A lot is riding on the World Cup for Univision, which has the exclusive Spanish-language broadcast rights in the United States mainland and Puerto Rico for the event.
Not only are Hispanic viewers crazy for soccer, but the World Cup - or the Mundial as it's known in Spanish - is also regarded as the perfect vehicle to demonstrate the strength and growth of the U.S. Hispanic market.
"This World Cup is extraordinarily important to us," said Cesar Conde, Miami-based president of Univision Networks. "We brought our blood, sweat and tears to this event and its preparation. This really runs through our veins."
During the 2006 World Cup, Univision attracted more than 50 million viewers. Conde expects even higher numbers this year with the new media twists it is offering.
Conde said the World Cup represents the biggest commitment of resources to a single event in Univision's history. Hundreds of producers, sportscasters, anchors, TV personalities and support staff were sent to South Africa for live coverage as well as to do cut-ins for just about every show on the Univision roster except novelas.
"We transform ourselves into World Cup Media Company for the next 30 days," Conde said.
The one-two punch of World Cup coverage, plus 2010 Census numbers to be released early next year that are expected to show the U.S. Hispanic population exceeds 50 million, "will be a unique wake-up call" to advertisers and the U.S. marketplace that "investing in the Hispanic market is investing in growth," said Conde.
"I think viewership numbers from the World Cup will actually be even more important than Census numbers," said Jose Cancela, founder of marketing and consulting firm Hispanic USA and a former Univision executive. "With the Census, there's been kind of an overhype."
Univision Communications, whose holdings also include the TeleFutura Network, 63 television stations, Galavision (the leading Spanish-language cable channel, which Comcast recently added to its roster for Philly-area and New Jersey viewers on Digital Classic channel 567), and Univision Radio, already boasts the nation's fifth most watched network with its Univision Network.
But advertising revenue for Hispanic media in general still lags behind what would be expected in a market with consumer purchasing power estimated at $1 trillion annually.
Conde declined to say how much advertising revenue is expected during this year's Cup, but he did say, "We're virtually sold out across our platforms and we still have the phones ringing."
For the past few months, a clock on UnivisionFutbol.com has been ticking down the days, hours, minutes and seconds until the first World Cup game yesterday, but Univision has been preparing far longer.
Five years ago, it signed a $325 million deal for exclusive Spanish-language broadcast rights for the 2010 and 2014 World Cups and related FIFA events.
While Univision regards the Mundial as an opportunity to cement its relationship with advertisers, hook new viewers and reach out to the Hispanic market with its new media platforms, the big question is whether the World Cup will make money for the company. NBC, for example, lost $223 million on the recent Winter Olympics.
During a conference call with media analysts last month, chief financial officer Andrew Hobson said that World Cup expenses would be about $100 million this year. But he also said there will be about $100 million in incremental revenue this year.
"At the end of the day, we look at the World Cup from holistic perspective - both the tangible and intangible benefits," Conde said.
But Univision and its fans also figure into the equation. Four years ago, Univision attracted more viewers in the important 18-49 demographic than ESPN and ESPN2, the company said.
This year, Univision also is expected to pull away some English-speaking viewers from ESPN. It not only has an English-language version of its soccer Web site, but also a seasoned team of soccer sportscasters who add excitement to the game.
"The emotion of the call is far greater in Spanish than in English," said Cancela.
Univision is capitalizing on that excitement with a marketing campaign for its coverage that it calls "La Pasion de Mundial," which prominently features Shakira.
The tagline it's using for Cup coverage is: "Don't just watch it. Feel it on Univision."