Latinos make mark on U.S. sports

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Hispanic sports fans reveal a locker room full of varied tastes that often mirror those of general-market audiences.

In other instances, Hispanics' particular interest in some pro sports is helping these games gain greater acceptance in the general market.

Hispanic preferences in sports can vary depending on how long individuals or families have been in the U.S. Marketers and TV executives have come to realize that the longer a Hispanic has been in the U.S., the more likely he is to grow fond of traditional American sports like football, basketball or hockey.

"The interest in sports among Hispanics is more wide-ranging than people would imagine," says Lino Garcia, general manager of Walt Disney Co.'s ESPN Deportes, which next January will debut as a Spanish-language cable network airing National Football League, National Basketball Association and Major League Baseball games. ESPN Deportes will also cover a number of soccer leagues and motor sports outside the U.S.

Call it the American acculturation of the Latino sports fan-it means the opportunity to expand the fan base of mainstream American sports is huge. With the 2000 census confirming the nation's 38 million-plus Hispanics as the U.S.' largest and fastest-growing minority population, league and sports executives are honing their marketing efforts to maintain the interest of acculturated Hispanics who often needed little enticement to initially develop rooting interest in "American" sports.

Hispanics' preference for traditional American sports sometimes even outpaces their cultural favorites, says David Tice, VP-client service with market researcher Knowledge Networks, Cranford, N.J.

In a recent sports resonance study, KN found that Hispanics are comparatively more interested in pro football and basketball than the general market is. For marketers and programmers, such findings reveal that American sports are likely to draw Hispanic attention at a faster-growing rate, albeit for a much smaller audience, Mr. Tice says.

BREAKING THROUGH

"It's reached a level of finally breaking through. The leagues are just coming to learn about Hispanic fans," he says. "The low-hanging fruit has been picked, so people are moving beyond the white, male, 18-to-34-year-old sports fan to focus on Hispanics and other demographic groups that are just as valuable to marketers as 18-to-34 [Anglos] were."

However, immigration and acculturation to U.S. society don't necessarily mean Hispanics completely abandon their homeland sports. The KN data also show that 29% of Hispanics were very interested in boxing vs. 7% of non-Hispanics.

The U.S. Hispanic market is as diverse as the number of countries throughout Latin America and Europe, with preferences varying from sport to team to individual athletes or stars, says Doug Jacobs, partner with Innovative Sports Marketing & Management, Hoboken, N.J. This could hinder true crossover appeal between different sports, he says.

"It may not mesh with the U.S. population," he says. "Hispanic sports are pure niche marketing."

"At first blush, there are differences, and at other times there aren't," says Julio Rebull Jr., managing partner at Rise Strategies, a marketing consultancy in Miami. Mr. Rebull once was exec VP-marketing with Major League Baseball's Florida Marlins, which successfully reaches out to general-market and Hispanic audiences alike.

"The marketing approach isn't uniquely Hispanic. The challenge is to know them well enough so you can market to them in important and unique places," he says.

At the National Football League, Hispanics represent a fast-growing audience-one that jibes nicely with the general-market population, says Marjorie Rodgers, senior director-brand marketing with the league.

The NFL has teamed with ESPN Deportes to create "NFL en Espanol," a clinic-style program that partners with teams in select markets to reach Hispanics with stadium and practice facility visits and autograph sessions for the new fans.

How much of this is necessary? According to a 2002 study of 900 Hispanics aged 18 to 49, some 70% said they were fans of the NFL (vs. 79% in the general market). Some 86% of those interested Hispanics said knowing football made them feel more American, Ms. Rodgers says.

Moving from the gridiron to the ice rink, acceptance of hockey by Hispanics is affected both by culture and socioeconomics, says Ken Martin, director-community and diversity programming with the National Hockey League. While the New Jersey Devils' Scott Gomez is an easily recognizable Hispanic player on a high-profile team, the inability of many kids to play the expensive sport, where equipment can cost hundreds of dollars and is outgrown quickly, creates a cultural roadblock for many Latinos, Mr. Martin admits.

Finding the right mix of sports to suit Hispanic tastes requires a variety of ingredients, says David Sternberg, general manager of News Corp.'s Fox Sports en Espanol.

Since its launch in 1996, the cable network has focused on the "Big 3" Latino sports-soccer, boxing and baseball-by acquiring licenses to premier events and tournaments from throughout the Americas.

At the same time, Fox Sports en Espanol carries the U.S.' Major League Soccer, postseason Major League Baseball and NFL playoff games with play-by-play in Spanish.

It's difficult to generalize about Latino tastes in sports. Emigres from Puerto Rico might enjoy basketball more than someone of a Argentine heritage, Mr. Sternberg says.

Moreover, psychographics and length of time in the U.S. also tend to alter certain preferences.

Third-generation Latinos might enjoy the NFL, but they're still rooted in those sports favored by their Latin heritage. Also, Hispanics tend to gather with multiple generations of family members to watch TV, whether it's novelas or sporting events.

"That's not going to change," Mr. Sternberg says.

Influence on TV

The growth of the U.S. Hispanic population has also sparked some changes in sports viewership by the general market, says Kathy Duva, CEO of boxing promotion company Main Events, Bloomfield, N.J. The company worked with General Electric Co.'s NBC and its Telemundo network to air a boxing series.

NBC uses boxing in part to replace franchise sports like the NFL and NBA as its regular programming, Ms. Duva says. As a result, the network has grown its base of general-market boxing viewers. Two of the largest Hispanic markets for recent boxing broadcasts were San Antonio and Birmingham, Ala., regardless of whether it was two Hispanics or two non-Hispanic Americans fighting, she says.

"There's this perception that this is a Hispanic sport going into some Hispanic ghetto. As they assimilate, I believe they're getting everyone else to watch," Ms. Duva says. "It's not just Hispanics, but Hispanics, blacks and Anglos. They're transferring their love of the sport to Americans. This might be the beginning of a transition."