The event was also a rehearsal of sorts for the broadcaster’s coverage of the 2018 FIVA World Cup
Telemundo Deportes’ exclusive Spanish-language coverage of the FIFA Confederations Cup from Russia was a winner in the ratings, outperforming Univision coverage of the 2009 World Cup by 47% in total viewer average. But, even without that win, the experience and commitment in having a team of 100 people onsite in Russia to get a sense of what to expect for the 2018 World Cup next summer would have made it a worthwhile effort, according to Eli Velazquez, EVP, programming production and content, Telemundo Deportes.
The Confederations Cup is an event held in the host nation of the World Cup a year prior to the actual Cup competition. It features only eight teams and four venues, but, along with being a great event in and of itself, it gives FIFA and the host nation a chance to test out everything from venue operations to transport, security, and actual match production and compound operations.
“Even though this was only four venues and we will need to amplify things much more for all 12 venues, we have a much better idea of what to expect,” says Velazquez. “When we get into the war room after the FIFA World Cup draw on Dec. 1, we will be much better informed on what we will need to do. Overall, the experience has been positive, and we’re pretty pleased with what we’ve seen so far out of the Russian people.”
The experience helped the production team and on-air talent understand not only the rhythm and challenges ahead but also the cultural differences in working in Russia, how security protocols will work, and even things like medical and transport. And there was also a need to make sure that Spanish-speaking Americans and others in the U.S. are aware well in advance that the World Cup will not be on Univision next year.
“The Confederations Cup was a big deal for us logistically, but we also needed to start breaking viewer habits as Univision has had the World Cup for decades,” explains Velazquez. “We are the new kids on the block, but we have a wealth of experience, and it is important to get this right and create awareness. What better way than this tournament with the Mexican national team participating? Although, even if it was Team USA that was here, we would have had the same rollout.
“I am so much more bullish on next summer,” he continues. “The World Cup is intimidating and a huge worldwide event, but I am feeling even better about it because the experience at the Confederations Cup will make the operation go more smoothly next year.”
Telemundo does not have a dedicated sports channel, but that doesn’t mean it was shy about putting the Confederations Cup front and center for viewers. On the last day, for example, viewers were treated to live pregame coverage of both the third-place match (which featured Mexico vs. Portugal) and the final, as well as two hours of live coverage between the two matches.
“For this tournament, we integrated our studio operations back home in Miami from a new studio that was built for soccer coverage at the Rio Olympics,” says Velazquez. “There, we had augmented-reality integrations, sponsor integrations, and a touchscreen.”
Next year’s studio operations will be located in Russia, but the Confederations Cup allowed the team to get a better sense of what it will be like to handle signal feeds and transmission.
“We want to have a kineticism to the show, where we go from the studio to the host at the announce position,” says Velazquez, “and bring a sense of the scope and scale of a World Cup event to the people back home so that they can experience what we experienced here in Russia.”
Telemundo also had commentary teams at every match to see whether it should have onsite commentary for all 64 matches next year. That remains to be seen, and the decision will depend on how the logistics for the opening round of match play sort out in December.
“We wanted to be at every match because it amplifies the experience for our talent and they are more engaged,” says Velazquez. “Plus, they can feel the energy at the venue and see more of what is going on than if they were watching it on a screen back home.”
Speaking of engaged talent, in the world of soccer, there is arguably none more engaging and well-known than Andrés Cantor. His “goooaaalll” call is heard in sports-highlights shows around the world, and next year’s World Cup will be the first time he will call the event for a TV audience since 1998.
“He has found a new vigor, and you can sense his youthful enthusiasm coming out,” says Velazquez. “What he brings to the table is a keen sense of knowing when something is going to happen and how to apply the right amount of energy to a moment. And, when the match is over, he comes out of it looking like he just played. He really gives it his all. And Sammy Sadovnik also has a spectacular energy and enthusiasm.”
The primary broadcast team put the Mexican team at the center of operations, following the team and offering reports the day before, day of, and day after matches featuring it. The operation also leveraged coverage from HBS, the production company behind FIFA’s Confederations Cup and World Cup host services for rightsholders.
“HBS has done a really nice job,” says Velazquez. “It was good to know we have enhanced coverage provided by our partnership with FIFA and HBS.”
Next year, the Telemundo team will lean even harder on HBS, which provides a tremendous amount of content for each of the 64 clubs and ensures that rightsholders will have access to video of teams arriving, practices, interviews, and profiles of the 11 host cities.
“We’re the Spanish-language rightsholder in the U.S. and for Team USA, but we will also be in the unique position of having a dynamic viewer community,” says Velazquez. “So we will want to tell the stories of every national team we feel can resonate with them.”
Helping in those storytelling efforts is Telemundo’s experience working with NBC Olympics. And the fact that Jim Bell, executive producer for NBC Olympics, is also executive producer of the World Cup ensures that Telemundo will have an editorial focus on more than goals and red cards.
“You learn that there are so many stories to be told about athletes from other countries, [who] might not speak our language,” explains Velazquez. “Those stories can move you just as well as if they were in your language. At the end of the day, we’re all human [and] want to identify those stories that will compel viewers to identify with players and teams. Ultimately, we are all storytellers, and that is what I find fascinating on a personal level.”
The challenge for rightsholders next year will be that soccer is not a sport that has natural breaks in the action to provide a space for quick-hit profiles and anecdotes to make air during a match.
“It’s not easy,” notes Velazquez, “but we can find time with ancillary programming, digital programs, and nonlinear offerings so we can tell stories 24/7 with a more platform-agnostic approach.”
Over the course of the Confederations Cup, more than 16 million viewers tuned in to watch Telemundo’s TV coverage, and streaming minutes totaled 46 million, so viewers seem primed to become more engaged for the main event next summer.
“We realize this is a huge responsibility, and we want people to know that we truly care about what they want to experience as a viewer,” says Velazquez. “The real key is having a conversation with the viewers so we know how to do bigger and better things next year and in the next two cycles.”