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Soccer Team Throws a Hail Mary Mass

July 15, 2006|Jonathan Abrams | Times Staff Writer

Thousands of people wearing their Sunday best will flock today to the Home Depot Center, the site of a Major League Soccer game between Chivas USA and the Los Angeles Galaxy.

Before a ball is dropped on the field, though, Chivas USA has arranged for an outdoor Catholic Mass that is expected to fill all 8,000 seats in a stadium next to the soccer field.

People will come to pay reverence to La Virgen de Zapopan, a small, 16th century statue of the Virgin Mary from the Mexican state of Jalisco that many believe has delivered miracles. The Mass will conclude an hour before the soccer game, then rivals Chivas USA and the Galaxy will play for the third time this season.

The Mass is among the first held in conjunction with an athletic contest by a modern-day professional sports organization. "It's the right match between the beliefs of our fan base and the roots of our organization," said Antonio Cue, a Chivas USA co-owner. "The Virgin of Zapopan is very important to Jalisco as well as all Mexicans."

In professional sports, where hitters point to the skies after home runs, football players huddle for postgame prayers and shooters make the sign of the cross before free throws, the line between athletic contests and religion has long been blurred.

But religion in its more traditional sense has recently shown a synergy with professional sports.

Some Major League Baseball teams offer faith nights featuring contemporary Christian music after games. The Atlanta Braves have scheduled three such nights, the Arizona Diamondbacks one, and the Florida Marlins are tentatively on board. Atlanta's star pitcher, John Smoltz, will speak before one of the Christian concerts, and the Braves are selling combination tickets for $16 that get patrons into the ballgame and the music performance.

Separately, the Church of Scientology announced its backing of a La Verne stock car driver who competes in one of NASCAR's developmental series.

And an Alabama minor league arena football team recently wore uniforms during warmups that pictured a Bible on the front of the players' jerseys and Bible verses on the back.

Supporters say the merging of sports and religion creates a more family-oriented atmosphere at sporting events. Critics argue that mixing the two excludes people who don't share the same beliefs.

"Some people may be offended by the presence of a religion," said Joseph L. Price, a professor of religious studies at Whittier College. "If this were the Oakland Raiders, the last thing you want is to try and convert their brawling fans. But if the object is to appeal to a particular team's demographic, Chivas is doing it."

Chivas USA, a second-year team attempting to connect with the largely untapped Los Angeles Mexican American soccer fan base, is an unlikely focus of the debate.

The MLS team struggled to a 4-22-6 record last year and averaged 17,000 fans a game. Today's match is expected to sell out with 27,000 fans.

The local Chivas team is owned by the same group that owns Mexico's most popular soccer team, Chivas de Guadalajara.

In Mexico, the division between sports and religion is slight. At Chivas de Guadalajara's home stadium, there is a chapel for players and fans to visit.

Today's Mass will be said in the tennis stadium adjacent to the field. There will be a rededication of a golden soccer ball presented to La Virgen by a 1950s Chivas de Guadalajara team, followed by a procession to the soccer field for the Chivas-Galaxy match.

"We don't take it really as a promotion," said Cue, who was born in Mexico City. "I don't think it's mixing the two, it's more like the visit is complementing the beliefs of our fan base."

Father Luis Angel Nieto of Resurrection Church in East Los Angeles will be the celebrant of today's Mass. He said that scheduling the service with a sports event isn't awkward, and can serve as a way for the church to reach a broader audience.

"Our faith is in all the aspects of our life," Nieto said through an interpreter. "There will be a lot people that you can't find at any other place than at Home Depot Center. It will be a chance to serve a big congregation that you can't usually get."

Religion nights can be effective promotions for sports organizations, according to Price.

"It becomes not merely a celebration of a religious faith, but a marketing tool for the team itself," he said. "It's probably going to draw controversy, but I would bet that attendance is going to rise significantly as well."

The 13-inch La Virgen de Zapopan statue is lesser known than the Virgin of Guadalupe, the patron saint of Mexico, but is revered by Mexican Americans in the Southland, many of whom immigrated from Jalisco.

The Zapopan statue is brought to Southland churches every two years.

Juan Pablo Garcia, a Chivas USA midfielder from Jalisco, prayed before the statue during one stop in Glendale. He scored the winning goal in a match that week and attributed the score to his visit.

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