Andres Cantor, One-on-One: How to attract the English-speaking audience to Spanish-speaking TV

Photo Courtesy NBC Universal

'¡GOOOOOL!' You know the call. Andres Cantor coined it. He's calling his first World Cup on TV in 20 years, at a unique time for soccer in the U.S.

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Andres Cantor will call his ninth consecutive World Cup beginning this June in Russia, but just his first on TV in 20 years as the lead play-by-play voice for Telemundo’s Spanish language coverage.

And despite last calling the World Cup on TV for Univision at France ‘98, Cantor remains the American game’s most iconic voice – in any language – even after moving to Telemundo and launching his own radio play-by-play company two decades ago.

Just ask the folks at NBC Sports, who have spent the last several months promoting Cantor’s name and experience in hopes of luring some non-Spanish speaking eyes to their sister station. Cantor even snagged a brief spot on NBC’s Super Bowl pregame coverage this February.

We caught up with Cantor just before he departs for Russia to get his thoughts on his return to TV, the United States’ conspicuous absence in Russia, and some guy named Lionel Messi.

FourFourTwo USA: It’s hard to believe it has been two decades since your last World Cup on TV. I know you’ve spent the last four tournaments on the radio for your company, Futbol de Primera, but returning to TV in Russia is a huge deal, right?

Andres Cantor: Just being at the World Cup is very exciting, and to be able to be back on television during the World Cup, it’s terrific. It’s like circling back to the beginning of my career, and it brings obviously great, great memories, and a great deal of personal pride. I know from 1998 to now, our audience has grown exponentially. We know that we’re going to be talking and delivering messages to a wider audience, both Spanish-speaking and almost-Spanish-speaking people. I hope that everyone enjoys our expertise, the way we call and comment on the games, and I’m looking forward to having a great time in Russia.

FFT: Do you remember the day Telemundo won the World Cup rights?

Cantor: It was October 21, 2011.

FFT: (Laughing) Yes, but I mean how did it feel to learn that news, and what it meant for the company?

Cantor: I was very, very happy. But then we had seven years ahead to prepare. You can get happy for the moment, but then the first World Cup was almost seven years away.

I always say that the World Cup is 64 Super Bowls rolled into one. So if you’re calling a Super Bowl, you’d better call it right.

FFT: I’ve noticed how much time NBC Sports has spent promoting Telemundo’s coverage of the tournament over English language platforms. Is that gratifying? Is it surprising?

Cantor: It’s very, very important. In my experience, we have a lot of non-Spanish speaking viewers. We have people that learn Spanish with us, or that they prefer the games with us in Spanish and in the Spanish language because of the way we cover the games and the excitement that we bring to the broadcast.

So when I say that we want to appeal to a broader Hispanic audience, I also know that there will be borderline Spanish speakers, non-Spanish speakers that will tune into our broadcast because they know football is better en espanol.

FFT: What do you hope is the experience of non-Spanish speakers who watch your broadcasts for the first time this World Cup?

Cantor: They will for sure have the sense that we live soccer and that we love soccer, with lots of passion. Our style is different than the English-language broadcasts in the sense of the intensity of the call. I always say that the World Cup is 64 Super Bowls rolled into one. So if you’re calling a Super Bowl, you’d better call it right. And that’s the way we approach it. It’s a distinct style not only of myself but my colleagues at Telemundo to identify every player that touches the ball by name without as much silence.

Let me be very clear, I’m not passing judgement on if this is better or not. It’s just a question of style, and of course I do appreciate what the English-language broadcasters do and I listen to them as well. And I hope that those non-native Spanish speakers enjoy the way we call games.

FFT: I know you’ve spoken recently about the disappointment of the U.S. men’s national team not qualifying for the tournament. What do you think should be the lesson from that failure?

Cantor: First of all, I think there needs to be somebody that knows and understands soccer to make the proper decisions beyond the marketing solutions and the marquee names. I don’t think the U.S. did that well in 2014 to warrant for Klinsmann to continue on the job. They only won one game. But yet they had confidence that he could still turn the program around and they gave him way too much power. He was technical director, he was coach, he was pretty much everything and he had his own philosophy of how to find new national team players. So, I think that is one experience that should be very valuable as we move forward. And I hope that the new person (USSF president Carlos Cordeiro) finds that general manager that he is looking for.

FFT: How big a deal is it that the U.S. has failed to qualify?

Cantor: Not qualifying with 3.5 spots out of six, it’s embarrassing to the U.S. national team at this point in history. Nothing is a given. You have to win games to qualify. But obviously I hope they make the right decision with the right coach that can choose the right players from what I believe is a talent pool that is pretty vast.

FFT: As someone who is born and raised in Argentina, can you explain the source of the pressure on Lionel Messi with La Albiceleste, including in this World Cup? Is it only about Maradona?

Cantor: Argentinians in Argentina, they care for their team, their Boca Juniors, their River Plate – whichever club they root for – and of course for the national team. They could care less really if Messi scores six goals against a low-ranked team in Spain. They measure his greatness by what he does in the World Cup.

FFT: Does it make any difference that Messi basically willed Argentina to the World Cup this time with his hat trick on the last day of qualifying against Ecuador?

Cantor: Was he the savior in Ecuador? Yes, he was. But everyone expected that from him. It helped changed his image a little bit. He doesn’t have a bad image. It’s just that he divides the country in the sense that many people think that he’s the greatest, and the other half say, ‘Yeah, if he’s the greatest, why doesn’t he win the World Cup like Maradona did?’ In my view, the team Argentina will take to the World Cup is not the greatest. We have the greatest player in the world. But I don’t know if he can win it by himself. We will see.

FFT: There are many players from Argentina and elsewhere in South America who are finding their way to MLS. Do you think it’s a sign that more players think they can make the jump from MLS to Europe? Is it good for those players? For American soccer?

Cantor: The average ages of the players that they are bringing in are much younger than they used to be, so that is a good sign. You’ve got Ezequiel Barco in Atlanta and a whole bunch of other kids who see the MLS in a way that it has a potential to become a better league. But I don’t necessarily see that they see it as a way straight into Europe. They come here because there’s a better pay situation for them. And the fact that there are more Argentinians coming is better for the MLS teams.

But at the end of the day, also, the MLS should pay attention to the young kids in our schools, in our universities and the youth level. Because even though quantity doesn’t necessarily equal quality, I’m sure that with better scouting, we will find a great generation of players that we can nourish and be part of the MLS history.

FFT: If you’re forced to predict a winner in Russia, who are you taking?

Cantor: I’m really bad at predicting soccer. But on one side of the bracket you will have Argentina, Germany, Spain. One of those three will make it to the final. And on the other side, you will have Brazil, France, maybe Uruguay and maybe Belgium. One of those four on the other half will make it to the final. Who will win? I have no idea.

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