Marketers should not assume that associating with soccer, the most popular sport everywhere, is an inherently better way to build cultural credibility with the Hispanic population, which currently spends $356 billion, according to a report on the U.S. Hispanic market by Univision Communications, and is expected to be the country's largest ethnic group in seven years.
True, soccer stars radiate more brightly in the U.S. mediascape than in years past, thanks to the legacy of World Cup '94 and the marketing work of the nascent Major League Soccer. But baseball icons blaze like suns. Not only is the pop culture dotted with them, but many of the very best have names that trip familiarly from their tongues.
HISPANICS LEAD THE LEAGUE
Ivan Rodriguez of the Texas Rangers is in a FootAction commercial. There's Alex Fernandez of the Florida Marlins in a spot for BellSouth Corp. There's Juan Gonzalez, chasing the MLB runs-batted-in record. There's Sammy Sosa, hustling after the all-time home run mark.
MLB wouldn't provide an ethnic break out, but does say it has more than 150 players born in Spanish-speaking countries on team rosters.
"I don't think you can name one American or National League team that doesn't have as one of its top players a Latino," says Tony Dieste, president at Dieste & Partners, Dallas, which produced the spots for FootAction.
"The Michael Jordans of the Latino market are playing either baseball or soccer . . . But baseball has a certain special appeal because Latino baseball stars are so visible. They can look up to them with pride. They are role models."
EVERYONE LOVES THE SPORT
Baseball is effective among Americans from Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic and other Caribbean nations, says Aida Levitan, exec VP-principal at Sanchez & Levitan, Miami. For Mexican-Americans, she says, soccer remains their passion, but baseball is compelling entertainment.
"That's the beauty of baseball -- it runs the gamut of Hispanic cultures," says Ms. Levitan.
Her conviction is that this will only increase as future generations of Hispanic-Americans become more acculturated to mass-market pop culture. Ms. Levitan estimates 60% of the estimated 30 million U.S. Hispanics are acculturated.
"By acculturated," Ms. Levitan explains, "I mean a person who has adopted many of the values of the culture of which they are not from. This is not to say they abandon the values of their original culture; not at all. But they have adopted a majority of the values, or watch a lot of English-language TV."
Or consume a lot of American pop culture.
ENTERTAINMENT SPENDING UP
Hispanic Business last year reported consumer spending on entertainment increased 15% to $9 billion from 1996 to 1997. A report released by Consumer Expenditure Survey concluded that as a group, Hispanic consumers have a greater appetite than general market consumers for movies, videos, music -- and baseball.
According to research conducted by Major League Baseball's Arizona Diamondbacks, baseball is the No. 1 spectator sport among Hispanics.
So it's curious that when it comes to marketing to Hispanic consumers, Major League Baseball is still playing catch-up. On a national level, MLB only recently began illustrating its ethnic diversity in advertising.
The league has been concerned with building its brand in international markets, and has naturally focused on Spanish-speaking countries.
BASEBALL NEEDS NEW FANS
Over the past several years, MLBI has created events, grass-roots and media programs to develop these markets. Its own set of sponsors -- including Anheuser Busch, Nike and PepsiCo -- have taken advantage of them.
But there is a more pressing economic impetus for why MLB should woo the U.S. Hispanic consumer. Most sports leagues will say theirs is a mature business; the key to growth is to cultivate new consumers of tickets, licensed merchandise and programming. These new consumers must come out of markets not yet tapped. Women are one group. Certainly, over the next decade, Hispanics should be another.
"What I think is very appealing about baseball among Hispanics is that it's still a very inexpensive ticket in relation to other sports," says Mr. Dieste. "And the venue is typically more family oriented, and family-type activity is more important to Hispanics than it is with the general market."
According to MLB, about a third of its teams have staff dedicated to marketing to Hispanic consumers. Not surprisingly, the teams with such departments play in California, Florida and Texas -- states with large Hispanic populations.
Since 1994, the San Diego Padres have been offering shuttle service to Mexican fans from Tijuana, a tactic that has in part increased Hispanic attendance from 7% to 24% from '94 to '97. Relatively new franchises like the Florida Marlins and the Diamondbacks launched with staffs whose sole job was marketing to Hispanic consumers.
But it was only last year that the Texas Rangers created Spanish-language advertising. And it wasn't until this year the Anaheim Angels reached out to the Hispanic community.
Earlier this year, the team reportedly asked Latino residents of nearby Santa Ana to name their favorite baseball team. The Angels didn't make the top five. To change that, the team has launched its first-ever Spanish-language marketing effort that includes advertising, pocket schedules and radio broadcasts of games. The goal for 1999: a TV deal with a Spanish-language station, which would make the Angels one of the few MLB teams to have such a carrier.
Why haven't sports teams tried this sooner? It is an added expense, since they require a modified strategy and the production of a different set of materials, as Hispanic consumers prefer to be advertised to in Spanish. It may also require an outside-the-box approach to standard operating procedures.
Alex Lopez Negrete, president of Lopez Negrete, Houston, says sports teams are usually pretty tunnel-focused on season ticket sales. They assume, often quite correctly, that the average Hispanic household can't afford the package, "so they decide, I'm not going to market to them," says Mr. Negrete. "Still, why not invite them in? Advertise single game sales. Give away tickets. Let them sample the product, then database them, then a season or two later, target them [with] ads or direct mail for season tickets?"
The best sports leagues and teams create marketing platforms for their sponsors -- packages of promotional rights, media, merchandise, events. If they don't create these programs themselves, at the very least, leagues and teams work in tandem with sponsors' agencies in crafting programs. The immaturity of Hispanic marketing programs among most MLB teams is a hindrance to marketers who want to reach Hispanic consumers via baseball. It's here where Major League Soccer and its teams have MLB and its teams beat.
"MLS has a real opportunity," says Mr. Negrete, adding that "very few sports teams in general have done this very well. Sports can really play a big role in Hispanic marketing if leagues can get their act together."
Mr. Negrete says teams need to think beyond media in reaching the Hispanic market.
"To be successful, you have be a reality in community life," he says, suggesting initiatives like establishing retail stores in Hispanic communities, staging exhibitions, funding youth leagues, or creating promotions built around holidays like Cinco de Mayo.
The common denominator in all these activities: personal interaction.
"We're people people. We love to be with our people," he says.
The common potential they all share is that they can be built into marketing platforms for sponsors.
Ms. Levitan says team sponsorships are ineffective, and she recommends athlete endorsements. Her agency last year paired Mr. Fernandez and Bell South for English- and Spanish-language TV spots. Earlier this decade, her agency packaged an "old timers game" of past Latino baseball greats for Coors Brewing Co.
And if leagues and teams don't create opportunities, marketers won't sour on using baseball as a marketing tool. But it means they will have to work harder.
Says Mr. Negrete, "Maybe it won't be the teams that provide the programs, but the agencies and marketers provide brain power. And maybe that learning can in turn help the teams in the future."