Major League Soccer Courts Latino Fans in the U.S.

As the World Cup dominates sports headlines, here’s a quick look at the state of soccer in cities across the U.S.

Fans in DC United’s supporter group La Norte cheer for soccer in the U.S. (Photo: Austin Alvarado)

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In many U.S. cities, Major League Soccer (MLS) franchises have become indie darlings, a European upstart making inroads in the American sporting world. Fanatical supporter groups put the dedication of Sunday tailgaters to shame. The Sons of Ben pre-dated their eventual squad, the Philadelphia Union, and successfully lobbied MLS for a franchise. Seattle Sounders fans’ traditional “March to the Match” 90 minutes before kickoff, replete with marching band, would impress even students in a football-crazy college town where such tradition is de rigueur. Further, U.S. soccer teams have an asset that the Europeans don’t: Players for teams in Europe may hail from Latin America, but few of their compatriots are in the stands. MLS, on the other hand, has grown in many cities buoyed by both U.S.- and foreign-born Latinos who relish the chance to root for a local team.

Appealing to the fastest-growing demographic in the U.S. is nothing new, especially in Major League Baseball, where leading players come from Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Panama and Venezuela. But a token Goya-sponsored Hispanic Heritage Night game or reggaeton tune blasting over the loudspeakers when Boston Red Sox David “Big Papi” Ortiz comes to bat only go so far to change the Anglo image of the national pastime.

The MLS, however, has a bevy of supporter groups in cities with large Hispanic communities that rely on fútbol fandom boosted by patrons with roots in countries that embrace the beautiful game. MLS front offices return the favor by catering to that constituency above and beyond the norm, proving that in a country still struggling with debates over bilingual education and English-only policies, when it comes to soccer, you can cheer in whatever language is loudest.

DC United, the first and second-most successful MLS team, has four official supporter groups, all of which have bilingual chants. La Norte’s founders were Latino, and member Austin Alvarado writes, “A lot of our original chants and songs were all in Spanish. Including the introduction of El Bombo, the large bass drum that still produces lots of sound for us. To be part of a group that has such a South American influence, it resonates with the Spanish speaking fans.”

Craig Stouffer, DC United’s director of communications, claims that 26 percent of the team’s fans identify themselves as Hispanic, well above that demographic’s share of the Washington metro area population, 14.3 percent in 2011 according to the Pew Research Hispanic Trends Project. But identity politics can also lead to a complex hierarchy of fan allegiances unthinkable for Americans born into a single city’s sports culture. “The majority of our Latino members are Salvadoran now,” explains Carrick Baugh, a La Norte member, alluding to the largest Hispanic group in the D.C. area, “and most support DC United, the Salvadoran national team, various Salvadoran club teams, and usually Real Madrid.”

Even if they may not be cheering for the U.S. team at the World Cup, it’s the D.C. pride that matters. “We have a variety of ways in which we actively engage with this community as a regular part of our business, from having bilingual staff members, putting on events in the community and working directly with the city’s office of Latino affairs to ensuring that ethnic foods are available at RFK Stadium, broadcasting our matches on radio in Spanish and having close relationships with Latino media,” Stouffer writes.

Media coverage is a huge factor, as the World Cup has shown, with bilingual and English-only viewers alike flocking to the colorful Spanish commentary of Univision (off-color comments notwithstanding). FC Dallas, which boasts a supporter group called Club Latino, broadcasts all its games in Spanish and also hosts a two-hour weekly radio show dedicated not only to the team but also international soccer.

Indeed, the global nature of the sport is a unique advantage, as stadiums can host “friendlies,” or non-league matches, between clubs from different countries or popular national squads. Cesar Velasco, FC Dallas’ senior director of international development, proudly points out, “We bring in international exhibition games between Mexican first division teams.”

Community engagement outside the stadium matters too. “The FC Dallas Foundation also executes several soccer clinics in different areas of the DFW Metroplex, mainly in Hispanic communities with FC Dallas player appearances,” he continues.

While, according to The Economist, average attendance per MLS game in 2013 was 18,594, ahead of both the NBA and NHL, the league’s growth is still characterized by fits and starts. The country’s largest media market will gain a second team soon when New York City FC lands in the Latino-heavy Bronx, but Miami is struggling to find a suitable location for a stadium backed by living legend David Beckham.

The LA Galaxy are the most successful team in the league, much to the chagrin of their cross-country rivals at DC United, where an immigrant identity can sometimes lead to a unique form of fair-weather fandom. “When DC United first formed we had a large El Salvadorian fan base,” writes Jay Igiel, a leader of the Barra Brava supporter group. “But after we traded Raúl Díaz Arce [a Salvadoran-born player] they turned on the team.” Foreign-born fanáticos, it seems, can be fickle.

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Gregory Scruggs is a Seattle-based independent journalist who writes about solutions for cities. He has covered major international forums on urbanization, climate change, and sustainable development where he has interviewed dozens of mayors and high-ranking officials in order to tell powerful stories about humanity’s urban future. He has reported at street level from more than two dozen countries on solutions to hot-button issues facing cities, from housing to transportation to civic engagement to social equity. In 2017, he won a United Nations Correspondents Association award for his coverage of global urbanization and the UN’s Habitat III summit on the future of cities. He is a member of the American Institute of Certified Planners.

Tags: sports

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