Soccer radio deals in the U.S. put spotlight on FIFA's bidding process

Wed Feb 17, 2016 1:07am EST
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By Mica Rosenberg

NEW YORK (Reuters) - As world soccer body FIFA faces pressure to reform in the wake of a global corruption scandal, several current and former media executives are 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.   Continued...

A journalist walks in front of FIFA's headquarters in Zurich, Switzerland December 2, 2015.    REUTERS/Arnd Wiegmann