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THE WORLD SERIES

As Angels Diversify, So Does Fan Base

With new players and a lot of advertising, the team has courted the Latino community.

October 22, 2002|Dave McKibben | Times Staff Writer

Five years ago, when XPRS reluctantly signed on as the Spanish-language radio broadcaster for the Anaheim Angels, executives at the station brooded. This, they worried, could kill their product.

"Latinos aren't supposed to go to Angels games," said Khaled Abdelwahed, general sales manager for the Hollywood-based AM station at 1090 on the dial. The team had no connection to the Latino community, no Latino players and no expectation that anything would change.

But things have indeed changed. The Angel lineup now has six Latino players, including Francisco Rodriguez, the 20-year-old pitcher who is suddenly one of the team's brightest stars. In this magical season in which so much has gone right for the team, the Angels have invested heavily and successfully in building a fan base in Orange County's fast-growing Latino community.

Two decades after the Dodgers led the way with Fernando-mania -- setting the standard for scouting talent abroad and then marketing that talent to its multicultural communities -- the Angels are like the little brother who has finally grown up.

As they have built an ethnically diverse team, they have plastered ads aimed at Latinos on bus shelters in Anaheim and Santa Ana, poured money into advertising on the rock en espanol radio stations that blare Shakira and Chayanne, and produced TV commercials depicting a Latino player taking batting practice on a pinata.

Team officials say more Latino families are attending games, fans are tuning into the Angels instead of Mexican soccer clubs such as Chivas and Cruz Azul, and sponsors are flocking to buy ad time during XPRS broadcasts.

Ratings for Spanish-language broadcasts of the games have doubled, ad sales have gone up as much as 400%, and according to a team survey, Latinos now make up 15% to 20% of the stadium crowd.

"For a long time, [the Angels] forgot about us," said Angel Orea, owner of a Santa Ana soccer store whose son has been won over as an Angel fan. "You used to see only Caucasians at the games. But they've made an impact this year with their advertising. Now, they are the talk of our town."

They weren't always. The Angels have reached out to Latinos before, but only in limited fashion. Posting bilingual signs at Edison Field, printing pocket schedules in Spanish and broadcasting games on Spanish-language radio stations failed to win over a soccer-crazed community to a team that seemed so foreign.

Although many of the game's brightest stars are now from Latin America, the Angels went 10 years without producing a single Latino player from their farm system. For years, the team was reluctant to put money into scouring Mexico and Latin America for players, content instead to invest in big-name stars it hoped would lure fans and produce a winning team. In 1998, Puerto Rican catcher Bengie Molina became the Angels' first home-grown Latino player in a decade.

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Community Link

"We can't control the makeup of the team, but it makes our job a lot easier when there's a connection to community," said Robert Alvarado, Angels' director of marketing and promotions.

The need to connect with Latino fans is a lesson other area teams learned years earlier. Four years ago, ESPN broadcast a program examining the outreach successes of the Dodgers and Padres. During the broadcast, viewers were told about a Spanish-speaking Angel fan calling the team's offices seeking season tickets. The woman was transferred from person to person in the ticket office for 15 minutes while employees looked for a bilingual worker. The episode angered then-General Manager Tony Tavares, and he vowed to improve relations with Latinos.

For the Angels, the potential market is impressive. Santa Ana, which sits in the shadow of Edison Field, has the largest percentage of Latinos (71%) of any large city in the nation. It also has the highest concentration of Spanish-speaking residents in the nation, with about 15% of those ages 18 to 64 speaking no English -- nearly four times the California average.

According to the 2000 census, the number of Latinos living in Orange County surged 46.1% in the last decade. The increases were far greater in Riverside and San Bernardino counties, areas that team executives view as "Angel country."

This season, with a winning, multicultural team and a long-term marketing strategy aimed at Latinos, the Angels are seeing new fans jump aboard and the allegiances of others being challenged. On a few occasions this year, the Angels have had larger market shares on Latino radio stations than the Dodgers -- a first, according to XPRS officials. In a late-season survey of fans attending home games, 15% of the respondents identified themselves as Latinos, almost double what it was two years ago.

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