MLS Expansion: Mexican-based MLS team kicks marketers into gear

When Chivas USA, an outpost of the Mexican soccer club, comes to LA, it likely will allow MLS - and its sponsors - to win big with Hispanic audiences.

When Chivas USA, an outpost of the Mexican soccer club, comes to LA, it likely will allow MLS - and its sponsors - to win big with Hispanic audiences.

Anyone with a drop of Mexican blood, maybe even a drop of Latin blood, knows Club Deportivo Guadalajara - better known as Chivas - one of the world's premier soccer teams.

Chivas is to Mexican sports fans what the Yankees are to New York, what the Raiders are to Oakland. The team inspires passion, sparks fights, and fills stadiums with thousands of fans. Known for fielding all-Mexican teams, Chivas also represents decades of pride to Mexicans for creating winning seasons and star players from homegrown talent.

That pride is about to emigrate. As part of Major League Soccer's (MLS) expansion, Los Angeles is welcoming Club Deportivo Chivas USA this spring, an American outpost of the team that hopes to import not only talent, but tradition.

"Chivas is a 100-year-old soccer brand," says the club's US GM, Whit Haskell. "It's by far the biggest name in soccer in Mexico, a country whose majority of people live and breathe soccer 24/7. It represents passion and a very special type of passion that only [soccer] can bring out of people."

For most Americans, an MLS expansion doesn't seem like a very big deal. While soccer has slowly and steadily gained traction with US audiences, it still has nowhere near the popularity of basketball, football, or baseball.

That lack of fan excitement has left MLS as a second-string option for most marketers and sponsors. Even when it comes to targeting Hispanic audiences, known for their love of the sport, MLS hasn't been a favorite partner, largely because many Hispanic fans see US soccer as a watered-down version of the sport they left behind in their countries of origin. They don't follow it with the enthusiasm and loyalty marketers are searching for.

Chivas hopes to change that, and many Hispanic marketers think the team has what it takes.

"It's almost as if [Chivas is] legitimizing the MLS," explains Mario Flores, head of one of the only Hispanic sports marketing agencies, Los Angeles-based Sportivo. "For such a long time, the MLS has been frowned upon by soccer fans in the US, especially Mexican and Latino soccer fans."

Evolving Hispanic marketing

The buzz Chivas already has generated before its first season shows that there is a hunger in soccer fans for something more than the MLS is currently offering. It might point to a broader emerging trend of growth in Hispanic sports marketing, a small endeavor that has quietly been gaining ground for some time, but hasn't had a major-league component to hang its hat on.

If Chivas is successful, it will change that perception, but it's not alone in heralding the growth of this area. The past few weeks have also seen the start of two national magazines dedicated to Hispanic sports fans, with both ESPN and Sports Illustrated announcing plans to launch Hispanic titles.

"As the media have become more sophisticated and more specialized in Latin America, we are going to see a continued growth and expansion of outlets that are more targeted," says Jorge Ortega, president of The Jeffrey Group.

In addition, Major League Baseball - which has a lot of Hispanic talent among its ranks - and basketball teams have taken more aggressive steps to reach out to Latino fans, who on average attend more sporting events than their general-market counterparts. Even sports like NASCAR have been courting Latino fans.

When it comes to Hispanic marketing, a community focus has been the golden rule. Hispanic marketers love to play up their deep ties to key cities like Miami and Los Angeles, and are quick to tell prospective clients that this is a demographic that has to subtly be courted at the local level through involvement with nonprofits, churches, and community organizations.

When it comes to sports, outreach has focused mainly on sponsoring city- or neighborhood-based amateur leagues or tournaments or, on a larger scale, traveling tournaments with star players.

But marketers see something different in Chivas, which could spur Hispanic sports marketers to create campaigns that incorporate high-profile teams and media outlets.

Brands like McDonald's and Honda already have lined up as sponsors, says Santiago Pozo, head of Arenas Entertainment, which handles PR for the team. And, on a smaller level, Sportivo cofounder Roxanna Lissa says that she has helped arrange for Chivas players to take part in the California "Got Milk?" PR campaign.

"The amount of support that we are finding in American corporations is tremendous, and I think it's a sign that these corporations fully recognize what the Chivas brand is and what Chivas can do for them," says Pozo. "All around the Mexican population in the country, Chivas is a brand that touches a very special nerve."

Other major corporations and marketers are closely watching to see what happens because Chivas USA might signal a way to reach a broader scope of Hispanic consumers, particularly young men, across demographics that include language, generations, and country of origin.

"Without a doubt marketers are looking at [Chivas]," says Euro RSCG Magnet's Chris Perez, who heads the agency's Hispanic practice and says Magnet is looking at offering more formal services in Hispanic sports marketing. "You are not only reaching the Spanish-speaking, first-generation immigrant, but you also are going beyond and building affinity with acculturated second-generation Hispanics, who still have tremendous pride in the sport."

An aggressive campaign

Chivas isn't taking any chances when it comes to keeping that pride white-hot. Arenas Entertainment has begun a bold marketing and PR campaign with the tagline "Adi--s Soccer. El f?tbol est? aqui," a not too subtle poke at US soccer and one meant to highlight the devotion Latin Americans have to their style of the sport.

"The campaign we have created is a little aggressive," admits Pozo. "It is saying, 'We've come here to play a kind of f?tbol you haven't seen.' It's fun; it's irreverent. We are really taking the bull by the horns, saying we are the best."

Ray Durazo of LA-based Durazo Communications says it's a good approach.

"I think it's going to be huge," he says. "In Europe and throughout the world it isn't soccer, it's f?tbol [or football]. And what I think the slogan is saying is, 'You've been watching American teams play what they call soccer. Now you're going to get to see a Latin-American team play f?tbol.' And that is going to strike a chord."

If Durazo and other Hispanic marketers are right about Chivas, Hispanic sports marketing might come into its own. Already, there is talk of importing another Latin-American team in a few years.

But, points out Lissa, no matter how much buzz Chivas creates, it's going to come down to what happens on the field.

"No matter how much hype they get," she says, "if at the end of the day they don't win games, fans aren't going to go see them."

And neither will sponsors.

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