Updated June 1 with some new information on Telemundo's on-air talent.
You don't have to speak a word of Spanish to know about the popularity of soccer within America's Hispanic population. But for as much cultural resonance as the sport has in that community, it has not always been spread around equally.
Historically, a lot of people - and not just in the Hispanic community, to be clear - have considered soccer to be a man's game. Or, perhaps more accurately, a masculine game. Acceptance of women as both fans and players has been a long and not always easy process.
That process has sped up a lot in recent years, which has been good news for everyone involved. You see it the stands of stadiums, on fields in recreational leagues, and even on television.
Women on screen aren’t expected to only be lightly-clad models models anymore. Now, female analysts have a voice and know how to use it. Indeed, women's soccer's place within America’s Hispanic communities has grown enough now that some of the sport’s on-air voices are former players themselves.
But there is still a ways to go. Check out FIFA's most recent women's football survey, released earlier this year, for a lot of interesting facts and figures.
(Yes, I am actually recommending that you read something produced by FIFA. This one's worth your time.)
This summer's World Cup presents a major opportunity to help grow the women's game in a significant way. Because it's taking place in Canada, it will be easier to reach fans in North, Central and South America.
In addition, the expansion of the tournament from 16 to 24 teams has allowed Spanish-speaking nations that have never before reached a World Cup make it to the big stage.
Costa Rica and Ecuador will be making their first ever World Cup appearances next month - with the Ticos becoming the first ever Central American team to play in the tournament. The much-anticipated debut of Spain, featuring former Philadelphia Independence midfielder Verónica Boquete, will get attention because of the nation's resonance in other Spanish-speaking countries.
Then there are the returning teams. Colombia is in the field for the second time after debuting in 2011. Mexico is in for a third time, with a squad featuring many players who earned scholarships to play college soccer in the United States. And of course there's Brazil, led by superstar playmaker Marta. The Seleção have been in every Women's World Cup ever contested.
When the time comes to turn on the spotlight, one of the entities responsible for flipping the switch will be Comcast. The Women's World Cup will be the first major tournament in the Philadelphia-based television behemoth's 12-year Spanish-language rights deal with FIFA. Games will air on Telemundo and sister cable network NBC Universo.
I spoke recently with Eli Velazquez, executive vice president for sports across Comcast’s Spanish-language networks, about his company preparations to step on to soccer’s biggest stage.
“We’re extremely excited and enthused this year to start building our FIFA association,” he told me. “Obviously we’re at the first floor of a large building, if you will, and the sky is the limit given the runway we have in front of us.”
(I should note that officially, the men's under-20 World Cup is the first tournament in the contract, as it starts a week before the Women's World Cup. But it doesn't have the same stature. It's not a senior-level competition - and more importantly, because it's taking place in Australia and New Zealand, games will be shown in the middle of the night. The Women's World Cup is a bigger deal, and has the added benefit of games in prime time.)
Comcast's networks won't televise every game from Canada, but they will show almost all the big ones. Telemundo will carry every Mexico contest, and NBC Universo will carry every U.S. contest. NBC Universo will also show many matchups featuring Spanish-speaking nations.
Among the highlights is Costa Rica vs. Spain on June 9, the first World Cup game ever for both nations. There’s also Costa Rica vs. Brazil (June 17), Colombia vs. France (June 13) and England (June 17), and Ecuador vs. reigning champion Japan (June 16).
In total, Telemundo will broadcast 10 games and NBC Universo will broadcast 21. All of the others will be streamed via NBCDeportes.com, the new Spanish-language online home of the two channels' sports programming. Access will be free of charge with pay-TV provider authentication, in the same way that works for English Premier League streaming.
“It demonstrates not just what FIFA and the soccer world think of it, but also what the fans and the folks who love this sport think of women’s soccer and how it has grown, and how [the World Cup] has become a significant event,” Velazquez said. “It’s always an honor and always an opportunity, from our perspective, to tap into that momentum and figure out how best to deliver the stories – specifically around these players and these teams and these countries - to an audience that really craves, at this point, understanding more about the people they are watching.”
Velasquez’s emphasis on storytelling was intentional. NBC Deportes, the newly-launched sports brand of Telemundo and NBC Universo, has been designed to bring the strengths of NBC Sports to the Hispanic audience. For decades, NBC has been renowned for its ability to get behind the scenes with the sports and athletes it presents, both on and off the field. Now you’ll see that in Spanish as well as English.
“We think that driving Hispanics to this won’t be a hard thing to do,” Velazquez said. “They truly admire and respect the inspirational story and the aspirational story. A lot of these players - and they don’t only have to be Hispanic - have very interesting stories to tell, obstacles that have been overcome, and interesting reasons why they find themselves on the ultimate stage.”
Earlier this month, I attended Telemundo's upfront presentation for advertisers to try to get a sense of where the Women's World Cup ranks among the company's sports priorities. I was pleased to see it get prominent recognition from Andrés Cantor, the network's signature soccer voice.
"We’re especially excited to have the rights to the Women’s World Cup Canada 2015," Cantor said on stage, "giving this sport the prominence that it deserves."
That prominence, he added, is "reflecting its rise in popularity among Hispanic women."
Cantor's respect for women's soccer is nothing new. He has called games in Olympic tournaments for nearly two decades now. But as he told me when we chatted after the presentation, there's no question that this summer's World Cup will bring unprecedented buzz and attention.
"Women's soccer all over the world is growing, and there is a growing presence of Hispanic women playing in this country," Cantor said. We hope that everyone gets caught up in the enthusiasm that the FIFA World Cup in Canada will mean for the game, and we hope to do a good job to try to broadcast with the same enthusiasm that we do for the men's game."
Velasquez noted that 25 percent of the U.S. viewing audience for the 2011 Women’s World Cup was Hispanic. He aims to grow that percentage this summer. FIFA’s expansion of the tournament will surely help.
“It has provided nations that are relevant to our space more opportunities to participate,” he said. “It will help create a compelling enough reason for folks to get behind their national teams.”
That, Velazquez added, will help overcome any barriers that women’s soccer faces in the Hispanic community. And from where he sits, those barriers are already falling.
“The women’s game has come into its own right, its own merit,” he said. “I think we’ve seen stars develop out of these national teams, and we’ve seen opportunities for them to showcase their skills at the highest level.”
As an example, he cited the epic 2012 Olympic semifinal game between the United States and Canada.
“I didn’t notice gender, I noticed great soccer,” he said. “I think we see soccer for what it is. It’s a sport that’s played with the same amount of people on each side, and the same amount of passion and commitment to gaining a result, and with the same commitment toward representing your country, especially in tournaments of this kind.”
While Velazquez sets the tone behind the scenes, Cantor will be doing so on air. He left no doubt that he values women’s soccer in his own right, and his broadcasts will reflect that.
"Women's soccer is women's soccer and men's soccer is men's soccer, as men's tennis is men's tennis and women's tennis is women's tennis," he said. "It's the same sport with the same rules, 11 against 11, a ball in the middle, 90 minutes - but obviously, each gender plays its own level and its own capacity and its own pace. So I don't think we can compare the women's game to the men's game, or the men's game to the women's game."
Cantor finished his point with a bit of blunt humor.
"The men's game is very masculine - sometimes way too much," he quipped. "With the women, any given game can get aggressive as well. I don't think we can say that women's soccer is feminine... I appreciate what the women can give us and what the men can give us."
Gender isn’t the only matter on which Velazquez, Cantor and their colleagues have to find the right balance. Like every other American Spanish-language media outlet, Telemundo faces the challenge of striking the right tone with presenting the United States team and the teams of nations from which the viewing audience emigrated.
If you watched any of Univision's World Cup broadcasts over the years, whether men's or women's, you saw the network's approach to that challenge evolve in a very public way. There once was a time when Univision commentators dismissed Americans playing the game as "Gringo Soccer." Last summer, the network made headlines by very publicly treating the U.S. and Mexican national teams as equals.
The subject is of personal importance to Cantor, and has been since he first rose to prominence while calling games for Univision in the 1990s.
"I coined the phrase many years ago with the [U.S.] men's national team of Bora Milutinovic [at the 1994 World Cup] that it's La Seleccion de Todos - everyone," he said. "You can go back to my Univision days and probably you heard me first saying it way back then, because we really believed that it's everyone's national team. We all have our allegiances to the country of origin or teams that we grew up with, but having lived in this country for so long, every soccer aficionado has his own national team to root for, and then everyone's national team - which is La Seleccion de Todos, the U.S."
Cantor extends the same view toward the American women's team.
"We all understand that the U.S. is one of the favorites to win," he said. "Hopefully Mexico will do well, as will Costa Rica and Colombia. We will follow them around, but most certainly we will be behind the U.S. national team, because we live in this country."
Just as important as Cantor’s role is the rest of the talent that NBC Deportes is bringing in for the tournament. Former Mexican women’s national team player Andrea Rodebaugh is the marquee hire as the primary color analyst. Other additions include play-by-play announcer Copán Álvarez and color analyst Frederik Oldenburg, who works for Telemundo’s Las Vegas affiliate.
In terms of game-callers, there isn’t a lot of gender diversity, but you can argue that there might not be enough depth of broadcasting talent out there yet among Spanish-speaking ex-players. You can also argue that the potential talent is already out there to be developed, but hasn’t been entirely brought into the fold yet. Hopefully that will change in the next few years.
Whatever side of that debate you stand on, I’d think everyone can agree on this: NBC Deportes has a huge opportunity with this year’s Women’s World Cup. We will see if the company is able to take advantage of that opportunity, and help women’s soccer take a huge and needed step forward in America’s Hispanic communities.