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Why Univision launched subscription streaming after decades of showcasing soccer on free TV

The network believes Spanish-speaking soccer fans aren't vastly different from English-speaking ones when it comes to watching sports online instead of on traditional TV.

Univision's broadcasts of Spanish giant Barcelona's teams in the UEFA men's Champions League often draw big audiences, thanks to the team's big Spanish-speaking fan base in the United States.
Univision's broadcasts of Spanish giant Barcelona's teams in the UEFA men's Champions League often draw big audiences, thanks to the team's big Spanish-speaking fan base in the United States.Read moreJoan Monfort / AP

Before the NFL season started, media outlets across the country did viewer’s guides to how to watch NFL games this season.

One from the Athletic got attention because of how complex it was: 15 lines of color-coded text spanning four days of the week, seven networks, the regular season and the playoffs.

To soccer fans, that was nothing. Followers of the world’s football have been accustomed for decades to searching every corner of the internet to watch games, and subscribing to countless streaming services to catch all the action.

But one network has long stood out for not making fans jump through all those hoops. Univision built its brand among Spanish speakers for decades by putting big games on its flagship broadcast network, from Mexico’s Liga MX to Major League Soccer to the UEFA Champions League — and most importantly, the World Cup until Comcast’s Telemundo bought the rights from 2015 on.

In recent times, Univision’s coverage also attracted quite a few English speakers, too, especially those who were fed up with paying for cable and streaming packages at the same time. Watching a big game over the air, another on cable or satellite TV, and the rest online with a pay-TV login could be a big enough savings to be worth not knowing every word the broadcasters were saying.

A few months ago, Univision changed course. It took its free-of-charge streaming platform ViX (previously known as PrendeTV) and added a paid subscription tier, ViX+, for $6.99 per month.

Most of the network’s soccer properties immediately went behind that paywall: many men’s and women’s Mexican league games, most men’s Champions League games, and action from Concacaf tournaments, the UEFA Nations League, and the domestic leagues of Argentina, Brazil, Colombia and Peru.

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Mobile-first fans

There are still some live games on ViX’s free tier, such as the Revelations Cup men’s under-20 tournament that’s going on right now in Mexico. (The U.S. squad has the Union’s Paxten Aaronson, Brandan Craig, Jack McGlynn and Quinn Sullivan.) But Argentina’s legendary Boca Juniors-River Plate rivalry game earlier this month was on ViX+, which meant fans had to pay to watch it whether in English (on CBS’ Paramount+) or Spanish.

What caused Univision — or more accurately, the parent company of Univision and Mexican sibling Televisa — to go in this direction?

The answer doesn’t just have to do with soccer.

“Hispanics in the U.S, over-index on the use of mobile devices,” Olek Loewenstein, president of sports for the combined TelevisaUnivion entity, told The Inquirer.

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There’s quite a bit of research behind that point, too. Pew showed it in 2016 and 2021, Nielsen did so in 2018, and Horowitz did so this past July.

“People have gotten used to the use of streaming platforms,” Loewenstein said. “I think today, people feel comfortable downloading apps, people today feel comfortable putting their credit card information and personal information on some of these streaming platforms, which wasn’t the case in the past.”

That has proven true as much for Spanish-speaking soccer fans as much as English-speaking ones. Loewenstein spoke on the subject like someone who has had quite a bit of personal experience.

“People would gravitate towards official platforms if they were available, but if they were not, everybody finds a way through piracy to go to RojaDirecta [one of the most popular illegal soccer streaming sites], some of these things,” he said. “So people are used to consuming sports on digital platforms more than I think we realized.”

Learning from rivals

It helps that ViX isn’t just a sports service. It’s got lots of movies and TV shows from Mexico and across the Americas, thanks to Televisa’s ownership. That content is available worldwide, though the sports deals are country-by-country as they’ve always been.

By waiting to launch a subscription streaming platform, Univision has also been able to learn lessons from other networks’ successes and failures.

“Yes, we’re late, and there’s so many players in the ecosystem,” Loewenstein said. “What we realized is what many of these streamers are starting to realize now and are going to play catch-up [over]. We wanted to launch a single product with two experiences: an ad-supported experience and a self-supported [subscription] experience. And that was our design from the get-go.”

(Fox Sports has followed the same logic in not launching a subscription platform at all. Its portal on Tubi for online coverage of this fall’s men’s World Cup, including full-game replays after the final whistle, is free of charge with ads.)

» READ MORE: Inside the English side of NBC’s English Premier League broadcasts

When it comes to Univision’s men’s UEFA Champions League coverage specifically, there’s good news for fans. As with CBS’ English-language coverage on Paramount+, every game is on ViX in some form. So you don’t need cable or satellite TV to watch those games. And unlike with Paramount+, ViX offers a Champions League game of the week free with registration.

But that’s not the case for the biggest ticket item, Liga MX — which isn’t just the most popular soccer league on Univision, but is the most popular soccer league on any U.S. media platform, regardless of language or how fans watch. Year after year, Mexican games rout the Premier League, MLS, Champions League, and everything else.

And the coverage comes with a twist: the broadcast rights aren’t sold by the league, but by each club. So Univision has to go to Necaxa or Puebla and convince them to sell Friday night games that will go on ViX+, while bigger clubs like Tigres and América are on big Univision on Saturday.

What still matters most

How has Loewenstein made the case? First, by noting that having ViX allows Univision to broadcast more games than it used to overall. The network now carries 68 Liga MX games on free-to-air TV, 100 on its cable sports channel TUDN, and 68 exclusively on ViX.

“We didn’t take away games from the platforms that we currently have,” he said.

ViX also allows Univision to significantly expand its coverage of Mexico’s second-division men’s Liga de Expansión, and the women’s top-tier Liga MX Femenil — whose popularity and star power are growing fast.

One thing hasn’t changed, though, and it’s what has helped Loewenstein keep closing sales.

“Their answer is show me the money,” he said. “Their answer is, ‘All things being equal between bidder A and B, I will choose the one that gives me more distribution. But the first piece of that answer is the important one — all things being equal.’”

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To consumers, it matters whether their money goes through a cable company first or straight into Univision’s pockets. But to the entities Univision is paying, it only matters how many figures are on the checks.

“Everybody’s looking for distribution, and everybody’s very happy to talk about how important for them it is to reach the most amount of people and grow the brand,” Loewenstein. “But I still haven’t had, to be honest, a single rights negotiation where money wasn’t the principal factor of the discussion.”

That’s often true no matter what language you speak.