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The Wall Street Journal
'El Gringo Malo' Wins Fans Airing Spanish Baseball
By Joel Millman
September 14, 2004
Boston -- BILL KULIK is easily the most valuable player at his Spanish Beisbol Network Inc., the small radio group he launched in 2002 to broadcast Boston Red Sox games to New England's growing Hispanic population.
Operating on a shoestring, Mr. Kulik does everything from buying airtime to selling and recording ads, reading his copy in fractured high-school Spanish to avoid paying actors. He also runs the control board as his own engineer, fetches snacks for his two announcers, and even does a daily relief stint: At the top and bottom of each inning, he sits in for his announcers at the microphone, plodding along with such comic effect that his radio alter ego -- "El Gringo Malo" -- has achieved near cult status in Boston.
Like a lot of entrepreneurs, the 43-year-old Rhode Island native wanted to cash in on the $700 billion a year spent by U.S. Hispanic consumers, a figure that is growing by 8% a year (three times as fast as the overall U.S. rate). Mr. Kulik figured sports media was an easy way to reach Latino pocketbooks because the content could be translated cheaply and reach a wide audience. Plus, the American national pastime has never been more Latin -- about 30% of Major League players speak Spanish.
Yet it hasn't been easy for Mr. Kulik to make money en Espanol. Despite his almost heroic efforts to pinch pennies, he has burned through most of his investors' original $500,000 investment, and his hopes for a profit this year hinge on the Red Sox making the playoffs. For such premium games, advertisers are likely to renew at higher rates than the regular season.
"Every newspaper article I saw said the Latin market was booming," Mr. Kulik says. "But I never expected it to be this hard."
What Mr. Kulik didn't realize is that many before him have struck out selling baseball in Spanish. Of nearly 20 clubs currently broadcasting at least some games in Spanish, fewer than half carry an entire season. Of those, only three teams -- the Los Angeles Dodgers, Houston Astros and Florida Marlins -- say their Spanish broadcasting arms regularly turn a profit.
In fact, of the estimated $4.1 billion Major League Baseball's 30 teams will gross this season from ticket sales, concessions and product licensing, less than $50 million -- less than 1% -- will come from broadcasting games in Spanish.
"It looks so easy from the outside, but it's not," says Amaury Pi-Gonzalez, the Cuban-born voice of the San Francisco Giants and Oakland Athletics, two teams that have stumbled in their Spanish broadcasting ventures.
A combination of factors contributes to baseball's Spanish slump. Demographics play a role: Cities where Mexican immigrants dominate el barrio are more likely to listen to soccer than baseball.
Another obstacle are radio rights fees, which can run as much as $2 million for permission to broadcast a season's worth of games, a figure that scares off smaller Latino operators. Mr. Kulik pays the Red Sox about $150,000 for the broadcast rights. "Teams don't want to devalue their brand name, but with these rights fees they price themselves out of the market," says Ralph Paniagua, a New York radio packager who works with Major League Baseball.
Ironically, the growth of Latino broadcasting makes it harder to sell sports programming. National Hispanic networks are gobbling up independent Latino stations across the country, and then cutting less lucrative local programming in favor of syndicated music and talk radio shows that go out across the country. In the Bay Area, market leader KIQI-AM, a carrier of Giants baseball in Spanish, was bought by Miami-based Radio Unica Communications Corp., which cut local sports programming.
Other teams, like the Houston Astros, face a similar problem. "There's no way I could get Astros baseball on KLTN. They're making too much money with music," says Astros broadcasting chief Jamie Hildreth, referring to his market's most popular Spanish station, which happens to be Houston's highest-rated station over all. Instead he struck a deal with KLAT-AM, a sister station (both are owned by Univision Communications Inc. of Los Angeles), with the team splitting costs and advertising revenues with the station.
Mr. Kulik has confronted all these problems and wasn't going to give up easily. A former public-relations manager at AT&T Broadband (which has since merged with Comcast Corp.) until 2001, he searched for new direction in his life following the fatal heart attack of a friend and decided to pursue a lifelong dream to work in broadcast sports. So with some creative thinking, he has made more progress than most major league teams in potentially having a moneymaker on his hands.
One key was a realization that broadcasting in Spanish didn't need to be held hostage to the supply of Spanish-language stations in a market. Two of the six AM stations carrying Mr. Kulik's network in New England are English-language stations that are considering conversion to full-time Spanish programming. "We think our programming is helping them cross-over," Mr. Kulik says.
Indeed, as the 2004 season draws down, Mr. Kulik is trying to raise $1.3 million from private investors to expand his network next year. He's been in negotiations with the Philadelphia Phillies and one other team he declined to name.
Roger Nelson of Spokane's KXLY Broadcast Group is doing the same thing in the Pacific Northwest. Having paid around $150,000 a year for the Spanish rights to Seattle Mariners games, Mr. Nelson is building his own network, hunting for small AM stations, including Anglo ones, seeking sports programming. He's still losing money, but with 800,000 Spanish-speakers in Washington and Oregon, he thinks he'll ultimately turn a profit. "These are the lean years," he says.
In the case of Mr. Kulik, other innovations have helped. While the Los Angeles Dodgers, for instance, have enough marketing muscle in the local Latin community to charge sponsors as much as $200,000 per season, Mr. Kulik's network charges first-time advertisers just $625 per month to get on the air. His introductory package guarantees a sponsor's name will be mentioned at least three times during each broadcast, and includes a live interview during a Red Sox game.
"So, you're from the Dominican Republic. Which city?" Red Sox play-by-play man Uri Berenguer asks one guest, Luis Guerrero of Pimentel Market, a grocery store in Boston's heavily-Latino Jamaica Plain enclave. As Mr. Berenguer continues his commentary on the Red Sox-Athletics game, he and Mr. Guerrero weave in tales about their mothers' favorite recipes.
As the Red Sox enter crucial series on Sept. 17 and Sept. 24 against the archrival New York Yankees, Mr. Kulik is furiously fanning interest for sponsors for the season's final broadcasts. Airing a team laden with Dominican stars like Manny Ramirez, David Ortiz and Pedro Martinez, helps in Boston, whose Latino population is dominated by recent Dominican immigrants. Advertisers have begun to tap the Red Sox's Latino stars as radio pitchmen, with Mr. Ortiz now doing spots for Massachusetts Blue Cross.
"He's stealing work I could be giving to El Gringo Malo," jokes Mr. Kulik, who takes on his Spanish nickname's character in commercials for several sponsors on his network. "But I don't mind."
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Radio broadcasts in Spanish have been money-losers for most baseball teams.
Some clubs that have struck out:
TEAM: Atlanta Braves
BROADCAST FORMAT: Home games, WWWE-AM
LAST YEAR OF OPERATION: 2002
TEAM: Chicago White Sox
BROADCAST FORMAT: All games, WIND-AM
LAST YEAR OF OPERATION: 1999
TEAM: Philadelphia Phillies
BROADCAST FORMAT: Weekend home games, WSSJ-AM
LAST YEAR OF OPERATION: 2001
TEAM: Chicago Cubs
BROADCAST FORMAT: 40 home games, WOPA-AM
LAST YEAR OF OPERATION: 1991
TEAM: Cleveland Indians
BROADCAST FORMAT: Home games, WDLW-AM
LAST YEAR OF OPERATION: 2000
TEAM: Oakland Athletics
BROADCAST FORMAT: Weekend home games, KBBF-FM
LAST YEAR OF OPERATION: 2003
TEAM: Detroit Tigers
BROADCAST FORMAT: 12 games transmitted to Puerto Rico
LAST YEAR OF OPERATION: 2000
Sources: Major League Baseball Media Guide; the teams; the radio stations