World News America

Page last updated at 17:45 GMT, Friday, 11 June 2010 18:45 UK

US soccer finds a Hispanic audience

qwest field
Qwest Field in Seattle is home to the Seattle Sounders

By Franz Strasser
BBC World News America, Washington

When the World Cup kicks off in South Africa, millions of Americans will be tuning in to follow the action. It is a development which the US soccer league appreciates, but one that did not come easily.

When Major League Soccer (MLS) started play in 1996, with the memory of the first World Cup in the United States fresh in people's minds, league executives were still looking for an identity in the competitive world of US professional sports.

"All they had was big football stadiums to play in. They had some silly team names and some silly colours," recalled Matt Winkler, a sports marketing professor at Georgetown University.

Attendance at pro leagues
Avg attendance per game last season (previous season)

NFL: 67,498 (-1.1%)
MLB: 30,298 (-6.8%)
NBA: 17,149 (-2%)
NHL: 17,072 (-2.3%)
MLS: 16,343 (+11.3%)*
* halfway through the season
Source: ESPN, MLS Daily

Mutiny, Burn, MetroStars and Clash were a handful of names, all of which have since expired - although not all the teams have. Games were played on American football fields, along yard lines laid out for the other sport.

"As a whole, the league operated with an American mentality," said Kathy Carter, executive vice-president of Soccer United Marketing, the league's marketing arm.

"I don't want to say 'dumb the game down' but we certainly had to cater to the US population," Ms Carter explained.

Soccer moms

In the run-up to the US presidential election in 1996, the term "soccer mom" was coined by political strategists to define a growing demographic in the country that could decide the election.

The clubs tried to capitalise on the increasing but not yet fully developed interest in youth soccer.

"The league had this crazy idea that it was going to be some sort of youth-oriented activity," said Kevin Payne, owner of DC United, a founding MLS team based in Washington DC.

Nesta in Washington DC
DC United hosted AC Milan in a friendly on 26 May

Mr Payne said his club - from name to logo and uniform - embraced the tradition of football from the onset.

"We weren't skateboarding and we weren't snowboarding. We weren't other sports that young people have embraced," Mr Payne added.

One of the main reasons why Mr Payne's DC United became a success both on and off the field early on was the club's targeted approach to luring the large Hispanic population in the capital's metropolitan area into the stadium.

Nationwide, the Hispanic population is expected to top 47 million people in 2010, about 15.5% of the US population. Plus, Hispanics' spending grew twice as much as that of non-Hispanics during as well as despite the recession.

Hispanic-driven market

Companies are taking note and tapping into an evolving demographic with an increasing amount of "purchasing power".

"The fact that the Hispanic market is growing and is so important to Volkswagen was a major factor in our choice in going into soccer," said Tim Ellis, vice-president of marketing at Volkswagen Americas.

New MLS teams
New MLS teams
Chivas USA (2005)
Real Salt Lake (2005)
Houston Dynamo (2006)
Seattle Sounders (2008)
Toronto FC (2009)
Philadelphia Union (2010)

The car company entered a deal with DC United in 2008 - to display the VW logo on the team's jersey and place cars behind the goal posts at RFK Stadium, where the club is housed.

"Other recent deals signed around the league - Xbox in Seattle and Red Bull in New York - indicate big corporations see the potential of soccer in this country," Mr Ellis said.

Additionally, the Spanish-language media play a key component in Volkswagen's and the league's strategy to reach the Hispanic market.

Univision, Fox Sports En Espanol and ESPN Deportes all broadcast MLS programming, from live games to TV shows centred around the league.

Univision, for example, is the most popular station in Los Angeles, in contrast to English-language channels.

Growing league

Apart from TV deals, DC United offers its games on a local Spanish-language radio station in the district.

Herbert Baires, who announces the games and hosts a daily sports show, said the ties between the club and the community run deep.

Young players in the area now grow up dreaming to one day play for United, he said.

In retrospect, executives say, it took a while for the league to realise that it did not need to create new soccer fans; they were already there, in places where the league was not looking.

Since 2005, MLS has added six new teams, and with the exception of Seattle all now play in their own arenas.

Next year, teams in Portland and Vancouver will kick off their inaugural MLS seasons, and Montreal will get its own team in 2012.

"It will be interesting to see in five years if this was the right approach," said Mr Winkler, "or if the league expanded too quickly.

"Are there some markets that they can't sustain, or was this just the right business model in targeting a smaller minority fanbase?"

With that newly created fanbase, the league has gained more credibility, not just within its sporting limits but around the country.

"There is no need for us to apologise for what we are and there is no need trying to be different from what we are," said Mr Payne.

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