

"We had an opportunity to go out and bid on the rights, and CONCACAF is an extremely valuable property for us," NBCUniversal chairman of Hispanic enterprises and content Joe Uva told me. "We just think it's perfect companion programming for what we have from FIFA."

I asked Uva what it meant that Telemundo was able not only unify the diverse CONCACAF rights, but also bring the games an unprecedented level of exposure.

"We really, really have had a commitment that I made a couple of years ago that we weren't just going to say it's okay to have two cycles of a World Cup," he answered. "We wanted to make sure that we had a third cycle of the World Cup, and we recognized the importance of the region, particularly those teams [the United States and Mexico] in the confederation. So we were able to do it - we worked with Traffic, we pulled it all together, we worked with the federations."

How easy was the deal to pull off? I'll let you judge for yourself from Uva's answer.

"It took a while," he said, "but it was a great give and take, back and forth."

The deal does not include qualifiers for the 2026 cycle. Uva told me that those rights have not been tendered yet.

"All I know is we had a great meeting with FIFA during the World Cup when we were down in Rio for the [2014] finals, and we told them about our plans for how we were going to cover [their events], starting with the men's under-20s this year," he said. "FIFA loved the plans that we presented to them, and when the opportunity was there, we seized the advantage."

Those plans include bringing NBC's reputation for storytelling to Comcast's Spanish-language networks.

"We've already shot a number of profiles across the region for the men's under-20 teams to identify those players across the regions who's the next [Cristiano] Ronaldo, who's the next Neymar, who's the next James Rodriguez," Uva said. "We're going to tell the stories, and by the time they get to Russia in 2018, they're the stars of tomorrow."

But Uva admitted that the plans did not include securing broadcast rights for the 2026 World Cup without a competitive bidding process.

"It never really crossed our minds," he said. "We went into it the way NBC Sports had been very aggressive with the Olympics extending rights, and we basically took the same approach with FIFA. We asked them if they would consider it, and we presented all of our plans in the portfolio, and we wee awarded the rights."

It was an unprecedented step for FIFA, and as is well known, it came rife with speculation about ulterior motives on FIFA's part.

Much of that speculation was proved accurate this past February, when FIFA secretary general Jerome Valcke confirmed that the deal was struck in order to stop Fox from suing soccer's governing body for breach of contract.

Telemundo doesn't have as many programming conflicts during November and December as Fox does with the NFL and college football. But it's not too hard to figure out where the network would stand.

And as Uva diplomatically noted, NBC's negotiating tactics had a precedent. A year ago this month, NBC announced a rights extension with the International Olympic Committee through 2023. That deal also came without an open bidding process.

NBC has had a long and prosperous relationship with the International Olympic Committee, which is part of why it was able to secure that deal. We will see if the company is able to build that kind of relationship with FIFA, whose rights are much more sought-after - even though they won't be up for grabs again for a decade.