In November 1996, the Dallas Burn, one of Major League Soccer's 12 professional teams, was coming off a banner freshman year. Fan enthusiasm was high: Average attendance during the inaugural season hit 16,000 for the Burn; overall, league attendance averaged about 17,000 per game.
But the Burn's biggest draw for Hispanic fans, Mexican soccer star Hugo Sanchez, was about to retire.
Sanchez's departure would mean losing a significant portion of fans among the 750,000 Hispanics living in North Texas, about 70 percent to 80 percent of whom are Mexican. Then there was the curse of the sophomore slump: Once the excitement of the MLS's initial year wore off, even more fans would disappear. "In 1997, we knew we would have to start a grassroots effort to tap into [the Hispanic] market," says Dallas Burn vice president of marketing Andy Swift.
In 1997, the Burn became the first professional sports team in Dallas to create a separate marketing department devoted exclusively to Hispanics. Everything from sales and advertising to media and public relations used both grassroots and conventional marketing strategies, says Swift. The team directed its efforts toward the immigrant population, who were closer to the sport and had ties to teams back home. First- and second-generation immigrants would also appeal to corporate sponsors, like Budweiser and Western Union, since their brand loyalties in America were not yet set.
The Burn commissioned Dallas-based Hispanic advertising agency Ornelas and Associates, which handles the national Hispanic accounts for Budweiser and Taco Bell, to conduct market research and develop a tagline that would appeal to the growing market. "Vive La Pasion" - Live the Passion - reflected the enthusiasm that first- and second-generation Hispanic immigrants felt for soccer in their home countries, and which the Burn hoped they'd feel for a team in their new home.
To find out how they could best meet the needs of Hispanic fans, the team went out into the community and just listened. Radio - the Latin market's public forum of choice - enabled the players (and Swift) to appear on local Spanish-language radio stations and take calls from fans. "We would listen to what fans were saying about the team, and what was bothering them," says Swift. He says he listened diligently to other sports shows on Spanish radio stations, where the number-one topic was always soccer. In addition, player appearances in the community and at local schools provided ample opportunities to talk with fans one to one. Hispanic fans weren't at all shy about expressing their opinions at neighborhood player appearances, says Swift, as well as visiting the Burn's office, calling, or even e-mailing their suggestions to the team.
After a few years of this one-to-one interaction, the Burn has learned how to tap into some of the market's unique characteristics. First, they discovered that ticket prices and promotions were important. Mexican callers to radio shows, for instance, said they were used to being offered special price promotions back home, such as free admission for kids or their moms on certain nights. Hispanics were also more apt to decide on game day if they'd attend, rather than to purchase season tickets. "The way the team plays matters a lot. If the team plays well, they will go [to the game]. If the team doesn't do well, they'll stay away," Swift points out.
The Burn also discovered that a large pocket of some 90,000 Salvadorans lived in Dallas. Unlike the high-performing Mexican soccer league, to which fans unfavorably compared the start-up MLS, the Salvadoran professional soccer league is closer to MLS's level of play, Swift notes. "So it was easier for us to win their fans over, and become more established with that community quicker," he says.
Acting upon what it has learned, the Burn implemented fans' suggestions for change in some areas. Last year, for instance, in response to radio callers, the team began offering two-for-one and half-price admission on weeknight games, which helped draw more of the Hispanic crowd, says Swift. The nights are tied in with corporate sponsors like the area's flagship Hispanic radio station, KESS. Printed coupons in Spanish-language weekly newspapers offered $4 off a $14 general admission ticket, says Swift. "About 3 percent of the walk-up crowd used the coupons," he notes. The promotion was discontinued this year, he adds, since the lowest-priced general admission ticket is now only $9.
The Burn also runs ads on Telemundo and Univision, as well as local Spanish-language radio stations, in the days before each home game in order to appeal to the walk-up Hispanic crowd, as well as two-color ads in local Spanish-language newspapers.
However, although Hispanics make up 40 percent of the Burn's fan base (half of fans in the team's first year were Hispanic, but that number fell to less than 30 percent in 1997), only 25 percent of the ad budget is spent on Hispanic-targeted efforts, says Swift. "Unlike our relationship with the general market, where PR-wise and advertising-wise we have to spend a lot of money to get name recognition, in the Hispanic market - because we're soccer - becoming a household name came quicker," he notes. In the general market, he says, the team competes with more well-known pro teams in the area, like football's Dallas Cowboys. But since soccer is the sport of choice for Hispanics, rather than spending money trying to build the brand, game-day-specific ads are combined with heavy public relations efforts on local radio stations on days preceding home games. All the Burn's home games are broadcast on local Spanish radio stations, and away games are shown on Telemundo. In fact, the Bu! rn is the first professional spo rts team in Dallas to have all its regular season games broadcast on TV and radio in both English and Spanish, Swift adds.
The personal touch works well with this audience, too, he says. Responding to a single fan's call or e-mail actually reaches an entire community of fans. "That one fan you reach out to has a very large family base. The Hispanic community is tight, and family and friends are important. So if you take care of the one fan the way you should, it will pay back tenfold," he says.
One way the team is taking care of fans is through its partnership with the Latin League, the Hispanic amateur adult soccer league for those who like to play as well as watch. The Burn sends players to Latin League games to sign autographs, give out premiums such as bumper stickers, and attract the media's attention.
In addition, the Latin League final is held before one of the Burn's home games at the Cotton Bowl, where Latin League member players return the favor by buying group tickets and supporting the team. The Burn has also set up tiendas - local stores selling tickets - in the neighborhoods, so that fans don't have to travel to Ticketmaster outlets outside their area, where employees might not speak Spanish. In addition, bilingual signage at the stadium, public address announcements in Spanish, and bilingual staff members at the Burn's office add to the sense that the team is a part of the community.
"The best way for fans to express their concern is not to go to the game, but it's very much appreciated that we do listen through the smaller-scale avenues," says Swift. However, fans have been going to the game. Although attendance did drop dramatically after the first season - from an average of 16,000 per game in 1996 to 9,700 in season two - that number has grown to 12,200 fans per game in the current season. Total attendance increased 15 percent from 1997 to '98, and was up another 10 percent from '98 to press time this season. (The regular season ended in mid-October.) Swift notes that the team hopes to continue its 10 percent growth rate into the 2000 season. And the number of walk-up tickets sold increased 25 percent this season from just last year, he adds, an indication of a significant increase in the number of Hispanic attendees, despite the team's lack of a Mexican player.
What the Critics Say
The grassroots approach is "exactly right" for the Hispanic market, according to Jed Pearsall, president of Performance Research, a corporate sponsorship research firm in Newport, Rhode Island. Hispanics are "much more family-oriented than [most] Caucasians, and take relationships more seriously, including relationships with organizations," he notes. By reaching Hispanics on a more direct and sincere level, the interaction creates more personal meaning for them, he adds, which may enable the team to lock in their support.
However, the Burn needs to take the next step in its market research efforts rather than simply relying on anecdotal information. By employing more structured qualitative research, such as focus groups, as well as quantitative surveys, the team could learn more about its target market, says Harvey Lauer, president of Hartsdale, New York-based American Sports Data, Inc.
However, since traditional sampling methods would skew toward English-speaking people, the team should employ the assistance of a specialized research firm that reaches into the Spanish-speaking population. A randomly-selected sample could then be questioned on issues such as their attendance at MLS games and their relationship between participation and spectatorship, as well as what products they use, which could be used to help the team garner additional sponsors.
Such research might also be used to further personalize future efforts. Pearsall adds that "anything that can be more personal, on a more one-to-one level, is going to make a big difference among Hispanic sports fans."