- Mike Fish
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The 30-second Pepsi commercial that aired last summer captured the changing mug of the nation's pastime. Here you had Alex Rodriguez and Vladimir Guerrero -- celebrated products of the Dominican Republic (though A-Rod grew up comfortably in South Florida) -- in a whimsical home run derby, pitching the popular soft drink.
Before that, it was slugger Sammy Sosa flashing his effervescent smile for everything from Pepsi to Fila to Kmart. Mariano Rivera promoting Nike. Pedro Martinez pitching a McDonald's lobster roll across New England. Ozzie Guillen doing the same for Subway in Chicago. Francisco Rodriguez selling Pepsi in Southern California and to countrymen in Venezuela. And let's not forget Viagra pitchman Rafael Palmeiro.
A new day? Sure thing.
Not only are Latino stars from the Dominican Republic to Puerto Rico putting up monster stats and leading their teams to pennants, but sports marketing executives are also increasingly turning their way with lucrative endorsement deals. And with good reason: They're often the marquee players of big-city franchises. Perhaps more importantly, Hispanics have become the second-largest population group in the U.S. -- ahead of African-Americans but behind Caucasians -- thanks to the influx of immigrants from Latin America.
So this is pure business. And the Hispanic star with English skills is particularly hot on Madison Avenue because of an ability to cross over and hit two different demographic groups. Case in point: Pepsi produced English and Spanish versions of the "Standoff" spot featuring A-Rod and Guerrero.
"Advertisers are realizing that the Hispanic players are not only very popular with the American demographics, but also there is a huge Hispanic demographic," offered Fernando Cuza, agent to Guerrero and a sizable contingent of top Latino players. "You have Univision and these other Latin networks that are going all over the place. And we don't have a lot of athletes that are Hispanics in other sports. Baseball and soccer are basically it. So the marketers realize if they sign David Ortiz or Mariano Rivera for a Pepsi or Coke commercial, they capture the local market. They also are able to capture their local market where they live in the Dominican Republic or Venezuela, Panama or wherever they are from. On top of that, they are also able to tap into the bilingual market in the U.S. So they are really hitting three different demographics."
The downside comes when the popular players, like anyone else, aren't judicious about who or what they lend their names to. This offseason, several Dominican stars -- including Martinez, Ortiz, Miguel Tejada and Octavio Dotel -- created a PR nightmare as well as potential legal headaches pitching prepaid phone cards that either didn't work or provided fewer minutes of time than advertised. A lawsuit has been filed over the cards, which targeted the large Dominican community in New York.
Representatives of the players claim it was a case of being duped, that the players never gave permission for their images to be used. Nor was permission sought from the Major League Baseball Players Association. The athletes were recruited by Dotel under the guise of helping a friend with his business, Cuza said.
"They just got to be careful in anything they do, because we, as Hispanics, consider them to be our heroes and our baseball stars," said Jose Fernandez, president of the Bodega Association of the United States, a trade group representing bodega owners in the New York area. "You just can't promote a product that will benefit a company without analyzing or having any criteria of the product. Because whatever you are promoting, people are going to take because of who you are. Again, not necessarily for the product, but because of you. That is why all these companies spend millions of dollars -- because they know how effective it is using stars to promote products."
Yet it's not quite that simple for billion-dollar conglomerates and Ivy League-trained marketers. Not every five-tool player is a natural pitchman. In fact, latching onto the proper spokesman and tapping into the right audience both involve a nice bit of finesse.
Folks of Mexican descent, for instance, make up the largest population of Hispanics in the U.S. but, according to market researchers, tend to be far more passionate about their soccer than slow-paced baseball. Then there's the issue of targeting Latinos from the islands of Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic, who tend to relocate to Florida, the East Coast and major cities, though not so much the Southwest and West Coast.
And then there's the distinction between Latin American ballplayers who speak fluent English and those struggling to string words together.
"From a marketer's standpoint, there is a world of difference there," said Scott Becher, president of Sports & Sponsorships, a Hollywood, Fla.-based sports marketing agency. "Many marketers are interested in reaching a more diverse audience. And so the growth of Latin American stars in baseball is only a plus. But in order to maximize their endorsement in the United States, it is very helpful for them to be bilingual and speak English as well as Spanish. It's clearly better if they speak English.
"Let me give you an example. Miguel Cabrera is a phenom, but he still is learning the English language. Once he has a command of English, his marketability will be a multiple of what it is now -- even if his statistics stay the same," Becher said.
Just a few seasons ago, the player whom marketers couldn't get enough of was Sosa (in the wake of his legendary home run race with Mark McGwire in 1998).
"Sosa was great because he appealed not only to the Hispanic audience, but he appealed to the African-American audience as well as Caucasian audience. So he was the perfect fit because he had such broad appeal," explained Bob Cramer, president of Genesco Sports Marketing.
"For argument's sake, he is the face of baseball for a lot of reasons," Cramer suggested. "You'd look at A-Rod for your broad mass appeal. The fact he has that [Dominican] heritage is good, but if I were to market just to reach that particular Hispanic audience, you may want to come with someone who is known more for being from that particular country and having roots back in that home country."
Indeed, A-Rod has ruffled some feathers in the Dominican community with his much-publicized waffling and ultimate decision to play for the United States and not the Dominican Republic in the World Baseball Classic. That said, because of his star power, A-Rod isn't hurting for endorsements.
"In the marketing world, he is known as the man who can carry many cultures," said his agent, Scott Boras. "He does a lot of Latin America marketing, South America, a lot of Spanish-speaking countries. He also has major national commercials here with Pepsi and Colgate, Nike and the other things. He's very athletic and looks like a very proud, successful American."
As for specific endorsement deals in Latin America, Boras added: "He doesn't do many of these now, because he does very few endorsements. And when he does do them, they are done for rates that you would expect for a high-stature player like him."
A-Rod isn't alone among players with a price point beneath which they don't want to put up with the time commitment of endorsement deals. Or who hold out for only national campaigns, not regional. Or who simply find the 24-7 celebrity thing doesn't mesh with their personality.
"Really, it depends on the person," Cuza said. "I have a guy like David Ortiz -- he loves to work. This guy loves going out there, shooting commercials and doing promos. He enjoys it. I have another player, Pedro, that could make incredible amounts of money, and Pedro doesn't like to do it. He really enjoys his time off. He doesn't like people invading his space when he's not pitching. So it really depends on the personalities and how much they really want to do."
When it comes to MLB franchises, though, no club has ridden the Hispanic wave more ardently than the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, particularly since Arte Moreno bought the club in 2003. Under Moreno, one of the country's most successful Hispanic businessmen, the Angels have promoted Latino stars such as Guerrero and Bartolo Colon as part of a bilingual marketing blitz, making a concerted effort to market to the huge local Hispanic community.
Last season, Guerrero was pictured on a good number of the 480 billboards that promoted the Angels around Southern California. The team also has featured Latin Heritage Day among its in-season promotions, along with a separate Hispanic fan caravan during the offseason, and does its player interviews at fan-friendly gatherings in both English and Spanish. All 162 regular-season games are broadcast in both languages, as has been the case for many years.
"The demographic here at the ballpark has really changed," said Tim Mead, an Angels vice president. "We used to have that upper-middle-class, conservative, white reputation. And that's no longer the case. Certainly, a Guerrero and a Colon and Frankie Rodriguez have opened the door to baseball fans across the board culturally."
To make the Hispanic players more approachable and media friendly, the club has enlisted 40-year-old Jose Mota, the son of Los Angeles Dodgers pinch-hitting great Manny Mota. The younger Mota, an Angels TV-radio broadcaster, serves as a quasi-big brother to the Latin players and also translates most of their interviews and postgame comments.
"Fortunately, I am in a position where I have lived both cultures," said Mota, who grew up in the Dominican before attending Cal State Fullerton on a baseball scholarship. "My experience has been good because there are a couple guys [quiet by nature]. Like Bartolo is a fairly shy guy. I translate all of his interviews. Vlad is the same thing. These are two very low-key guys. Even with the Hispanic media, they don't open up a whole lot.
"A lot of it has to do with their background," he said. "Vlad and Bartolo are from very small villages. But they both have been very good, at least with the translator, opening up and letting people see who they really are, the way they express themselves and what they are thinking."
The offshoot is the Angels have worked to create an atmosphere inside and outside the clubhouse that embraces Hispanic ballplayers and the burgeoning community.
"It is a neat situation because you are in a heavily populated Hispanic market," Mota said. "But it doesn't mean you are only going to target Hispanic players. What Arte has done in embracing the fans has filtered all the way down to the clubhouse and the players. You feel like ... family. It is a great environment.
"They are playing in a full ballpark every night. And to Latin players, the energy reminds them a lot of playing winter ball back home," he said.
Mike Fish is an investigative reporter for ESPN.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.
Latinos are rising in stature -- on and off the field -- and becoming the face of baseball.