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Hispanic Heritage Month: Marketing hockey to Latinos remains a work in progress

With large Latino populations in major cities, some teams are taking steps to market the demographic.

Jan 4, 2018; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Toronto Maple Leafs forward Auston Matthews (34) takes a shot against San Jose Sharks goaltender Martin Jones (31) during the second period at the Air Canada Centre. John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

Hockey’s longstanding hurdle of marketing the game to minorities is nothing new; it’s one of the reasons why the National Hockey League created Hockey Is For Everyone, an initiative to promote hockey throughout marginalized communities. However, even with this initiative, one group that often gets overlooked by the league and some teams is the Latino fan.

According to the 2017 Census Bureau, the Latino demographic represents 18.1 percent of the United States, which makes them the largest minority group and the second largest demographic in the country. Tying it back to the NHL, the league has franchises in or near cities with a significant Latino populations, such as San Jose, Los Angeles, Anaheim, Las Vegas, Dallas, Miami, Phoenix, Chicago, Denver, New York and New Jersey.

Nonetheless, all these teams take different approaches to market the game of hockey to the Latino demographic. Some do more while others not so much which is why there’s room for improvement for all parties involved in helping grow the game.

What teams are doing right

Let me begin with the good efforts made by these teams to intertwine hockey and the Latino fan, starting with the San Jose Sharks. From September 15 to October 15, it’s Hispanic Heritage Month and the San Jose Sharks have taken steps to embrace the large Latino population that calls the Bay Area home.

A 2014 Census provided by the Pew Research Center shows that in San Jose alone there are approximately 502,000 Latinos living in San Jose and make up 26.5 percent of the city’s population. Add in the over one million more living in the neighboring cities of San Francisco, Oakland and Hayward and that creates a large Latino fan population in the Bay Area that would be unwise for the Sharks to ignore.

Last season, the Sharks not only had a Hispanic Heritage Night, but took the extra step to pay homage to the culture by having a local artist in Jesse Hernandez design the “Los Tiburones” jerseys that the team wore during warmups. Along with that, the Sharks brought in Jesus Zarate who does the Spanish play-by-play for the San Francisco 49ers to provide a Spanish broadcast for that night.

This season the Sharks are again taking an extra step by not only having one night dedicated to Hispanic Heritage, but celebrating the entire month throughout three games by including three promotional items as well. Although the games take place after Hispanic Heritage Month is over, it’s good that the Sharks are not only bringing that night for another year, but celebrating the contributions of Latinos through three home games.

Another team that is going above and beyond to market hockey to Latinos is the Chicago Blackhawks, who recently announced that they will broadcast 25 games in Spanish on Univision Deportes Radio (WRTO AM 1200). The Chicago-Naperville-Elgin metro area is home to an estimated 2,070,000 Latinos, which explains the growth of the Spanish broadcast, growing from one game in 2015-16, to 25 for this season.

The Blackhawks aren’t the lone team to have a Spanish broadcast; Las Vegas is one of the more rapidly growing cities in the U.S. and have approximately 627,000 Latinos in the Las Vegas-Henderson-Paradise metro area.

Possessing a large Latino population, the Vegas Golden Knights went out and found their Spanish voice in Jesus Lopez of ESPN Deportes 1460 AM. The 50-year-old previously called one game during a homestand in the regular season. It quickly transformed into Lopez calling all home playoff games, and although these calls are against the Sharks, they are fantastic to hear.

Although they’re the new kids on the block, the Golden Knights did something that franchises with significant Latino populations have struggled to do; they sought out the Latino fan. Kerry Bubolz, president, and chief operating officer for the Golden Knights mentioned that he looked at the demographics of the market and this led to the decision of having a Spanish broadcast.

“They’re more mature organizations and have deep enough fan bases,” Bubolz said, guessing why the Kings, Ducks and Sharks don’t have a Spanish radio broadcast. “In our situation, our market is only 2.2 million people, and if a third of the market is of Hispanic origin or heritage, then we have to find ways to get them involved.”

Along with promotional nights and Spanish broadcasting, some franchises like the Anaheim Ducks offer free equipment from their learn to play for kids of certain ages, but there some teams that have fees for these programs. Nonetheless, this is a step in the right direction as it makes an expensive sport like hockey an affordable one for kids, especially Latinos and other minorities of low-income.

What needs to improve

Promotional nights like Hispanic Heritage Night are one way the Sharks are acknowledging their Latino fan base, but there’s still room for improvement to continue the strides they have made. One of the ways they can do this is by offering a Spanish broadcast for some of their home games and not only for one night. The Blackhawks and Golden Knights have shown that these Spanish broadcasts are successful if done right.

The fact that there are only three teams that offer and none of them are in the Los Angeles or New York markets is confusing; particularly with L.A., as45 percent of the population in the city is Latino. Whether the team thinks that the aurora of two Stanley Cups and being a competitive team in recent years is enough to bring in new fans, it’s a bold strategy, as they’re the only team in the four major sports that doesn’t have a Spanish broadcast in L.A.

Marketing hockey to Latinos doesn’t solely fall on the shoulders of the NHL and its franchises. The mainstream hockey media could help by improving its coverage. Usually, these kinds of stories are told by the local coverage, but it would help to see the stories of Latino’s in the NHL being front and center by NBCSN, SportsNet and The Athletic, among other outlets.

For example, when it comes to covering Toronto Maple Leafs forward Auston Matthews, what typically gets brought up is that he’s from a non-traditional market in Arizona, which is true. However, he’s also Mexican-American, and it’s an aspect that often gets forgotten. Rather than the NHL using Matthews in any bilingual commercials to market the Latino demographic, the NHL ignores his cultural heritage.

Furthermore, the print and digital media don’t give the in-depth coverage of what it was like growing up being a Latino hockey player, playing in a predominately white sport. Other youth Latino hockey players could see these kinds of stories and see a player of the same background succeeding at the highest level.

Speaking of Matthews, we’ve heard his story of how attending Coyotes games led to him wanting to pick up the sport. That decision resulted in his mother, Emma Matthews, having to work two jobs to help pay for fees. The concept for seeing a parent working two jobs isn’t a rare sight for Latino families, but it’s typically a way to make ends meet. The Sharks could do their part to help relieve to financial situations of allowing Latino kids at least by learning to play the game of hockey.

One way is making their learn to play program more affordable for kids. Currently, the registration fee for the Little Sharks program is approximately $150, and it should be the Sharks goal to make it free for kids wanting to learn and helping promote these programs among the minorities. The most of these teams offer free equipment but still ask for certain fees, but at some point these teams need to try make it free, or the very least lower the fee even more.

Final Thoughts

Hockey isn’t a sport that’s in the DNA of the Latino demographic, but it’s one that could peak their interest if marketed correctly. With the population continuing to grow, especially in major cities across the country, some NHL franchises are taking notice and are trying to gear their product to them.

Whether it’s promotional nights, having the broadcast in Spanish or offering affordable free to learn programs, it’s a growing process to market hockey to Latinos. Over 30 years ago, Gretzky came to Los Angeles, and the growth of the non-hockey markets began. Now it’s time to focus on the growth of hockey among Latinos and other minorities.