Freddy Rolon, ESPN
Freddy Rolón - Head of Digital Content and Audience Expansion at ESPN

ALABAMA - For more than 20 years, Freddy Rolón has played a key role in bringing sports in Spanish to Hispanics across the United States. Joining ESPN as an intern in 2003, Rolón's commitment to serve sports fans anywhere, anytime, have allowed him to wear many hats within the company, including general manager of ESPN Deportes. He is currently the head of digital content and audience expansion.

The Latin Times sat down with Freddy Rolón to talk about his journey, his insights gained after catering to a Hispanic audience and the challenges he's faced in his 20-year relationship with the worldwide leader in sports.

The following conversation has been edited for extension and clarity purposes.

Q: I think every Latino in the U.S. has a unique story on how they got to where they are. Tell me how that journey was for you and how you ended up at ESPN.

Rolón: "I grew up in the city of New York, I was born in the Bronx to Puerto Rican parents. Very much like a lot of Latinos in the U.S., I grew up in a very bicultural world where everything at home was Spanish and everything outside was English. I grew up about five and a half blocks away from Yankee Stadium, so sports were always in the background of my life. My journey at ESPN started between my first and second year in law school. Ever since, I have been bouncing around different roles. I spent some time working for the ESPN Radio team, I was involved in launching some of our local sites on the digital side and also spent a good amount of time in the programming side of the business. I had the chance to lead and be the general manager for ESPN Deportes for a few of years and now just recently continued as head digital content."

Q: You got hired just months before ESPN Deportes launched. They recently celebrated their 20th has ESPN Deportes evolved and changed throughout its 20-year history?

Rolón: "Our network launched in 2004. Before, though, we were already doing a lot of things. existed before the network. We were already working with a lot of cable providers to provide Sunday Night Baseball and Sunday Night Football in Spanish. Having had the chance to be part of ESPN before the network launched helped me get a sense on how to reach that broader Hispanic audience. It was honestly the first chance we had to aggregate all of these things with the network to kind of create this multi-platform approach and really think about reaching this audience in a very holistic and targeted way. I think what I saw initially over the years was the intent of Deportes to reach Hispanics with content that is for Hispanics. We had to evolve throughout the years because our audience has the most choices by everyone: they can choose to consume in English or Spanish, and they choose what they want to consume from a language perspective."

Q: You played a key role during the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic in bringing sports back to live television; how was that process?

Rolón: "You're bringing all my PTSD back (laughs). I would say it was a tough time. It was so uncertain and very chaotic during that initial period when sports went away. My role was making sure that we could put out the best programming and product possible. We even introduced things such as the Liga MX eSports, Formula 1 also had some eSports coverage. Remembering that time, we were kind of naïve on how bumpy the road was going to be for sports to come back. We were cancelling games based on people's COVID tests and so on. There was lots of communication within the ESPN team because there were instances where games got cancelled within minutes."

Q: How have your strategies changed in the 20 years since the launch of ESPN Deportes? How are you trying to reach/stay connected to younger generations of Hispanics?

Rolón: "I think over the 20 years there have been a lot of changes in consumer behavior. We are seeing more audience fragmentation. There are places where they overlap but there's distinct places where platforms have unique and specific audiences. Web and mobile do not have the same audiences as the ESPN App or social media necessarily. I think the biggest evolution we've had is that now we have distinct teams and voices on different things with the mindset of serving the fans that are coming to that specific platform."

Q: With the United States being a melting pot, you have Latinos from all over the world, with distinct preferences in what sports they watch. How do you approach that? How do you cater to such a diverse audience?

Rolón: "What I try to make sure we always think through is that sports are ultimately a unifier across cultures. When I think about the audience, we are trying to serve there's also a component called "water cooler talk," what are the things people are actively looking at that we can later use to track social media behavior. There's also a social currency component, where Latinos might want to feel involved in their communities and sometimes supporting the local sports teams is part of that. People might have grown up being soccer fans, but they turned into huge NFL fans thanks to living in the U.S., so that bicultural aspect is super important for us to remember."

Q: Have you seen any trends in what Latinos are consuming nowadays?

Rolón: "We have seen a huge growth of Latino interest within combat sports, in our NBA coverage specifically around the playoffs. NFL on ESPN is honestly one of our biggest audiences. We've been seeing very healthy numbers in our lineal networks in the past few years. There's a heavy interest in Los Angeles, New York and Miami sports just because that's where the population centers are for Latino audiences."

Q: It's not usual to see Latinos taking on high-profile positions. What does it mean to you to represent a community and how you use your experiences to help others?

Rolón: "I would say I've been lucky to have lots of interaction with Latinos in the sports world. As I think about the audiences that we are trying to reach, the more people we have that can connect across cultures, the more it is going to help any organization. What I found out in my experiences is that the ability to speak two languages can help you cross that bridge, applying not just your education and stuff you learned at school, but things you have learned in life and how you can relate to those people. When I have the chance to talk to organizations that I am a part of, something that I always try to emphasize with kids is: Don't sell yourself short, you have a lot to bring to the table and you better bring all of it. Think about all the different perspectives that can help you and your organization get better."

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