Italian Soccer Fan Americas' TV Fans

By Dom Serafini

In 2002, when the U.S. magazine, Business Week, asked a VideoAge editor for an opinion about Italian football (or soccer as it is called in North America), the journalist was quoted as saying that "Soccer in Italy is like Hollywood in the U.S.: It lives on excesses." Soccer players in Italy are the superstars who date the stars of cinema and television and fill the pages of gossip magazines; they generate news stories and TV programs.

Indeed, soccer is Italy's answer to Hollywood with a business turn out of close to $6.6 billion a year, without counting TV rights, merchandizing, sponsorship and advertising sales.

It is also a risky business generating debt of about $2 billion just for the "Serie A" teams (for the key championship) and annual losses of $0.5 billion. The "big six": Milan, Inter, Juventus, Lazio, Parma and Roma, each spend close to a $1 billion per year, while tickets sales at stadia reach a total of $1.2 billion.

But it is also Italy's and, increasingly,the world's, key entertainment vehicle; and, for Italy, its key audio-visual exports.

In the case of the Americas, a myriad of international companies, including Rupert Murdoch's Sky, DirecTV and Fox; Italy's Mediaset, RAI and Media Partners; Canada's TLN; and the U.S.-based Reach Media and GolTV, are now orbiting around Italian soccer. (See separate stories about Italian soccer on Rai International, Fox Soccer Channel, TLN, Media Partners and the role of RaiTrade).

For most Americans, soccer is played everywhere, but rarely seen on television, in the rest of the world, the sport is played everywhere, especially on television.

Making sure that viewers in the Americas -- mostly Latins-- get their daily dose of soccer matches is GolTV, a Miami, Florida-based specialty channel launched in the U.S. in 2002 by two Uruguayans and one Brazilian businessman

One of the partners, Nelson Gutierrez, is a former soccer player; Francesco Casal, the Brazilian component, is a prominent manager of soccer players; and Enzo Francescoli, the CEO, is a former soccer player famous both in Europe and Latin America. Francescoli, who was nicknamed El principe (the prince) has played for soccer teams around the world: River Plate (Argentina), Racing de Paris and Olimpique Marseille (France) and Cagliari and Torino (Italy). Casal and Gutierrez own Uruguay-based Tenfield, a company that holds the rights to the Uruguayan soccer league and represents a number of international television networks as well as hundreds of soccer players.

GolTV, a 24/7 soccer channel, is now broadcast in both the U.S. and Latin America via The DISH Network and DirecTV; and in late August it was launched in Canada as a category two (not a cable must-carry) digital service in partnership with Insight Sports, a division of the Kilmer Group.

All three channels are received through either satellite or cable, and currently are in over 8 million homes, mostly digital enabled.

According to Rodrigo Lombello, GolTV's chief financial officer, the channels will be in 12 million homes in the Americas by the end of this year. Lombello, a Brazilian, would not disclose any financial figures, stating only that, this year, the company's revenue will grow by 100 percent, and he expects it will become profitable by mid-2006.

GolTV's business model is based on two main revenue streams: per sub (affiliate sales) and advertising. The service is sold to satellite and cable subscribers in a sports package, usually at U.S.$12 per month.

Among its key advertisers, GolTV has Volkswagen, Visa, Coca- Cola and Adidas. Additional revenues are generated by sublicensing some of the soccer matches to broadcasters such as TLN in Canada, and Top Sports in Brazil.

In Lombello's view, VoD is not a viable money-making operation and most TV channels that offer the service do it for promotional purposes only. Lombello sees VoD as a viable option only for highlights, score reports and other "less time-sensitive" features.

For the new season, GolTV carries 11 top leagues from: Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, El Salvador, Ecuador, Guatemala, Honduras, Italy, Spain, Perú and Uruguay; as well as: the UEFA (European Champions League), Copa del Rey (Spain) and Brazilian Cup games, among others, for a total of 1,500 matches per year.

Programming consists of live coverage, taped coverage and features, for a total of 11 categories, including "VW Gol," a look at all the goals scored around the world, and "The Soccer Files," half-hour discussions and analyses, with some of the programs provided by independent producers. GolTV's key programming days are Saturdays and Sundays and, within these primary day-parts, the block between 9 a.m. and 10 p.m., is considered prime real estate, while primetime is the 2 p.m.-7 p.m. block, when the live games are broadcast. Because live games are very important line-up busters, the schedule can vary accordingly. Recently, GolTV broadcasts 12 live games in one weekend period.

Commercials are inserted during natural breaks in the game: pre-show, half time and during post-show analysis. This is in order not to interfere with the on-going action.

One of GolTV's most sought-after leagues, Italy's Serie A, was also one of the most complex when it came to rights negotiations.

Indeed, of the 20 Serie A teams, four are not part of the GolTV package: Cagliari, Lazio, Lecce and Treviso. The rights of these teams, when they play home games, are held by Milan-based Media Partners, which, in turn, has re-sold them to Fox Sports and Fox Soccer Channel in the U.S.

In the case of Italian soccer, GolTV acquires all rights for the Americas -- both territorial and language rights -- with the exception of Italian-language rights, which are reserved for Rai International, the overseas cable and satellite service of RAI, Italy's state broadcaster. Thus, Rai International's broadcast footprint overlaps that of GolTV.

RAI's program sales division, RaiTrade, and Germany's Sport5 jointly sell Serie A international rights. The sales terms call for GolTV to broadcast a minimum of three Serie A games per week, but that number can go as high as seven, depending on the number of home games played. The 16 teams for which GolTV has the rights represent 8 matches, but some of them can be home games of teams for which GolTV doesn't have rights.

For the first time this year, RAI lost the Serie A domestic rights to Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi's Mediaset. However, RaiTrade is still providing the international satellite feed through their long-held agreement with Sky Italia, Rupert Murdoch's satellite TV service in Italy, which has the pay-TV domestic rights (and before that with the former owner of Sky Italia, Tele Piú). This clean feed from all the stadia is transmitted via RAI's transport arm, RaiWay, to the European Broadcasting Union's Rome TV center, and via optical fiber, it is sent first to Geneva, Switzerland (EBU's headquarters) and then to Washington, DC where it is uplinked.

In addition to the domestic analog terrestrial TV rights, Mediaset owns the digital TV terrestrial rights to Series A games, which means that, at any particular time, there could be as many as 40 fixed TV cameras and a few mobile ones on each soccer field.

Games are broadcast by GolTV in both English and Spanish with the viewers selecting their language of choice. During major matches such as Milan-Juventus, GolTV sends its own commentators to Italy. Usually, though, commentary is added to the clean feed received at their Miami studios.

In Italy, GolTV maintains correspondent Pablo Monsalvo, who, from his Milan base, produces features and background stories on players and teams.