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Pro Sports Tap Into Hispanic Fans

By Christina Hoag

November 30, 2002
Copyright © 2002 Knight-Ridder/Tribune. All rights reserved. 

MIAMI -- Denver Nuggets coaches are betting on the forceful rebounding speed of new forward "Nene" Hilario to help slam-dunk them to a winning season this year. But they're not the only ones wagering on the arrival of the 6-11 Brazilian to deliver results. So are basketball promoters.

"He's going to give us an opportunity in Brazil," gushed Arturo Núñez, managing director of Miami-based NBA Latin America who's in charge of marketing the game known as baloncesto south of the border. "That'll really help us."

At a time when attendance at professional sports events is slipping in the United States, league officials are seeking ways to woo new fans, and foreign players are pivotal in marketing strategies both domestically and abroad.

In the outreach effort, Latin Americans and the burgeoning U.S. Hispanic market are at the top of the list. And broadcasters are jumping on the bandwagon, too, beefing up Spanish-language sports programming, both in the United States and Latin America.

"All the major sports are trying to extend their reach," said John Mansell, sports business analyst for Kagan World Media. "Latin America is a natural growth area given the proximity to the U.S. and the population trends in our country."

Baseball caught on early to the potential Hispanic fan base and to the ability of international players to not only spark interest among ethnic groups in the United States but also to popularize the sport in a player's home country. Major League Baseball recently announced that the Montreal Expos will play 22 of its 81 home games next season in San Juan, Puerto Rico.

The Florida Marlins, for example, were among the first clubs to hire a Hispanic marketing director back when the franchise was launched in 1993. And like every major league team, it has a number of Hispanic players.

But now basketball, football and even hockey are also hoping to score big-time with Latinos.

Earlier this year, the National Football League pinpointed Hispanics as the league's top marketing priority for the 2002-03 season, and in July, the NFL hired a New York Hispanic firm, Lumina Americas, to develop a Latino marketing campaign.

In recent seasons, it is the National Basketball Association that has led the way in marketing to both U.S. Hispanics and Latin Americans. Bringing basketball to foreigners through clinics, player appearances and exhibition games is another key marketing hook.

The league regularly shows off players on international trips, such as September's Latinos Unidos tour to the Caribbean. In Santo Domingo, more than 8,300 fans turned out to cheer on homegrown hoopster Felipe López of the Minnesota Timberwolves and other Hispanic players.

Back home, the league is drying the ink on a groundbreaking deal with Telemundo. The Hialeah-based television network will broadcast 15 of this season's games in Spanish -- a first for a major sport and a move expected to pave the way for other leagues' forays into the Hispanic market.

"This will change the way major sports view Hispanic broadcasters," said Jorge Hidalgo, Telemundo's senior vice president of sports.

NBA teams still have only a handful of Latin players on their rosters but the numbers are gradually increasing. This season there are 67 players from around the world.

One of them is Eduardo Najera of the Dallas Mavericks, the NBA's only Mexican.

"Najera is a second-tier player here in the U.S., but you take him back to Mexico, he's Michael Jordan," said Núñez of the NBA.

That translates into big bucks.

While having a Latino player provides a natural inroad to both sponsors and fans, the dearth of Hispanic players means most teams, including the Miami Heat, don't have any.

"Obviously it would be great to have one. It would definitely help," said Michael McCullough, the Heat's chief marketing officer. "But we've certainly been able to have a cohesive marketing strategy without the benefit of that."

Instead, the Heat sees fostering strong community relations and advertising as its path to Spanish speakers. "Our strategy is to get involved with grass-roots events to be where the Hispanic community is," McCullough said.

That means dispatching the Heat dancers, Burnie -- the flame mascot -- and its trademark antique firetruck to everything from Miami's Calle Ocho street festival to Kiwanis of Little Havana fundraisers, as well as schooling Heat players to pronounce a few words in Spanish for radio ads.

This year, the franchise is expanding advertising efforts to Spanish-language billboards and has a new ticket-sales promotion with the Pilón coffee brand. It has also extended its Heat Academy after-school tutoring program to a Little Havana school, and is continuing with its Spanish-language radio coverage of games in South Florida.

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