NFL goes all out to lure Latinos
Market strategists zero in on surging demographics
By Leonel Sanchez
UNION-TRIBUNE STAFF WRITER
Nine-year-old Alfredo Rodriguez loves soccer, but football is gaining a special place in his heart since he finished first in his age group in the annual National Football League punt, pass and kick competition.
The Chula Vista boy's enthusiasm for a game he picked up only a few months ago is something the NFL wants to see more often within the country's fast-growing Latino population.
The NFL has taken notice of one of the nation's largest minority groups and likes what it sees – a still largely untapped fan base.
Football still trails soccer and baseball in the hearts and wallets of U.S. Latinos, but the NFL can't afford to ignore the population's growing numbers.
NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue cited the 2000 census count at the beginning of the season when he said Hispanic marketing would become a "league priority."
Fueled by immigration and high birth rates, the Latino population grew by nearly 60 percent in the 1990s, from 22 million to 35 million, and by nearly 50 percent in San Diego County, where one in four residents is Latino. Latino purchasing power or disposable income after taxes jumped from $223 billion in 1990 to more than $580 billion last year and is expected to reach $926 billion in 2007, according to a University of Georgia study.
"The Hispanic population is very important to the future of the whole league," said Peter Davidson, chief executive officer of LuminaAmericas, the New York firm hired by the NFL to help develop a long-term Hispanic marketing strategy.
The NFL's expanded effort to reach Hispanics will be in full display during Super Bowl XXXVII week on both sides of the border.
NFL players, working with Habitat for Humanity, are helping to build a home in National City for a Latino family. The NFL is holding leadership workshops with Latino organizations – one with San Diego MANA on Wednesday and the Chicano Federation on Thursday at the San Diego Hall of Champions in Balboa Park. The NFL and the San Diego County Hispanic Chamber of Commerce have raised more than $70,000 for scholarships for local Latino students.
"It speaks volumes about the importance of the Latino community," Chicano Federation of San Diego County executive director Ray Uzeta said. "The growth has been so tremendous during the past decade. Corporate America is noticing."
The NFL will spread its good will into Mexico this week and hopes to stir interest in the sport in the process.
Surveys show football ranks high already with English-dominant Latinos. The NFL wants to target the Spanish-speaking households in the United States where soccer and baseball are more popular.
"Hispanic is a very broad term. It applies to a sixth generation (American) from San Antonio and to someone just coming off the plane," Davidson said about U.S. Hispanics.
"Recent immigrants have not been brought up with football. The NFL has to reach. People have to get familiar with it. It's a complicated game unless you grow up with it."
Unlike Major League Baseball, the NFL has few Latino players that it can market – only 17 – less than 1 percent of the entire league. San Francisco 49ers quarterback Jeff Garcia and Kansas City Chiefs tight end Tony Gonzalez are among the few bona fide stars in that group. The Chargers only Latino players are linebackers Donnie Edwards and Zeke Moreno.
The NFL and a growing number of NFL clubs have cultivated relationships with Hispanics largely via Spanish radio and television. The NFL has increased the number of national games broadcast on Spanish radio. One-third of NFL teams carry their games in Spanish, including the Chargers, Oakland Raiders, Dallas Cowboys, Miami Dolphins, New Orleans Saints and New York Jets. In addition, NFL.com, the league's Internet site, has a Spanish section.
The NFL has played games in Mexico, the one Latin American country where the game has a chance to catch on big because of its proximity to the United States and frequent cross-migration of potential fans.
ABC's Monday Night Football series opened in Mexico City last season featuring the Raiders vs. the Cowboys. Mexican President Vicente Fox welcomed NFL fans.
"In Tijuana, there's a lot of interest in football," said Jorge Villanueva, the Spanish radio voice of the Chargers for the past decade. "There's a league that's been playing for 20 to 25 years. There's high school football. Pop Warner. They're also playing in Mexicali and Ensenada. You'd be amazed how many good football players there are there."
Mexico's Televisa and Venezuela's Meridiano networks will broadcast the Super Bowl to millions throughout Latin America. U.S. Hispanics can also watch in Spanish on ABC via second audio programming.
In San Diego, Spanish-language KBNT-Channel 17 plans to host live shows during the NFL Experience at the Embarcadero. Villanueva, a sports anchor at the Univision affiliate, plans to interview Latino NFL players and focus attention on the importance of Latinos to the NFL. Latino youth will paint a Super Bowl mural with help from the Centro Cultural de la Raza. Pepsi's Latin Family Day at the NFL Experience is scheduled for Friday.
The NFL is promising more than pre-game hype for Latinos. The league has donated $100,000 to build a new football field in San Ysidro. In Tijuana, it has donated $18,000 in computer supplies to city schools and $25,000 to the city's hospital for children.
Football has made an impact already in the life of Otay Elementary School fourth-grader Alfredo Rodriguez.
The Mexican-American youth has been playing soccer since he was 3 but entered the NFL's punt, pass and kick competition at the suggestion of a teacher. His uncle, Raul Caro, who played football at Castle Park High School, coached him. His ailing grandfather, who taught him how to kick a soccer ball, was his inspiration.
Alfredo's 31-yard kick helped him win the national title in his age category, securing a place for him on national TV when the winners were introduced during a playoff game in Tennessee.
His mother, Maria Caro, cheered when she saw her boy wearing a Chargers jersey on TV. His grandfather, Jesus Caro of Mexico, watched the Spanish telecast in another room. He cried when he saw his grandson.
When Alfredo came home he gave his grandfather the trophy. "Tata, this is for you," he told him.
Alfredo is still learning about the game. But one thing is certain. Football has already given him memories to last a lifetime.