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Nation, World Sports

Is soccer better in Spanish? Telemundo hopes U.S. viewers think so

| Monday, June 11, 2018, 7:15 p.m.
Argentine sportscaster and legendary Telemundo soccer broadcaster Andres Cantor is the focal point of the network's upcoming World Cup coverage.
Argentine sportscaster and legendary Telemundo soccer broadcaster Andres Cantor is the focal point of the network's upcoming World Cup coverage.
Argentine sportscaster and legendary Telemundo soccer broadcaster Andres Cantor talks about his 2018 World Cup assignment.
Argentine sportscaster and legendary Telemundo soccer broadcaster Andres Cantor talks about his 2018 World Cup assignment.

NEW YORK — Andres Cantor screamed “Goal!” for 38 seconds, four fortissimo shrieks of shock, elation and hysteria that exceeded even the usual volcanic standard set by the Pavarotti of the pitch. Getting ready to broadcast its first World Cup, Telemundo hopes his huge-capacity lungs persuade American viewers that soccer is better in Spanish.

“I never time myself,” the five-time Emmy Award-winning broadcaster said. “If I can have three new people watch soccer because they have this crazy announcer that goes nuts when a goal is scored and that's what they think about, but they're watching the game, I'm happy for the game.”

Alongside with the competition on the field will be the battle for American viewers of an audience likely to shrink because of earlier U.S. kickoff times than four years ago —and because this will be the first World Cup since 1986 that won't have a United States team competing. ESPN, ESPN2 and ABC averaged 3.5 million viewers for 48 group-stage games four years ago, boosted by a 13.4 million average for the three first-round games involving the Americans.

Fox acquired U.S. English-language television rights for three World Cups starting with this year's championship in Russia and hired mostly American commentators to differentiate itself from the mostly British voices employed in 2010 and 2014 by ESPN, which broadcast the last six tournaments.

Telemundo, part of Comcast Corp.'s NBCUniversal Inc., took over U.S. Spanish-language rights from Univision, where Cantor called World Cups in 1990, ‘94 and ‘98 before switching networks.

“It's disingenuous for us or anybody to say that it doesn't matter that the U.S. isn't there,” said Fox analyst Alexi Lalas, who worked three World Cups for ESPN before switching in December 2014. “Having said that, as the biggest party in the world, I think it's going to overtake some people, and I think people are going to be introduced to teams that maybe they wouldn't, to players they wouldn't and they're going to exposed to stories that maybe they wouldn't.”

Fox is planning more than 320 hours of broadcast television and over 1,000 hours including digital, according to David Neal, the network's World Cup executive producer. After the U.S. was eliminated in qualifying last October, Fox decided to base four of its six announce teams at its Los Angeles studios, where they will call matches off monitors. John Strong and Stuart Holden will call games from stadiums in Russia, as will JP Dellacamera and Tony Meola.

Eight of Fox's 12 match commentators are American, including Aly Wagner as the first female game analyst for a men's World Cup on U.S. television.

“For us it's a celebration of the growth of the game in the United States,” Neal said. “You want American voices, I think, because that's what's familiar to Americans and their ears.”

Telemundo, using the marketing power of many NBCUniversal networks, wants to attract viewers with a different sound: Cantor's cantabile con brio. His calls of Carli Lloyd's 54-yard goal in the 2015 Women's World Cup final and of Landon Donovan's stoppage-tie score that advanced the U.S. in 2010 are indelible.

NBC aired a 10-second ad of Cantor shouting “Goal!” during the Super Bowl that was seen by 102 million English-language viewers and 13 million Hispanics. He called a goal by Minnesota's Eric Staal during an NHL telecast of NBC, and Arlo White did a Cantor impersonation during the final weekend of NBC's Premier League coverage in May.

Cantor hopes he attracts “people that didn't like soccer before, wasn't that enthusiastic about soccer because they thought it was a boring, low-scoring game.”

“All of a sudden because they hear somebody calling game a different way than they're used to, they get hooked,” he said.

Now 55, Cantor attended his first World Cup at home in Argentina in 1978, watching all of the host's matches and viewing the final from the last row of the Estadio Monumental in Buenos Aires. He admired Jose Maria Munoz's broadcasts growing up, and Chick Hearn's after moving to the U.S. in 1979. After working for a pair of magazines at the 1986 tournament in Mexico, Cantor called three World Cups for Univision starting in 1990.

After switching to Telemundo in 2000, he called four World Cups for the Futbol de Primera radio network, of which he has an ownership stake.

“He's the most authentic,” Telemundo Deportes President Ray Warren said. “One of the things we hear a lot and say a lot is that it's better in Spanish, es mas mejor en espanol, and so I think what's happened with everything that's gone on is there might be more people willing to try to discover, that because there is no real magnetism to the English-language coverage.”

Bill Bergofin, the senior vice president of brand and content development at Telemundo Deportes, said coverage will be promoted on “Today,” “NBC Nightly News,” “Late Night with Seth Meyers,” “Morning Joe” and even Syfy — outlets Univision never had available.

“I'd do the same thing if I was them,” Neal said. “I really think at the end of any analysis, it's good for us if Telemundo does well. And frankly it's good for them if we do well. It not only raises the profile of the sport in the United States, but I think it will ultimately draws viewers to both of us.”

Germany's win over Argentina in the 2014 final was watched by 17.3 million viewers on ABC and 9.2 million on Univision, and the 64 matches on ABC, ESPN and ESPN2 averaged 4.5 million viewers, up from 3.3 million in 2010.

This year's tournament in Russia has far earlier kickoff times on U.S. television that the 2014 tournament in Brazil, starting at 6 a.m. Eastern.

Four years ago, ESPN televised matches starting at noon Eastern.

Fox and Telemundo hope story lines involving Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo, Neymar, Mexico and Iceland will persuade viewers to turn in no matter how early.

“The United States not qualifying for the 2018 World Cup created a major opportunity for Telemundo,” said Marc Ganis, president of the consulting firm Sportscorp Ltd. “The language barrier for soccer broadcasts, particularly for the World Cup, isn't as high as it is for other sports and for the 2018 World Cup it's even lower with the U.S. national team not qualifying.”

Telemundo will broadcast every match from Russia, most from stadiums and some from the International Broadcast Center in Moscow. Cantor works many games from Miami during the Premier League season, but Cantor says the onsite experience is key for him.

“Being in the stadium gives you a different perpective altogether. Not only can you anticipate what's going to happen, but you get the broader pictures of the tactics of the game,” he said. “When I'm calling games off tube, all I see is the same thing that people see at home, so I don't see if Messi is bowing his head or if he's holding his right thigh because he's hurt.”

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