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Roar of Soccer at Coliseum

Futbol is the fastest-growing sport in California, and a huge immigrant fan base is proving an attractive target for marketers.

April 29, 1999|ANNE-MARIE O'CONNOR | TIMES STAFF WRITER

It could be a carnival, this kaleidoscopic parade of jumbo buses streaming off the Harbor Freeway, the pickup trucks snaking through gridlock, the people blowing horns, waving Mexican flags, hurrying down the street with children clutching their hands and running to keep up.

In a few minutes, Mexico will face Argentina on the soccer field, and these ardent Latino fans know the 92,000-seat Coliseum will sell out, as it has before. They don't want to be stranded on the cold outskirts of the red-hot Ground Zero of California's fastest-growaing sport.

"Besides the Pope, only Brazil against Mexico could draw more people," said former junior lightweight boxing champion Genaro "El Chicanito" Hernandez, signing an autograph for a fan, Jorge Rodriguez.

"Every Mexican in Los Angeles is here tonight!" Rodriguez echoed, as Mexican soccer star Jorge Campos jogged onto the field and the crowd let out a mighty roar.

If this were an electoral referendum, soccer would be winning in a landslide. Soccer has quietly conquered Los Angeles, a testimony to the way Latin American immigration is reshaping California, where a third of the nation's estimated 30 million Latinos reside.

"There are three things that unite the Hispanic community: their flags, their religion, and soccer," said Manolo Cevallos, a top Los Angeles promoter. "Sometimes soccer trumps religion and nationality. Because for Hispanics, soccer is a religion."

And in Southern California, where consumerism is also a sacred creed, sponsors from Nike to Tecate are targeting soccer and scoring a direct hit with the Latino market, marketers say. While many in Los Angeles think only Bruce Springsteen or USC football can sell out the Coliseum, these sponsors know the truth:

No city in America draws bigger soccer crowds than Los Angeles. "Soccer is the future game of Los Angeles," says Mayor Richard Riordan.

Yet in 1994, when the World Cup came to Los Angeles, few had any idea that the tournament would be like a match struck in a roomful of gunpowder. The enthusiasm, diversity and the size of the local crowd shocked even the most optimistic planners.

Two years later, when Major League Soccer debuted and introduced the Los Angeles Galaxy at the Rose Bowl, 70,000 tickets were sold--an unprecedented 30,000 purchased the day of the game.

Yet in spite of the competition, crowds only grew at the Coliseum's Latin American national team games.

Soccer brought 123,000 people to the Coliseum in 1997. By last year, it had nearly quadrupled to 467,000 fans. That was more than the total attendance for the 1998 USC football games or the Raiders' final 1994 football season--though the average per-game attendance for soccer was lower. Still, the Coliseum's largest soccer crowd--the 91,585 at the recent Mexico vs. Argentina game--outdrew the 1998 USC-Notre Dame football audience of 90,069.

The Galaxy sold 349,000 Rose Bowl seats to Major League Soccer games in 1998--an average of 21,784 per game, leaving the league's 14,312 national per-game average in the dust. The first four Galaxy games of 1999 drew fewer--65,902 fans, an average of 16,476 per home game.

But at the Coliseum, more than 200,000 people have attended five soccer games in the first three months of 1999 alone.

Such attendance is still dwarfed by baseball. The Dodgers drew 3 million to 81 games last year. But perhaps there is no better sign of how recent waves of immigrants have expanded Latino culture and economic clout in Southern California than soccermania.

"We're making fortunes! We're making so much money we can't stand it," said Miami-based Noe Limon, one of the biggest Latin American soccer promoters in the nation. "Except we've been losing money for 29 years."

What finally turned the tide, promoters say, was the immigration wave of the 1980s.

The 6.3 million Latino consumers in the Los Angeles market--the vast metropolitan sprawl south of Santa Barbara and north of San Diego--have a collective buying power of $57 billion annually.

Soccer "is where [promoters] can really tap into the mother lode," said Daniel Villanueva, of Bastion Capitol, a Los Angeles firm that scouts Latino investment prospects. Villanueva was a Galaxy partner until a few months ago.

Strategy Research Corp., whose annual U.S. Hispanic Market Report is the most extensive survey of Latino consumer trends nationwide, says the appeal of soccer is strongest in Los Angeles, next strongest in San Diego and growing in San Jose--mirroring Latin American immigration.

For many immigrants, soccer is a nationalist lifeline to their homelands.

Marina Fletes, a native of Nicaragua at the Mexico-Argentina game, professed the kind of studied neutrality that must have helped her endure a decade of Central American civil strife.

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