Every major professional sports league understands the importance of the Hispanic market. After all, Latinos are the fastest-growing minority group and make up almost 17 percent of the U.S. population, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
MLS commissioner Don Garber likes to say the Hispanic market is part of the league's DNA. It's a phrase repeated throughout the league's office and is apparent in the stands of its stadiums. Forty percent of fans attending an MLS game in the past year were Hispanic.
It's true that the league has an in. The census estimates nearly 47 million Hispanics reside in the United States. Eighty-five percent of that population has roots in countries where soccer dominates the sporting landscape.
But it would be remiss to write off the success of MLS in attracting the Hispanic community as due simply to the fact that Latinos like soccer.
"If you look at the fans coming through turnstiles or just sitting in the seats at an average NFL or NBA game, at Fenway Park, you're not going to see remotely as much diversity as you'll see at an MLS game," said Scott Minto, director of the Sports MBA program at San Diego State University. "Partially, that's a testament to sports' different demographics, but it also has a lot to do with the marketing departments of the teams in the league."
At every level of MLS business operations, the impact of the Latino community is evident. Forty percent of the league office is bilingual. It has more national Spanish-TV broadcast partners (three) than any other league, and half of the clubs have a point person specifically for Spanish-language media. There are leaguewide initiatives like the MLS Futbolito youth tournaments and its Sueño MLS talent search. All of these endeavors, coupled with the day-to-day efforts on the club level (such as bilingual P.A. announcements or partnering with local youth and adult soccer leagues) illustrate the league's commitment to serving the Hispanic market.
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In 2007, the league formed the Latin American advisory board, a group made up of prominent Hispanic members from the soccer community that serves as both a sounding board for the MLS and a source of new ideas.
Major League Soccer prides itself on the fact that its fan base is reflected in the organization itself -- from owners (including Oscar De La Hoya and Gabriel Brener of the Houston Dynamo and Jorge Vergara and Antonio Cue of Chivas USA) to the league and front offices to the coaches and players to team receptionists and IT personnel.
MLS's Soccer United Marketing arm is responsible for organizing SuperLiga, InterLiga and Mexican national team appearances in the United States.
"All of that is to continue to deepen our connection with the Hispanic audience," said Dan Courtemanche, senior vice president of marketing and communications for Major League Soccer. "If they're not already fans of Major League Soccer, it's our goal to convert them into Major League Soccer fans."
A key to promoting anything in the Hispanic community is visibility, says D.C. United director of Hispanic relations Boris Flores.
Only part of that recognition comes from advertising campaigns. In D.C., the club runs several free soccer clinics for kids throughout the year as part of the D.C. United Community Soccer Series. In Los Angeles, the Galaxy hosts the Copa L.A., a youth tournament for teams not affiliated with major national club soccer organizations. In Dallas, team representatives and players attend tournaments, festivals, parades, any event possible to make the Latino community aware of F.C. Dallas' accessibility. Even in Philadelphia, where the Union won't begin play until next season, the team is reaching out to Hispanic leaders and is committed to including that growing segment of the local population in its outreach efforts.
"They want to see you actively involved in their community," Flores said. "These events are a way for us to go out there, be involved and say, 'Hey, we're part of you.' With outreach programs, obviously, you're trying to get your brand out, but you're contributing to the goodwill of the community as well. It's not about trying to get them to come to a particular game."
Proving clubs are genuine in their desire to be a part of the Latino community and that it's not just about selling tickets is essential, says Eduardo Carvacho, senior director of Hispanic sales and marketing for F.C. Dallas.
"You can't just go into the community, go to an event and get out," Carvacho said. "It takes time. You have to show we're there because we care about you. That's a very important part of understanding culturally how we [Latinos] think. It's about building that relationship first. Once they see I'm honest and trying to build this relationship for the right reasons, the rest will come."
Those efforts are clearly paying off. Latinos make up 33 percent of the MLS fan base. The NBA comes in second with 16 percent, followed by the NFL (13 percent). Baseball, with nearly 30 percent of the players Latino, comes in fourth with 12.9 percent.
Although 16 percent of its players are Hispanic, MLS isn't dependent on Latino players to market to the Hispanic demographic.
"At the moment, we don't have a big Latino-identified player," Galaxy communications coordinator Jaime Cardenas said. "However, some people would argue that Landon Donovan, even though he isn't Latino, is that Latino-identified player."
Donovan's recent chat for ESPN Deportes drew nearly 650 questions for the half-hour conversation, by far a record for an MLS chat. (Of course, it's worth noting the Galaxy captain evokes emotion from Mexican national team fans, which may have contributed to the surge.)
Courtemanche cites Houston as another prime example.
"For the bulk of their tenure [the team relocated from San Jose, Calif., for the 2006 season], they've had one, maybe two, sometimes zero players with Hispanic origins, and this is in a market with more than a million Hispanics," he said. "Yet they had a very strong Hispanic audience because the audience appreciated the fact that the team was very successful on the field. They came out for the product."
For MLS, it's about appealing to Hispanics as fans and consumers, not as simply a minority group.
The league recognizes and celebrates Hispanic Heritage Month. Events like D.C. United's annual Latin American Festival and the Cotton Bowl doubleheader featuring F.C. Dallas vs. New England and a Mexico-Colombia friendly are proof. But within MLS, Hispanic Heritage Month simply serves as an extension of what MLS is doing year-round.
"Everything we do as a soccer league and on a team level is already directly focused on Hispanics," said Marisabel Muñoz, director of international communications for MLS and Soccer United Marketing. "This is their sport."
The realization of that passion and the league's eagerness to embrace it should continue to pay off for MLS in terms of community visibility and revenue.
"There's much competition for every discretionary dollar across every league," Minto said. "With the Hispanic community growing ... MLS clubs are doing some unique things to try to reach them. They have a very progressive attitude. On a leaguewide level, they really recognize the spending power of the Hispanic community and their affinity for soccer."
This is only the beginning for Major League Soccer. With the Census Bureau projecting the Latino population to continue to rise (estimates are that Hispanics will make up over 25 percent of the U.S. population by 2050, or over 100 million Americans), those dollars and that enthusiasm for soccer will climb as well.
Look for MLS's efforts to reach a minority demographic to have a major impact.
Maria Burns Ortiz covers college soccer for ESPNsoccernet. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.