Advertisement
YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Import Soccer Trumps the Majors

Mexico's professional teams are drawing bigger crowds in the U.S. than the MLS.

March 28, 2004|From Associated Press

SAN JOSE, Calif. — As two of the world's most famous sports teams took the field here, more than 20,000 fans screamed, jumped, danced and rocked the bleachers.

Of course, probably only those who follow Spanish television, radio or newspapers (or live within screaming distance of the stadium), knew about the match between the Guadalajara Chivas and the Morelia Monarcas, let alone the 50 other professional Mexican soccer games scheduled north of the border this year.

Even so, Mexican professional soccer -- in ever-increasing exhibition matches -- is drawing dependable crowds, cash, and a passionate soccer culture inside the United States while major league soccer is still trying to secure a foothold in mainstream America.

"Look at this," gestured Ben Guzman of Futbol de Primera, a soccer promotion agency, as fans surged into San Jose State University's stadium before the game last week. "Major League Soccer would love to have a crowd like this."

Soccer's first attempt to go pro in the United States -- about 35 years ago -- flopped after teams made up of almost entirely international players failed to draw local fans. So when MLS launched in 1996, it limited international players to about three per squad.

Since then, despite increased television coverage and high profile successes by the U.S. National Team, the league has failed to boost attendance to more than about 16,000 fans a game on average.

Now soccer promoters on both sides of the border are pursuing a new strategy: targeting the almost 40 million Latinos in the United States, especially the 9 million recent immigrants among them.

"Promoters are starting to see the value in pushing these teams to the population here," said Nelson Rodriguez, who promotes Mexican games in the United States for Soccer United Marketing, a sister organization of MLS. "There's a lot of fertile ground."

In January, SUM brought an eight-team Mexican tournament to cities in California and Texas. They're also bringing in more Latino players (by one analyst's estimate, when a Central American player left the San Jose Earthquakes, the fan base dropped by 5,000) and considering hiring an Hispanic coach.

Most notably, when the league expands next year from 10 to 12 teams, one of those teams will be owned and operated by a new Mexican partner: Chivas. The league is considering San Diego, among other cities, for the new team.

"We truly believe this is a powerful opportunity in the U.S. and, of course, Chivas wants to be part of that," Chivas owner Jorge Vergara said last fall when the deal was announced.

The untapped potential has not been missed by broadcasters, who have been pleasantly surprised by the sold-out crowds for the visiting Mexican games. Fox Sports en Espanol, one of the first cable networks to target Hispanics, earned its highest prime-time ratings ever, 8.9, when it aired the final game of the January tournament.

At the game in San Jose, the stadium was a sea of red stripes, vertical with white for Chivas, horizontal with yellow for Morelia. For fans who packed their babies, blankets, picnics and flags into the stands, the event was a rare taste of home.

"In Mexico, we are born as soccer fans," said Chivas fan Juan Salazar, a business manager from suburban Sunnyvale who paid $45 for his Chivas-Morelia ticket last week. "Me, I was born with stripes on my skin."

Mexican players earn, on average, about as much each month as a MLS player earns in a year: $50,000. As a result, it's been tough to lure any into the league.

But Morelia's star goalie Moises Munoz -- who also plays for Mexico's national team -- said he loves to visit.

"There are so many people here rooting for us," he said, smiling at the more than 1,000 fans who crowded barricades around the team bus after the game, despite their 3-2 loss. "They're fans, and they don't get to see us play very often, but we love to come."

MLS isn't the only one cashing in on these stars.

El Mexicano, distributors of Mexican cheese, yogurts, jalapenos and other food, is sponsoring the effort to bring top Mexican teams -- this year it's Morelia -- to U.S. exhibition matches.

It's not cheap, said El Mexicano general manager Timothy Luce. Some teams charge more than $100,000 for an appearance, not to mention renting a stadium, security and logistics. But with tickets selling from $25 to $45 each, Luce said that in certain cities -- Chicago, Dallas, Los Angeles and others with large numbers of Hispanic immigrants -- it's well worth the effort.

The payoff, he said, is more than just ticket sales. El Mexicano usually offers free tickets to kids who bring caps from their branded yogurt and, he said, product sales in general are boosted when fans identify their food with their teams.

They don't even bother marketing outside the Hispanic markets.

"These are very dedicated fans," he said. "But American fans, they're not interested in this."

Advertisement
Los Angeles Times Articles
|
|
|