The Myth of the Latino Market

It’s MLS game day in DC, Chicago, or Houston, and the “Latin flavor” is as thick in the air as the carne asada fumes surrounding the tailgate grill. Spanish is a prevalent pre-game language of choice among the supporters’ groups, and the main event unfolds to the accompaniment of chants and songs in which the most frequently used word is vamos. All of this, of course, in addition to the jerseys on the field reading “Gomez”, “Gutierrez”, “Emilio”, etc. At first glance, it’s hard to argue that MLS has ignored the Latino market.

Yet the charge is leveled with comic frequency in forums like the World Soccer Daily radio show, and MLS predictably rises to the bait with misbegotten schemes like Chivas USA, the franchise explicitly designed to cash in on Latino connections. The experiment is predictably failing. Of Chivas’ games this year, only the Los Angeles derby with the LA Galaxy drew over 15,000 fans. Chivas’ last home game not only featured a crowd of less than 10,000, but the humiliation of having the team’s supporters’ group decamp to San Jose to watch the real Chivas in a friendly. As Dan Loney notes:

If they were a garbage team like in 2005, that would be one thing. It’s a good team that’s being wasted on indifferent fans, where they would be heroes in any of a dozen other cities, that’s the shame.

Sadly, it seems to be a shock to MLS that Latino fans can’t be won over by simply brandishing a jersey and a soccer ball. The market is desirable because it’s so large and obvious, bringing fervent and highly visible support at Gold Cup games and club friendlies. But where MLS optimistically sees a display of love for the game (purity ripe for appropriation, of course), the fans themselves are displaying their passion for their clubs and countries. The Latino market comes with the loyalty baggage that MLS doesn’t want, the kind of ingrained, filial relationship that rarely allows a fan to switch teams, particularly not to one in a second-tier league.

This is, of course, a broad-strokes argument: there are plenty of Latino MLS and US Soccer fans, but attendance figures clearly show they’re in the vast minority of Latino soccer fans in the country. And though there is some hope for future generations as MLS gains ground, think of the number of young kids in California or Florida who wear their Steelers jerseys and Red Sox hats to school, having learned their loyalties from expat parents. Such ties are hard to break, as MLS has and continues to discover. At some point, the league will have to examine whether or not the elusive promise of the Latino market is the best way to grow its product. At least in the short term, the answer seems to be no.