This week the Wall Street Journal published an article on the efforts American sports organizations are making to attract Hispanic fans. Hispanics are the fastest growing demographic group in the US and their buying power is growing rapidly as well. Included in the article is a brief discussion of how Hispanics figure into MLS' plans:
Many Hispanics hail from countries where soccer -- known there as fútbol -- is a national passion, which Major League Soccer is trying to tap. The U.S. league is sponsoring games featuring Latin American teams in the hope that fans will stick around for U.S. matches the same day.
"For us, the Hispanic market is incredibly important," said MLS commissioner Don Garber.
But catering to "the Hispanic market" is a big challenge for U.S. sports promoters, in part because Latinos here have ties to more than a dozen countries.
Eduardo Carvacho has been navigating the Hispanic market for U.S. soccer teams since 2007. He started out building a fan base for the Columbus Crew in Ohio, where most Hispanics were recent arrivals. To start a "porra," a group of diehard fans who set the tone at the stadium, he relied mostly on personal interactions, like eating tacos with community leaders.
Mr. Carvacho now works for the soccer team in Dallas, a much bigger market with established Hispanic institutions where he can proselytize through businesses such as Fiesta, a Hispanic-food grocery chain that sells FC Dallas tickets.
"You have to customize every single thing," he said of appealing to Hispanic fans, depending on the local community.
It's refreshing to hear such a nuanced view from someone involved in MLS. It's important to realize that "Hispanic" is akin to "European" in the breadth that it encompasses and there are hardly any touchstones that can be relied upon to hold throughout the entire population. Even language can be an issue, if Brazilians are included as Hispanics. This is not at all a settled question, by the way. The Census Bureau holds that Brazilians are not Hispanic, but other organizations do include them in the classification. I personally am ambivalent Hispanic. On the one hand, Hispania used to be all of the Iberian peninsula under the Romans, so the label has some historical accuracy. On the other hand, Portugal has been independent from Spain since the 12th century, so it's a label that's around nine centuries out of date.
In any case, MLS definitely has plans for reaching out to Hispanics. How successful will they be? It is true soccer is generally popular with Hispanics, but that's not the end of the story. Contrary to what many might expect, MLS will have a very difficult time reaching the Hispanic market, more difficult than the other American sports.
To see why this is, we have to consider some of the unique challenges facing American soccer and MLS:
For example, while most Hispanic nationalities do favor soccer over all other sports, Cubans are more fond of baseball and generally lukewarm on soccer. Therefore Florida, which at first looks like a great market for soccer because of the large Hispanic population, is actually not so friendly an environment because of the high proportion of Cubans. In fact, it was the teams based in Florida that both folded when MLS contracted after the 2001 season. While there continues to be speculation around the possibility of a Miami team whenever MLS expansion talk picks up, so far no bids have gotten very far.
Divided Loyalties in a Saturated Market
Of those Hispanics who do consider soccer their favorite sport, many of them are already fans of other teams and other leagues. Consider a hypothetical Mexican-American whose family have been fans of Atlas for years. Alongside that allegiance, he may have followed Rafa Marquez to Monaco and now Barcelona. Our hypothetical Hispanic may already have affection for up to three clubs, and maybe the Mexican national team as well. An MLS team has to somehow make its case to become team number five on that list. And if it even succeeds in that difficult task, how much attention will team number five get? I would love to see some research done to see the extent of this phenomenon. That would be a first step in determining how much of the Hispanic market is actually available to MLS.
The playing style favored in MLS, a very physical game where skill tends to lose out to brawn, is generally not very appealing to Hispanic soccer fans. They prefer a style with short, precise passing and subtle, skillful ball control are the highlights in a fluid, flowing game. The problem for MLS is that the kind of player that dominates the league right now is just not capable of that kind of play. Switching to a more attractive style of soccer would be a multi-year project requiring a major investment in retooling rosters all around the league.
Quality and Competition
This is somewhat related to the point on divided loyalties, but it focuses on fans without any existing loyalties. Not all Hispanic fans are spoken for. Some might not be following the sport at the moment, some might have a casual interest, or they follow a national team, but not a club team, and so on. The question for MLS is where does that fan go when his interest in soccer is awakened? Unfortunately for MLS, it isn’t the pinnacle of its sport and will likely never be. Therefore, MLS is by no means the default choice for American soccer fans. MLS has to compete with the EPL, La Liga, and the Serie A, along with all of the leagues in the various countries with which Hispanics may have ties, and any league where players from those countries could be featuring. This is dozens of leagues with hundreds of teams, all competing against MLS for the attention of the Hispanic-American soccer fan. This is in stark contrast to the NBA, the NFL, and MLB, who don’t have serious competition as the top league in their sport. Any fans they can attract to their sport will be attracted to the league and its teams.
The good news for MLS is that the Hispanic market may end up not being as important a piece of the puzzle as Garber thinks. The most successful teams by far in generating fan support in MLS have been in the cities with the lowest Hispanic population: Toronto and Seattle. Philadelphia, with a mere 8.5% Hispanic population, is doing very well in season ticket sales, and Portland (8.5%) and Vancouver (1.36%) will without doubt continue that trend. Compare that to FC Dallas's poor attendance in a region that is over 35% Hispanic and a picture starts to emerge. There are markets more fertile than Hispanics for American soccer and identifying and reaching out to those will give MLS it's best chance at robust growth. And if in the future, Hispanics in America are ready to embrace MLS, the league will be ready for them as well.