ESPN Deportes Dominating the Game

With his finger on the pulse of the Hispanic market, Freddy Rolón keeps ESPN Deportes ahead of the competition in ratings

Freddy Rolón, Vice President and General Manager, ESPN Deportes (Photo: Joe Faraoni/ESPN Images)

In corporate America, the Hispanic market is often seen as a single bloc of consumers. ESPN Deportes, however, knows the community spectrum is vastly more nuanced. ESPN vice president and general manager, Freddy Rolón, makes it his business to not only represent his community, but to also continuously discover its wants and needs, thereby keeping the hallowed sports network ahead of the game.

“Whether they’re bilingual, Spanish-dominant, or English-dominant, Hispanic families all have different viewing patterns,” he says. “Bilingual are the most diverse and inclusive sports fans there are. They tend to follow more teams. They watch the NFL, the NBA, and soccer, and have favorite teams in each league. When you look at the more Spanish-dominant families, there are more soccer fans and maybe they are fans of one or two American sports, but not all of them. The English-dominant viewers tend to be fans of American sports in a more general sense, and might keep a tie to soccer, but not as much.”

Sports was part of the fabric of Rolón’s childhood. The son of Puerto Rican immigrants, he grew up in the Bronx in the shadow of Yankee Stadium, where he and his father sat year after year in the bleachers following a string of losses—a true fan’s rite-of-passage. He attended the prestigious Fieldston high school, completed his undergrad at Wesleyan, and then entered business school at Dartmouth.

It was in business school that he met Russell Wolff, head of international for ESPN. Rolón made it a point to talk to Wolff, and by the end of the conversation, Rolón was off to apply for ESPN’s internship program. Rolón came in at a point when the company was moving toward the launch of ESPN Deportes.

“I remember one week, the general manager at the time was there without any other staff, and asked me to help him out,” Rolón says. “Which was great. I got exposure to launching a business and to new markets. It was more than I thought I was going to get.”

“Ultimately, there are people on both sides. There’s a growing bilingual audience that prefers to watch the NFL in English and soccer in Spanish.”

Freddy Rolón

When the internship was over, he returned to school, but kept in touch with everyone there. As graduation approached, he contacted the company and learned about an opening in the marketing department. He applied and got it.

Today, as VP and general manager, Rolón oversees all the content on ESPN Deportes. His team plans the day-to-day broadcast schedule and handles acquisition of rights and programs for the network. He helms the ESPN Deportes radio, online editorial, and business operations. His wheelhouse includes audio, podcast, digital video, editorial content, and all the broadband products. Additionally, he has been tasked with leveraging the expertise within ESPN Deportes to help the overall growth of Hispanic viewership on all ESPN channels.

Out of the chute, ESPN Deportes was a game changer, and it continues to evolve in response to the market.

“We came with a different approach than what already existed in Spanish language television,” Rolón says. “The majority of programming on Telemundo and Univision was dedicated to boxing and Mexican soccer. One of our strengths early on was that we had a more diverse array of sports rights, and we presented them to the Hispanic fan in a way that didn’t take them for granted.”

Now, the channel shows more American sports than it did initially. And in-house, there’s been a shift to a multiplatform approach. Whereas there used to be a digital team that did digital and a TV team that did TV, content is now created by one team for multiple platforms. And they’ve begun looking at the Hispanic audience in its totality, figuring out how to target the audience in multiple languages.

“Ultimately, there are people on both sides,” he says. “There’s a growing bilingual audience that prefers to watch the NFL in English and soccer in Spanish. Co-viewing also factors in. There is a lot of family viewing amongst the Hispanic audience. It makes a difference if they are watching with friends or with dad and uncles. It’s a rapidly evolving landscape.”

Rolón recently returned from California, where ESPN Deportes was broadcasting the Super Bowl in Spanish for the first time. The next big thing up for the network is the UEFA Euro 2016 soccer tournament. ESPN has both English and Spanish rights to the tournament. ESPN Deportes will be broadcasting all the games from France in June 2016. The last time the channel broadcast the Euro, it broke ratings records, and an even wider viewership is expected this year.

Rolón is responsible for growth, but he believes that authenticity will prevail. “I’m proud that the company values our viewers on multiple platforms,” he says, having no doubts that growth will accelerate naturally.