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Univision's World Cup plan: U.S., Mexico equally important

An inside look at the network's plans to bring you all of the action from Brazil.

NEW YORK - Imagine, just for a moment, the notion that you couldn't watch just about any soccer game you could dream of on television or online.

It's not that far-fetched a concept, because our lives were that way not all that long ago. Only over the last 10 years or so has soccer on TV exploded to the degree that it has.

If you're new enough to the sport that you weren't paying attention in the early 2000s, here's a quick history.

(It is admittedly a bit subjective, but D.C. was a pretty good market to grow up in when it comes to soccer because of its widespread international population.)

If you had the money for a premium cable package, you could have gotten Fox Sports World and its package of English Premier League games. Maybe your regional sports network carried the Premier League review show that Fox produced in conjunction with Trans World International.

Some cities were easier than others to pick up RAI International in, so you could see Serie A games on the weekends. Or maybe you had another international channel that showed other games from Europe or South America every every now and then. Or if you were lucky, your regional sports network

Otherwise, you were limited to whatever ESPN and the Spanish-language networks had. This wasn't meaningless, but it was limited. ESPN had the World Cup, the UEFA Champions League, and of course MLS and the U.S. national teams. Univision had the World Cup and the Mexican league, and the national team and MLS rights went back and forth between them and Telemundo.

If you wanted to watch games from Spain, Germany, France, Brazil, the Netherlands, anywhere in Africa or Asia… good luck.

But there was one place where you could get just a taste of the rest of the world every week: the highlights roundup on Univision's Sunday morning "Republica Deportiva" show.

What little Spanish I have learned over the years came in large part from that show, and from watching soccer games on Univision in the decade-plus since.

Over that time, I have come to appreciate how integral soccer is to Univision's very existence.

Going back to its founding days as the Spanish Information Network, Univision has shown every World Cup since 1970. Whether through its own production or in partnership with Mexican giant Televisa, Brazil will be Univision's 12th consecutive broadcast of the event - and its last for at least eight years.

For as much as you've heard about this being the end of ESPN's long run airing the World Cup, Univision also is losing the FIFA contract after this summer. Telemundo, which is part of the Comcast empire, takes over for the 2015 and 2022 World Cup cycles.

You might think Fox out-bidding ESPN was a big deal. In some soccer circles, Telemundo out-bidding Univision was bigger.

Expect Univision to go out with a bang, just as ESPN will.

As part of the countdown to kickoff in Sao Paulo, I got an invitation recently to interview the president of Univision's sports division about the network's World Cup plans. I didn't hesitate to accept.

Juan Carlos Rodriguez is a Mexico City native who came to Univision from Televisa in 2012. Not surprisingly, soccer has been in his blood for his whole life.

"I wanted to be a stadium when I was a kid," he told me. I couldn't help reacting a bit quizzically to that, but of course it was the setup to a good punchline.

"Everybody wanted to be a fireman or a pilot - I wanted to be a stadium to see all the games," he said. "I wanted to be a professional player, but I got injured. I had the guts but never the skills."

With his playing prospects derailed, Rodriguez started studying to become a civil engineer. But he later turned back to soccer when the 1986 World Cup was moved to Mexico because Colombia was too unsafe. He took a job as lodging coordinator for a local organizing committee, and then took a job with Adidas.

After 11 years with the sporting goods giant, Rodriguez decided to launch his own sports radio and TV network, Grupo Estadio. In 2009, he sold it to Televisa, setting up the path to where he is now.

Think for a moment about how many connections you can build a résumé like that.

"All my bucket lists are related to soccer games," he quipped, and it's a safe bet that he's been able to check off a lot of boxes.

Now Rodriguez gets to check off one what would be an ultimate bucket list for any soccer fan in America: bringing the spectacle of a World Cup in soccer-crazed Brazil to American televisions.

The buildup started when Univision started branching out in to rights fees for leagues outside of North America. Now, in addition to MLS and Liga MX, you can watch games from France's Ligue 1 and the German Cup.

"When you see the World Cup from a very high level, it's a small piece of the full puzzle," Rodriguez said.

Rodriguez has also made some big investments in on-air talent. In recent months, Univision has brought on veteran play-by-play announcer Luis Omar Tapia and color analyst Hristo Stoichkov, a Barcelona legend who played in MLS for Chicago and D.C.

Additional analysts for the World Cup will include Argentine-Italian Mauro Camoranesi, Mexican legend Ramon Ramirez and former U.S. national team stalwart Marcelo Balboa. It will be a truly global cast for a truly global event.

Univision's push for audience isn't just coming on television. It's also coming online, and to a degree that the network has never done before.

Every game of the World Cup will be streamed online via Univision's website and mobile and tablet apps. With kickoff times stretching from the afternoon to the edge of East Coast prime time, Rodriguez wants to make sure fans have as much access as possible.

"Most of the people who are going to watch us on Thursdays - before they 'get sick' on Fridays during the World Cup - will be on TV on the East Coast, and on the West Coast they're going to be seeing us [online]," he said.

To learn more about Univision's online plans, I turned to Scott Levine, the network's senior vice president for product and interactive media.

I know what some of you are thinking, so let's air it out: yes, that's what you'd call an "Anglo" name. Univision has quite a few of them. And when I mentioned to Levine that I was in town from Philadelphia, he noted that he went to Penn and has relatives in the area. So he was happy to chat about life on the banks of the Schuylkill.

Alas, we both knew that wasn't why I made the trip, and our time was limited.

Levine pointed out that a far greater percentage of Univision's web traffic now comes from its mobile site and apps than its main website.

"We see across the board that Hispanic America jumped right into the mobile universe," he told me. "We see double-digit growth rates [and] installs of apps that are at record paces for us."

Levine had a big role in developing Univision's new apps, and in sealing a deal with NeuLion to provide the network with a robust online video streaming platform. It's the same technology that's used by MLS, the NHL, the NBA and a raft of colleges - including Levine's alma mater.

The apps are completely bilingual. You can get all of the information you want in either English or Spanish.

Why do that for a network that only broadcasts in one language?

"When we say we're in the heartbeat of Hispanic America... everybody asks if that means it's Spanish-speaking," Levine said. "When you talk about soccer, it doesn't mean that anymore."

He added that "it's not 50 percent, but a noticeable percentage of people are signing up in English."

Univision is in the process of signing "TV Anywhere" authenticated streaming deals with various pay TV providers. Rodriguez wouldn't go into specifics, but for now there are six carriers in the app: AT&T U-Verse, Bright House, Cablevision Optimum, Cox, Dish Network and Time Warner.

During the World Cup, though, almost all of the streams won't require authentication. Only the last eight will: the quarterfinals, semifinals, third place game and final. And of those, only four are on weekdays.

Having said that, streaming might not even matter in the way it will with ESPN. Since Univision is an over-the-air network, you don't need a pay-TV subscription to watch it in the first place - just a television with an antenna.

So relax, cord-cutters. The only games you might miss out on are the few games that will be exclusively on UniMás. And even then, many big markets have over-the-air UniMás affiliates too.

Those of you who've watched the last few World Cups know about this dynamic already anyway. If your first priority is to watch a broadcast in English, you go to ESPN; if your first priority is to not have cable, you go to Univision.

It's no slight against either network. But Rodriguez knows that in the last few World Cups, Univision has taken a sliver of audience away from ESPN. That has given the network motivation to keep improving its broadcasts, so that a consumer won't feel like switching channels leads to a sacrifice in quality.

"We're making an incredible amount of investment in the on-air experience," Rodriguez said. "Technology-wise, we are literally going to be looking like an English broadcast."

And the advertising campaign, Rodriguez added, "caters to our regular audiences, but also to all those bilinguals that have not decided whether they want to watch ESPN or us."

He also spoke about the tone of that campaign. Univision's on-air talent is renowned for having fun with their work. It's their nature as much anything, and broadcasters like Fernando Fiore and Pablo Ramirez are celebrated for it.

That's just what Rodriguez wants.

"I think we are way more fun than the American way," he said. "It's about entertainment [and] the news, but it's the tone in which we make it happen."

Univision will supplement its game broadcasts with a lot of shoulder programming on its sports channel, Univision Deportes. It's an asset that the network has never had before in a World Cup.

Levine told me the channel will be streamed 24/7 through the app starting later this year, along with some live game broadcasts on Univision's other networks.

(Don't hold your breath for streams of MLS games, though. There's been a lot of talk behind the scenes of making it happen, but I was told the negotiations have been a bit protracted.)

Historically, Mexican soccer has been Univision's biggest driver of ratings and revenue. It still is, and will continue to be for a long time. But America's Hispanic population is no monoculture, and the World Cup shows that better than anything else. Rodriguez knows his broadcasts have to appeal just as much to fans of Argentina, Colombia, Honduras, Costa Rica and other nations.

"It's very hard to cater to all the niche audiences," Rodriguez said.

At the same time, though, soccer's stars are now recognized everywhere. So a Costa Rica fan will pay attention to Argentina, and a Colombia fan will watch Spain.

"Neymar, Messi, one after the other have become citizens of the world," Rodriguez said. "So we have to treat them as citizens of the world."

Then there is the matter of the nation is the one where Univision is based. When Rodriguez started talking about how the network will cover the United States national team, he said something that I'm almost certain will be the biggest headline you'll take from this story.

"We decided that we want to treat the U.S. national team as we treat Mexico," he said. "So we're 'getting in bed' with the U.S. - we're devoting the same resources to the U.S. as we are to Mexico."

I very rarely cut off interview subjects when they're talking, but I did there.

Go read that quote again.

If you've followed American soccer for many years, read it a few times.

Yes, Rodriguez really said Univision is treating the U.S. and Mexican national teams equally.

I still remember when Univision anchors referred to Americans playing the world's game as "Gringo Soccer" in the 2000s. So does Rodriguez.

"We never cared about it," he acknowledged.

Now, the U.S. national team has transformed into what Univision's top play-by-play voices call "El Equipo de Todos" - literally, the team of everybody.

That is as serious a sign as any of how much the sport and its culture have grown.

Rodriguez spoke at length about what it means to him and to Univision as a whole:

"We live in the States [and] we have to be responsible. It was a learning process for me. When I came in [to Univision], I met Aldo who is from Cuba, Ricardo who is from Argentina. All these guys are my peers. They are second-generation people who cheer for the U.S. This is not Mexican television - we are in the U.S., and we want to make television for Americans, regardless of [your] origin.

So we came on board and decided that the U.S. national team had to have at least the same amount of resources, and be covered in the same way [as Mexico]. We met with U.S. Soccer, and we came to an agreement that it was going to happen. They opened the doors. They know we are rights-holders for them. They treat us like real partners, and we are going to do a very good job covering them.

It certainly helps that the U.S. national team has an ever-increasing corps of players with Mexican heritage, such as Omar González and Michael Orozco Fiscal. And of course, superstar Landon Donovan has long been fluent in Spanish. So is head coach Jurgen Klinsmann.

"It is now in our DNA, both ways," Rodriguez said. "It's a priority for us."

Major League Soccer is one strand of that DNA. It gives Univision access not just to stars from the U.S. national team, but from Honduras, Costa Rica and many other nations.

"I think MLS is about to explode - it's really about time," Rodriguez said. "The owners are rich and smart, and they are going to devote whatever is necessary to make it explode."

He also added a few words of advice on what could help light the fuse.

"For me, it's about investing money in players," he said. "They have done a very good job of investing in stadiums [and] teams."

Rodriguez added that MLS will get another big boost when the U.S. next hosts a World Cup - and he's certain that will happen.

"It has to," he emphasized.

And he wasn't afraid to make a prediction about this year's World Cup either.

"If they are able to go past the first round, be careful, because they're going to go to the semifinals," he said. If that is the case, it will help explode MLS."

Then came a conclusion that will also make some headlines.

"Our perspective is that we want to be partners with MLS for the future," he said.

Since Univision's current rights deal with MLS ends after this season, I asked Rodriguez whether he wants to sign a new agreement.

"With all our hearts - I was going to say with all our wallet, but not quite," he said with a laugh. "We want to nail an agreement with MLS. We believe in MLS, we believe in the property, we believe in the executives, we believe in the owners - it's going to happen."

I raised the point that out that more viewers watched last year's MLS Cup final on UniMás than ESPN, and asked Rodriguez whether he thought that was a statement.

"I hope it does," he answered. "We have a statement to make."