Multicultural hits the big league

Major League Baseball teams are employing a variety of tactics to form meaningful and lasting relationships with diverse audiences.

Major League Baseball teams are employing a variety of tactics to form meaningful and lasting relationships with diverse audiences.

More than any other professional sport, Major League Baseball (MLB) has, historically, reflected America's diverse demographics.

From 1947, when Jackie Robinson first took the field for the Brooklyn Dodgers, to 2000, when the MLB season opened in Tokyo, teams have recognized the value of connecting with multicultural fans. And as the nation's ethnic composition continues to change, engaging those fans has become even more of a priority.

In few places is this as immediately evident as LA, where the county's close to 10 million inhabitants represent all races, colors, and socio-economic backgrounds. And for the Los Angeles Dodgers, all are potential baseball buffs.

With PR, marketing, and sponsorship efforts, "we try and reach all Dodger fans," says team EVP and COO Marty Greenspun. "We cast the widest net possible [and] focus on stories that reach the widest segment." But considering the region's diversity, there is also a need for targeted messages, tailored specifically to multicultural media, fans, and the business partners that cater to them.

Engaging Latin-American fans - which, according to the Dodgers, make up about 40% of home-game attendees - has a lot to do with proactive pitching, says Josh Rawitch, the team's director of PR.

The Dodgers also accommodate Spanish-speaking fans with in-language broadcasts; last year, the team was among several to launch a Spanish-language Web site, and now have an in-language blog, LosDodgers.com.

More than that, though, the team has integrated itself into the Hispanic community, via family-friendly events like "Carne Asada Sunday with Nomar Garciaparra."

These family-oriented, off-the-field events allow the team to thank fans for their support and enable community members "to connect with the team, the stadium, and our players," says SVP of communications Camille Johnston. "Opportunities like this create memories and family traditions that are passed on from generation to generation and build a lifelong relationship with the franchise."

One of the most highly visible of these events is Viva Los Dodgers fan appreciation day.
Now in its tenth year, the event has featured Grammy-nominated Latin musicians, games, food, and autograph-signing players. Free for everyone with tickets to that day's game, the festival, which takes place in the parking lot before the game, is also an opportunity for 50 sponsors to interact with more than 10,000 highly targeted fans. The event "generally helps sell out that game," Rawitch says.

Beyond filling seats

But creating fans "is not just about getting people into the ballpark," says Jason Pearl, VP of corporate sponsorship for the San Francisco Giants.

Since 2002, the team has focused on connecting with the Bay Area's growing Hispanic population. Among its efforts, the Giants trade- marked the name "Gigantes," he says, and have since 2005 used it in all Spanish-language messaging, from T-shirts to its own dedicated Web site - www.sfgigantes.com.

Like the Dodgers, the Giants' initiatives to reach diverse audiences are as much about relationship-building as getting bodies in seats.

"Our job is to make sure people engage with the Gigantes brand," Pearl explains, in particular via giveaways and branding opportunities in partnership with corporate sponsors like AT&T, Bank of America, and Jose Cuervo.

"When we started this program, we agreed that you just don't reach out to a community," Pearl says. "You must invite them to be a part of the family before saying, 'Here's how you buy tickets.'"

The Dodgers and Giants aren't alone when it comes to actively tailoring outreach to diverse audiences. Multicultural outreach has become a league-wide priority, integrated into every aspect of teams' games, broadcasts, and promotional themes.

"We're unlike other brands because we are in the community every day," says Jacqueline Parkes, SVP of advertising and marketing for MLB. "We have 162 games a year. Clubs are really able to connect their community messages and outreach in a more extensive way than other properties can."

Looking to the Far East

Across the board, MLB's Hispanic outreach has been most successful in garnering new fans and players. Since the mid-'90s, however, when the Dodgers added Japanese-born pitcher Hideo Nomo, MLB has enthusiastically courted Asian audiences on both sides of the Pacific. In fact, as of this season, about 2.5% of MLB's 750 active players are Asian, from Japan, Korea, and Taiwan.

To connect with Asian-American audiences, many clubs have added Asian heritage nights to their outreach agendas, and MLB is running Japanese-language commercials during general-market broadcasts. In addition to MLB's official Japanese-, Korean-, and Chinese-language Web sites, online fan communities are abuzz with MLB chatter.

Years ago, the Dodgers had a full-time staff member whose job it was "to bring Japanese tourists into the stadium," says Rawitch. Today, the team relies on its Asian operations executives to strategically develop relationships and "establish the Dodgers as a global brand."

Many of MLB's current efforts involve a similar global approach. Players like the Seattle Mariners' Ichiro Suzuki, the Boston Red Sox's Daisuke Matsuzaka, and the New York Yankees' Hideki Matsui have huge followings in the US and overseas, and the league has capitalized on that via lucrative licensing, branding, and sponsorship deals, both here and abroad.

For the Yankees, however, the goal "is to have positive relationships with all different ethnic racial communities," says Alice McGillion, EVP at Rubenstein Associates, which works with the team.

One way the club has achieved that, she adds, is with a "huge push" to involve Bronx-based workers in the building of the team's new stadium. In addition to "a million-dollar training program for people who want to learn skills to go into the construction field," McGillion says about 31% of all construction contracts have gone to Bronx-based businesses, most being multicultural.

The Yankees' more traditional outreach efforts, however, revolve around what McGillion calls "a million-dollar program" involving ticket giveaways, product, uniform, and equipment donations, and grants, all to community-based youth recreation and education organizations.

A challenging crowd

For all its multicultural headway, MLB is still struggling to connect with African Americans.

"It's a demographic baseball is striving to reach," says Jay Lucas, SVP of communications for the Houston Astros. "The number of [African-American] players has dropped. That's why MLB and its teams are asking, 'What can we do to attract players to continue to play baseball?'"

Throughout the league, the numbers are striking: In 1974, 27% of MLB players were African American. As recently as 1995, it was 19%, according to the University of Central Florida's Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sports. In 2006, however, that number had dropped to 8.4%. MLB does not track players based on their race, only on their country of birth.

There are numerous explanations for this dramatic disconnect, Lucas says. Analysts cite a lack of playing fields and affordable equipment in inner-city areas; they say the prestige and money associated with the NBA and NFL has made baseball a second-choice sport.

Regardless of the reasons, with fewer players of color, there are fewer of them for young African Americans to emulate.

Like other teams, the Astros are doing their part to bring baseball back to urban America. Efforts include hosting African-American community leaders and area churches, Lucas says.

The team also partners with Minute Maid to build and refurbish baseball fields in predominantly African-American neighborhoods in the area.

"We have what I think is a good outreach program," he says, adding that the team intends to up its efforts in the coming months. As with all such outreach, he says, the key is "to get the brand and players out into the community."

The challenge is especially relevant this season, the 60th anniversary of the year Jackie Robinson broke baseball's color barrier.

MLB marked that milestone with "our most extensive integrated promotion and marketing campaign all year," says MLB's Parkes. On April 15 - Jackie Robinson Day across the league - events were held at all ballparks.

In LA, every Dodger wore Robinson's iconic uniform number 42, and MLB dignitaries were on hand for a pre-game ceremony.

These initiatives give MLB "the chance to recognize [Robinson] and leverage that to build forward our African-American fan base and playing field," she says.

"Our opportunity to engage the African-American fan into the game is to get them to love and interact with [it] from a young age," says Cleveland Indians VP of PR Bob DiBiasio.

Connecting with that fan base is part of the 106-year-old club's heritage. In 1947, the Indians were the first American League team to break the color barrier (with outfielder Larry Doby), and in 1975 they were the first MLB team to name an African-American manager (Frank Robinson). But the mission is significant in terms of demographics, as well: Almost a third of all Cleveland area residents are African American.

Connecting with youth

In all outreach efforts, the club stresses education, recreation, and humanitarianism, DiBiasio says. Specific to the African-American community, the Tribe awards an annual Larry Doby scholarship to Cleveland State University. As well as providing an academically gifted ballplayer with tuition and books, the winning student is acknowledged during a game, DiBiasio says; many of the winners also spend summers working for the Indians in various roles.

The team also annually donates several hundred thousand dollars - as well as time and expertise - to the Cleveland School District and the Cleveland Baseball Federation. These funds help thousands of inner-city kids play baseball and softball year-round, free of charge.

Efforts to revive baseball among urban youth are a key component in MLB's multi-ethnic outreach programs, says Parkes. The Cleveland Baseball Federation is part of MLB's Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities (RBI) program, which began in 1989. The league-wide grassroots push is intended to encourage participation in baseball among underserved, mostly black and Hispanic teens. To date, more than 170 RBI players have been drafted by MLB teams.

A highlight for both kids and their MLB sponsors is the World Series of RBI, held each August. Since last season, the Series has taken place at MLB's Urban Youth Academy in Compton, CA - once a breeding ground for baseball talent. Opened in 2006, the $10 million facility provides free baseball and softball instruction for inner-city youth, as well as access to computer, English, math, and personal-development courses.

"With the RBI program... we're not just giving [kids] a chance to play, but we're giving them skills and values to change their lives," says Parkes. "We recognize their importance in the game of baseball, on and off the field, so we are committed to the causes they are committed to in their community."

It's that kind of commitment that will help MLB forge real, long-lasting team-fan relationships, regardless of ethnic background.

"The challenge is reaching the mass community while targeting specific groups," says the Dodgers' Rawitch. "To me, it's all about being creative and finding unique ways to reach those markets."

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