2018 FIFA World Cup: Telemundo Deportes President Ray Warren on Making a Big First Impression
Spanish-language U.S. broadcaster makes highly anticipated World Cup debut
After 2,428 days, Telemundo Deportes’ FIFA World Cup moment has arrived.
On Oct. 21, 2011, Telemundo shook up the Spanish-language sports-media–rights landscape in this country and landed the rights to its first World Cup package. Many long-time veterans of the network celebrated that day and are ready today to kick off the biggest sports event in the world on their air.
Telemundo Deportes President Ray Warren isn’t one of those people; he joined the company in his current role in September 2016. However, he’ll be the first to admit that he was brought on largely to usher in the World Cup era for the network.
And Telemundo isn’t shying away from making an epic first impression. The NBCUniversal-owned domestic Spanish-language broadcaster has deployed 64 production engineers and an additional 25 dedicated Telemundo camera crews at various points throughout Moscow and Russia, including the IBC, the network’s Red Square studio set, and the stadiums. A total of 150 dedicated personnel are working at the IBC, with 40 dedicated to the set in Red Square.
Then there’s the complete global effort: Telemundo is leveraging at-home workflows much the way sibling NBC does for the Olympic Games. Eighteen technical-production and editing facilities will touch this World Cup in some way for Telemundo, including the new Telemundo Center in Miami; Telemundo Hialeah; NBC Sports Group’s facility in Stamford, CT; 30 Rock in NYC; NBCU Technology Center in Englewood Cliffs, N.J.; and Comcast Media Center in Colorado.
Last week, prior to Warren’s departure for Russia (where he will spend the entirety of the tournament), SVG caught up with him on the eve of, perhaps, the biggest event in the history of his network.
When you look around at the people you work with and with this event, what’s the feeling like around the offices right now?
I’ve been in this business for a long time. When I got here, we had about 600-something days to go, and the fact that we are here right now is crazy. We’ve been doing a lot of gatherings of Telemundo employees, and I asked, ‘How many people have been here for seven years?’ A whole bunch of hands went up. Those people have been waiting a very long time for this moment. It’s stunning to a lot of people who have been in the Spanish-language and digital-television business.
I have a history working in the RSN [regional-sports-network] side of the business, and I’ve always said there’s no better fan than the local sports fan. Nobody wears CSI: Miami pajamas to bed or paints their face with the logo of American Idol. For me, the World Cup is like regional sports networks for the planet Earth. Countries become the regional sports network. People root in Argentina the way Cubs fans do in Chicago. To be involved in this is just a dream for me, frankly. It’s a really fun and exciting time here.
The power of domestic Spanish-language sports fans has been noted. The network serves them exceptionally well, and, with the demographic, there are lots of positive feelings about your network headed into this World Cup. It feels a bit like a coronation for the U.S. Spanish-language soccer fan. Would you agree?
The stars have aligned very nicely. So, yes, I can’t disagree.
The Spanish-language audience is a growing audience and is younger. It’s bolstered by immigration, though there’s a bit of a freeze there in our current climate that won’t be forever, hopefully. We’ve got a young, mobile, multicultural audience.
We’re going to be able to reach them across all platforms, so I think, in some ways, the time shift [won’t hurt us]. Would we like it to be primetime? Yes, because, sure, we’d have higher viewing numbers there, but no, because, for Telemundo, which, for the first time ever, in 2017 won the primetime ratings race against our stiffest competitor, we’ll be able to have World Cup all day and our primetime lineup all night. We’ll be promoting primetime during the World Cup and the World Cup during our primetime. That’s not too bad, either.
The one thing that I think is also occurring is, there is a rise in the U.S. across all ethnicities, and soccer is just in a better place. It’s got a bigger mind share than it may have had in 2014 or 2010. I think other ethnicities are seeing more Spanish-language soccer because they watch Liga MX or La Liga.
There’s definitely aligning of stars here, but let’s be clear: we aren’t taking anything for granted. I’m not for a second not thinking about it all the time, worrying about it to some degree, and praying to the Nielsen gods that they get it right because we feel like we are in a really good place. But you never know!
What’s it like working with your NBC partners? There’s a lot of cooperation going on. There are plenty of differences but some big similarities between a World Cup and an Olympics: a host broadcaster, an IBC, an onsite set, leveraging at-home workflows. In what ways has working with NBC Sports and NBC Olympics helped you prepare for what this event might be like?
It’s been a great collaboration. The fact that I’ve worked at both Stamford and [30 Rock] in the past established a lot of connective tissue, but there was already a lot of that between NBC and Telemundo. Telemundo has been doing the Olympics since 2004.
One of the things that helped us the most, honestly, was that they were in Russia in 2014 for [the Sochi Olympics]. That was good fortune because, if the Olympics hadn’t been there in 2014, right now we’d all be learning about Russia together. Having their expertise has been invaluable for so many reasons. On the streaming, we are working with Rick Cordella [EVP/GM, digital media, NBC Sports Group] and Eric Black [CTO, NBC Sports Digital/Playmaker Media] in building out our sites. [The collaborative effort] goes from operations and logistics to production, programming, digital execution, and ad sales. It’s pretty great.
Is there one thing, in technology or programming, that you are particularly looking forward to seeing in action once this event gets under way?
We’re going to be working with LiveLike and using their VR app. I know it’s such a young business, but just to be in that arena and experimenting with it and watching people talk about it is exciting. It’s going to be a huge help to the growth of it, if anything.
We’ve done a really interesting partnership with Copa90. When I was on the ad-agency side in the early 2000s, we had a very good presentation that explained that, back in the day, the brands that told the best stories were the ones that would win. Today, in the age of the internet, it’s the stories that are told about the brands. It used to be carpet-bomb America with 30-second spots in primetime, and you’ll shout out everybody else. Now it’s about people talking to their friends and sharing what they just tried. That will sell more of whatever it is than the company’s telling you that they make the best thing.
Copa90 is an influencer business. We are going to have 24 influencers in various cities around the U.S. literally experiencing the World Cup with soccer fans and telling about that experience. Let’s see the party in the bar after the win or the pain after the loss. I’m really excited about what I think is going to be a real sticky way to get people to watch more games.
Wanted to ask you about at-home production. A lot has been made about Fox’s keeping many of its broadcasters at home. NBC Olympics leverages at-home workflows, so it’s in the company DNA for events like this. From the executive seat, how do you view that method of producing sports events, especially when you have a host broadcaster that is doing a lot of the heavy lifting for you?
We’re going to be calling some games from the IBC, simply because we can’t physically get people everywhere when the event is in 11 cities covering 3,000 square miles. We can’t get flights to get everybody to every game. So we will be calling some games from Moscow, and those people will be waking up in Russia, going to bed in Russia, living in Russia. That to me is the closest I‘d be comfortable doing [at-home production with announcers].
From my personal experience rooted in regional sports networks since 1988, you’ve got to smell the grass, feel the weather, feel the humidity or the cold and, depending on the country, smell the hot dogs or the kielbasa or the pork sausage. I think it does a lot to be more authentic. That’s a word that we use a lot, and we promise that. That word was not something I made up to pound on a different decision that was made. From my point of view, everybody’s got a budget, and you need to figure out what the most important thing is.
When I got to the company, there were all these signs around the building that said, “World Cup Ready.” Six weeks after I got here, we changed them to say, “World Cup Great.” I wanted that to be a North Star for the entire company that anything we do should be World Cup great and, if it’s not, work on it a little more and, if you need a little more money, come ask for it.
You get one chance to make a first impression, and this is ours, and we’re going to make a great first impression.
How critical of a member of the team has Eli Velazquez been in preparing for this World Cup? Also, and I know you can’t name everybody, but what other people have been pivotal to what we will see?
Eli is invaluable. His title is EVP, programming, production, and operations, so there’s nothing that he hasn’t touched along the way. He has been here for 19 years, and there’s no programming grid he hasn’t looked at, no operation he hasn’t had to work on. In many ways, he is the fulcrum on which we are getting a lot of this done. He and I have hit it off splendidly. When I first got here, in the first call I had, he told me he was a Yankees fan and Giants fan just like me. I don’t know if he knew that already; if so, good for him. We started on the same square, and now we have a really good collaboration, partnership, and, frankly, friendship.
Chris Suarez, our operations man, set up the IBC. He’s gotten all the shipping containers filled, and there have been materials going from PyeongChang to Moscow, Los Angeles to Moscow, and Miami and Stamford to Moscow. There’s stuff just going all over the world. Robert Pardo, our VP of production, has gotten every run of show down to the minute. Adrian Costas has done 64 runthroughs, so we know where everybody is going after every game. He has been really impressive. Joaquin Duro, our VP of digital, is as talented a digital executive as I’ve ever worked with. Bill Bergofin is our head of marketing and has created the basic theme of our marketing; he should win awards for Copa Mundial artwork.
The first thing that happens when someone like me comes in, you have to evaluate the staff and make any difficult decisions that you have to make. I’ve had to do that before, so I came in with a very critical eye of everyone, including the people I just mentioned. This is as good a team as any I’ve ever worked with. Ever. Anywhere. They’re unbelievable.