News Column

Rooting for Hispanic Dollars

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The Los Angeles Dodgers have a Hall-of Fame broadcaster who has served as the voice of the baseball club for decades. Generations of Dodger fans have grown up listening to his story-telling style, tuning in to his play-by-play to celebrate the triumphs and weather the disappointments of their favorite team.

But the broadcaster isn't Vin Scully. And the broadcast isn't in English.

Jaime Jarin, who hit the airwaves with his Spanish-language coverage of Dodger games in 1958, helped cultivate the sizable Hispanic fan base that many sports franchises covet. He still helps immigrants from Latin America follow the ups and downs of the Dodgers' seasons.

"Two to three generations grew up with Jaime and his Spanish-language broadcasts," says Sergio del Prado, vice-president of sales and marketing for the Dodgers. "And the original kids who started listening to him years ago now have grandkids who listen and watch games in English."

While Mr. Jarin helped provide the medium, a corps of talented Latin players helped generate interest in the Southern California squad. Dodger teams in the 1980s benefited from Manny Mota's timely hitting, Pedro Guerrero's home-run power, and Fernando Valenzuela's pitching dominance, which spawned "Fernandomania" in 1981 and helped solidify the Dodger brand in the Hispanic community for decades to come.

But it's the Dodgers' front office that is fighting to keep fans coming back to the stadium as competing interests rival teams and other sports copy the Blue Crew's model to gain a share of the Hispanic fan base.

Competing for Dollars

"You can't be involved in business in Southern California or the U.S. and not recognize the power and the growth of the Hispanic market," says Alexi Lalas, general manager of Major League Soccer's Los Angeles Galaxy. "We have the advantage of having futbol, or soccer, ingrained in that community, but we've been dealing with second- and third-generation Hispanics you look at themselves as Americans. Their fathers may have supported a team based in a specific [Latin American] country, but we're trying to give them, especially the younger demographic, something of their own."

In its inception, Major League Soccer placed Latin stars in franchises with sizable Hispanic populations, hoping a large Hispanic fan base would follow. Mr. Lalas said the strategy didn't always work.

"You could have a big-name player come over [from a Latin American country], but if the player is poor or the team is poor, the Hispanic fans quickly turn off," Mr. Lalas explains. "It's a very soccer savvy fan base. You can't fool them. You have to give them quality."

The National Football League has shown its interest in the Hispanic market by devoting time and money to staging pre-season and regular-season games in Mexico City since 2005. Last season, the success of Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo, who is of Mexican descent, gave the league a face to market to its Latin fan base.

A 2006 study by Scarborough Research reports that auto racing's Champ Car Series, an unlikely player in the battle for U.S. Hispanic sports fans, is in a tie for second for the highest percentage of Hispanic TV viewers (14 percent) among U.S. sports broadcasts. It trails only Major League Soccer (35 percent) and is equaled by the National Basketball Association.

The same research firm says the Los Angeles Lakers are the most popular team for Hispanics in its city. Keith Harris, vice-president of marketing and broadcasting for the Lakers, says that while the team hasn't formally surveyed its arena crowds to measure its Hispanic fan base, the annual "Fiesta Lakers" promotion drew more than 40,000 people last March.

Major League Baseball teams have developed strategies to attract Hispanics to their own events. It's been paying off: An ESPN Sports poll in 2006 reported that 62 percent of U.S. Hispanics are Major League Baseball fans, compared to 59 percent of the general population.

Mr. Del Prado says Hispanics represent 44.6 percent of the Dodgers' annual attendance. "I tell people all the time how important our Hispanic marketing and the Latino buying power is," he says. "If took just the Latinos in L.A., you'd have the seventh-largest city in the country. The fan base is huge in numbers and in dollars."

"We've done polling and learned that Latinos are our most loyal fans, they listen to more broadcasts, and they spend more money at the concession stands," he says. "We have experienced a lot of growth through our Latino fan base. That's what separates us from the rest."

Other teams are trying to keep pace with the Dodgers, including their American League neighbors, the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim.

Hispanic billionaire Arte Moreno purchased the then-Anaheim Angels in 2003 and successfully lobbied to attach "Los Angeles" to his franchise's name. He would later add talented free agents such as outfielder Vladimir Guerrero, pitcher Bartolo Colon, and shortstop Orlando Cabrera.

The moves placed the Angels in position to cut into the Dodgers' substantial Hispanic fan base, which Mr. Del Prado admits "can never be taken for granted."

In August, hiss team held its 10th annual Viva Los Dodgers festival, which turned a section of its parking lot into an outdoor concert complete with booths packed with the Dodgers' key vendors.

While the first Viva Los Dodgers promotion attracted 500 fans in 1997, this year's event drew more than 10,000 spectators, who were treated to an autograph session with Mr. Mota and current outfielder Luis Gonzalez, along with performances by musical artists such as Gloria Trevi and Fanny Lu.

Chorizo and Cervezas

Special events have also paid dividends for other Major League Baseball teams looking to build Hispanic fan bases. For the past two summers, the Milwaukee Brewers have devoted one game to salute its Hispanic audience by transforming into the "Cerveceros."

The team dons jerseys featuring the Spanish translation of "Brewers" and auctions them off after the game, with proceeds going to various area Hispanic scholarship funds.

As part of "Cerveceros Day" in 2006, the organization introduced a new link to its sausage-themed group of racing mascots "El Picante," a sombrero-wearing chorizo that was marketed into a bobble-head doll for this year's promotion.

"In the past two years, both of those games have been sellouts and our Hispanic chamber of commerce pre-game tailgate fiestas drew 1,000 last year and 1,500 this year," says Rick Schlesinger, executive vice-president of business operations for the Brewers. "So, it's been very successful for us. Just in terms of awareness in the Hispanic community, we think we've make people much more familiar with the Brewers. We've made a lot of inroads there."

Mr. Schlesinger says Hispanics represent the fastest-growing demographic in southeastern Wisconsin, and the largest Hispanic neighborhood in Milwaukee is two miles from the Brewers' home Miller Park.

"We've wanted to show people that Miller Park is a fan-friendly place that will make you feel comfortable," Mr. Schlesinger adds. "Even if they aren't die-hard baseball fans, it's a place you can bring your family, which our research tells us is important to the Hispanic demographic."

Three-Sport Star

Back on the West Coast, Mr. Del Prado is intimately familiar with the push other Southern California franchises are making to tap into the Hispanic marketplace. Before joining the Dodgers in 2000, the California State University, Long Beach alumnus climbed the corporate ladder by helping two franchises the National Hockey League's Los Angeles Kings and Major League Soccer's Los Angeles Galaxy grow their Latin fan bases.

He worked for nine years in the Kings' organization, beginning his tenure during a time when ice hockey was a tough sell to the general population, much less Hispanics. A market for hockey on the radio barely existed in English, let alone Spanish. That changed in 1988 when Los Angeles welcomed hockey great Wayne Gretzky to the club.

Mr. Del Prado served as the club's Hispanic broadcast manager and helped created the first Spanish-language radio and television broadcasts of NHL games.

He moved up in the ranks and became director of marketing and corporate for the Kings. In 1999, the FIFA Women's World Cup organizing committee came calling and Mr. Del Prado accepted a position as the vice-president of corporate marketing. He was in charge of signing worldwide marketing partners to join FIFA's largest sponsors in promoting the first world championship tournament for women's soccer.

That experience groomed him for a key role with the Los Angeles Galaxy, which named him general manager.

Under his watch, the soccer franchise led the league in attendance and sponsor revenue. In the broadcast realm, Mr. Del Prado was able to secure Major League Soccer's and the Galaxy's first local Spanish television broadcasting deal and the club's first English-language radio deal.

The exposure helped the Galaxy bolster its Hispanic fan base. The Dodgers' organization took notice.

Reaching Out

"Consistently across the board, from property to property, the strategy has been the same," Mr. Del Prado says. "No. 1, if you're going to attract a fan base, you have to have a welcoming environment. At Dodger Stadium, we have bilingual ticket-takers, bilingual ushers, and Spanish-language messages that make fans feel comfortable.

"No. 2, you have to have grassroots plan for retail partnerships. Whether it's soccer, baseball, or any other sport, you need the sort of partners who see the impact your brand can have, then partner with them to get your brand into the community."

It's a formula that has worked for open-wheel racing's Champ Car Series, which benefited from the popularity of Hispanic drivers and began making a concerted effort to reach out to the Hispanic fan base.

Four years ago, the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach partnered with Tecate to create "Fiesta Friday," a pre-race festival with vendor booths and entertainment. The Long Beach event's CEO, Jim Michaelian, says the promotion has worked as its Hispanic fan base has increased from 6 percent in 2001 to 28 percent this year.

Says Jim Michaelian, the Long Beach event's CEO: "We wanted to create an environment that would make people say, 'I had a helluva time last year, let's go again. And, by the way, who's racing this year.'"

Mr. Lalas of the Galaxy warns other sports organizations courting the Hispanic fan base that promotions and marquee names aren't enough. The product is king.

"It's almost disrespectful to the [Hispanic] community to throw a player out there from a specific background and think [Hispanics] will buy tickets and show up," he says. "You have to be respectful of the power, intelligence, and the growth of that market, whether you're selling soccer or soap."

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