When it Comes to Connecting With Latinos, US Sports Leagues Can Learn From MLS

Lead Photo: Jae C. Hong / Associated Press
Jae C. Hong / Associated Press
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Major League Soccer (MLS) knows that recruiting players from Latin America – as well as Latinos in the US – is vital to its success. 18 years ago, Carlos Valderrama and MLS employee Gabriel Gabor walked down Main Street in Kansas City. They went virtually unnoticed, but if this same scenario happened today, El Pibe (or today’s equivalent of El Pibe) couldn’t just casually hang out without drawing in a crowd.

From 2000 to 2010, Kansas City’s Latino population grew 79 percent. Around the country, Latinos now accounts for 17 percent of the population. The MLS has noticed. “It was really just pure logic,” MLS commissioner Don Garber told Fox News Latino. “Every research study we do points to the fact that soccer is their sport of choice in our country. We don’t need to convince them the sport is great. We need to convince them that being a fan of MLS is important, should be an important part of their soccer experience. And that in itself has its own challenges. But there’s no denying the value we have as a sport and a league by being a sport of choice amongst a population of nearly 50 million people in this country.”

In a profile on The Guardian, Gabor reiterates how for the MLS, Latinos don’t matter just when Hispanic Heritage Month rolls around. Instead, he says the organization believes in “a Hispanic Heritage existence.” The league debuted in 1993, and according to Forbes it’s starting to close the gap between soccer and football, hockey, baseball, and basketball in the United States. Many factors have contributed, but Latinos – who in 2009 accounted for 40 percent of the games’ attendees – have certainly made a difference. Its popularity with Latinos isn’t an accident, and it’s something other sports leagues don’t yet fully comprehend or don’t prioritize. Simply existing as an entity doesn’t entitle you to Latino support. MLS has actively sought to engage us in different ways. Here are four ways the MLS is leading the way:


The MLS has a bilingual staff.

Gabriel Gabor, the same man who walked with El Pibe 18 years ago, says the MLS’ dedication to connecting with Latinos extends to its staff. “We view the Hispanic market as part of our DNA. It’s part of how we function and everything we do,” says Gabor, who is of Argentine descent. “It’s no coincidence that we were the first league [in the US] to have a full-time, Spanish language, cultural, bilingual staff. Why? A large percentage of our fans are Hispanic, a lot of our players are Hispanic, and so the teams have changed because of that and franchises have adapted and evolved because of this very fact.”


The MLS thinks about bicultural Latinos.

While connecting with Spanish-speaking audiences is a priority, the MLS knows that Latinos mostly speak English at home. A recent Pew Research Center study found that in 2014, 37 percent of Latinos aged 5 to 17 didn’t speak any Spanish at home – a 7 percentage point jump from 2000. The young adults who make up the majority of its fan base also speak more English at home. 30 percent of Latinos aged 18 to 33 only speak English at home, compared to only 20 percent in 2000.

The MLS has shifted their outreach accordingly, and it no longer approaches this population the same way it would 15 or 20 years ago. “There’s a recent survey that showed that the majority of Hispanics in the US are no longer foreign-born, so even though they have the Hispanic culture in their blood, they consume everything in English,” Gabor added. “So regardless of language, we think about being bicultural and that’s what sets us apart. We’re not just translating news.”


Teams like DC United listen to their fans.

Lack of diversity plagues many industries. When people complain about mostly white actors in Hollywood, it sometimes feels like these criticisms fall on deaf ears. When DC United first launched, it benefited from the large Latino population. Residents had players like Jaime Moreno, Marco Etcheverry, and Raúl Díaz Arce to root for. When those players left, fans complained that the MLS didn’t add more Latinos to the team. DC United heard the fans, and even went as far as partnering with DC Scores, a non-profit that works with students from low-income areas. DC Scores offers free after-school programs and summer camp.


It's becoming a part of the community.

DC United isn’t unique. In Los Angeles, for example, the team hosts the COPA L.A. every year. The youth tournament welcomes children from Los Angeles, surrounding cities, and even Mexico. The team has already hosted it 15 years in a row, and even though the next edition is eight months away, the LA Galaxy is already advertising the 2017 event. According to DC United’s former director of Hispanic relations, the community responds to these genuine outreach efforts. “These events are a way for us to go out there, be involved and say, ‘Hey, we’re part of you,'” Boris Flores told ESPN FC. “With outreach programs, obviously, you’re trying to get your brand out, but you’re contributing to the goodwill of the community as well.”