Henry Grabar is a staff writer for Slate’s Moneybox and a former fellow at CityLab. He lives in New York.
For a show ostensibly about soccer, Capitales del Fútbol is extremely low on sports highlights.
The second season of ESPN’s all-time highest-rated original series in Latin America premiered last week. The subject? Cities -- like Mexico City, Milan, and Buenos Aires -- with major sporting rivalries. (And how to spend your money, if you visit.)
Seven million viewers tuned to watch last season’s four-episode run of Capitales del Fútbol, a show that is equal parts travel documentary, marketing venture, and sports feature. Simultaneously broadcast in Spanish and Portuguese from Santo Domingo to São Paulo, Capitales del Fútbol was one of the top ten shows on ESPN for four weeks last year.
The brains behind the show – a collaboration between ESPN, the Oscar-winning Argentine studio 100 Bares, and Mastercard – have caught onto something sports fans have known for a long time: great sports stories are often about cities. The goal, according to the network, was to give the fan a "first-person experience of life in four cities," with each episode devoted to checking out a city whose teams are already famous worldwide. (For a deeper look at a "soccer capital" where the sport is second fiddle, check out the Vice documentary from earlier this year, Rivals: Rangers & Celtic.)
The other goal was to strengthen the reputation of Mastercard among international soccer fans, which is perhaps the primary reason the show will have visited nine cities on three continents by the end of September. Capitales is a product of ESPN’s International Market Solutions experiment in "Long-form Branded Content." Last season, product placement was heavy, with three Travel Channel-style vignettes "Al Visitar" ("If you visit…") per episode directing tourists to use their Mastercards at local business partners. ESPN reported that 77 percent of Mexicans were more likely to use their Mastercards after watching the show, and Mastercard renewed the deal for a second season.
For a show ostensibly about soccer, then, Capitales del Fútbol is extremely low on sports highlights. The first episode of this season, devoted to the rivalry between Manchester United and Manchester City, does not show anyone playing soccer until three minutes from the show’s end. But it does try hard to give an introduction to "the first industrial city in the world."
"It’s a big party city—if you come, you’re going to have a good time," says one Mancunian. "This is where people come for a good Chinese or Thai dinner," advises another. The producers take us to a Chinese restaurant and to a rap concert, and BBC meteorologist Simon King explains Manchester's weather. (We also see the stadiums of the Manchester United and Manchester City clubs, and finally see some football at the close of the episode.)
The Capitales del Fútbol section of the ESPN Deportes website also includes al visitar tabs for each of the nine "capitals." (The show is running now in Central and South America, and will debut in the United States at some later point.)
Is it sports journalism? A travel show? The most popular advertisement in Latin America? Whatever it is, the industry is paying attention: the show won a silver medal in April from the Internationalist Awards for Innovation in Media.