Controversial radio deals put spotlight on Fifa’s bidding process

  • Reuters, New York
  • Updated: Feb 17, 2016 16:47 IST
The world soccer body Fifa is currently facing a lot of pressure to reform in the wake of a global corruption scandal. (AP Photo)

The world soccer body Fifa is currently facing a lot of pressure to reform in the wake of a global corruption scandal and in a new series of allegations, several current and former media executives are now raising questions about the transparency of the bidding process for U.S. radio broadcasting rights to the World Cup.

In particular, these executives point to the apparent two-decade lock on U.S. Spanish-language radio rights held by Miami-based broadcaster Futbol de Primera. The company was co-founded by Andres Cantor, who famously introduced American soccer fans to the Latin American style of yelling “Gooooooal!”

One former chief executive of a rival broadcaster, Joaquin Blaya, said that in 2000 then-Fifa president Sepp Blatter told him he had a deal for the next two World Cups in South Korea/Japan (2002) and Germany (2006), but the contracts instead went to Cantor’s Futbol de Primera for a lower price.

Since then, other Spanish-language radio broadcasters, including GLR Networks and ESPN Deportes, have been interested in the rights but see no way they can prise them away from Futbol de Primera, according to people familiar with the companies’ thinking.

A spokesman for Walt Disney’s ESPN cable business, which held English-language U.S. television broadcast rights to several World Cups, said that when the network acquired U.S. rights in 2005 to Fifa events through 2014, “we knew going into the bidding process that the Spanish-language radio rights in the U.S. were not part of the package.”

A spokeswoman for Madrid-based Prisa, which controls GLR, said it has never negotiated with Fifa for World Cup rights but did not respond to a question about whether it has been interested in obtaining them.

Cantor declined to comment. His business partner, Alejandro Gutman, said in an interview that Futbol de Primera won the radio deals fairly through a competitive bidding process vetted by Fifa’s lawyers, but he declined to give details about the other bids. Fifa declined to comment on its deals with Futbol de Primera and on the process used to award Spanish language radio rights in the U.S market.

Fifa was thrown into turmoil last year when U.S. prosecutors announced a sweeping probe of corruption in the sport, including how the organization and its affiliates marketed and sold TV and radio broadcast rights to soccer tournaments.

Prosecutors have charged 41 people and entities, mostly soccer bosses from throughout the Americas, and identified $200 million in bribes and kickback schemes tied to marketing of major tournaments and matches.

Fifa often awards multi-year contracts. Futbol de Primera has held the exclusive U.S. Spanish-language radio broadcasting rights to every World Cup tournament since 2002 and holds them through the 2022 competition to be held in Qatar, according to Fifa documents and the company website.

Futbol de Primera syndicates the World Cup and a separate soccer commentary show hosted by Cantor to 115 radio stations across the U.S. in exchange for advertising space, according to the company. It is privately held and does not disclose its annual revenues.

Cantor, who is also an announcer for NBCUniversal’s Spanish-language television station Telemundo, burst on the soccer scene when he was a commentator for the 1994 U.S. World Cup, earning him spots on commercials and even a cameo on the animated sitcom The Simpsons.

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