May 04, 2018

Copa de la Diversión Seeks to Lure More Latinos to Minor League Ball

Reporting Texas

Hanser Alberto, an infielder with the Round Rock Express, dons the new uniform featuring a Chupacabra logo. Photo courtesy of Round Rock Express/Julia Essington

El Chupacabra. La Chancla. La Raspa. These are words one might expect on a deck of lotería cards, not on the jerseys and hats of a Minor League Baseball team. But for 160 games this season, these symbols, among others, will be worn by league players in Texas and across the country.

In February, the league announced the launch of the Copa de la Diversión, or Fun Cup, a 160-game series featuring 33 league teams that have changed their names and identities to feature Latino mascots. The series, which began April 8, is billed by Minor League Baseball as a Hispanic and Latino engagement initiative meant to celebrate Latino culture and values.

As the organization rolls out the Copa, it has taken special care to remain culturally sensitive and relevant, according to league officials. To avoid what some call hispandering – a faked interest in Hispanic issues and culture – the league has relied on Latino employees to navigate cultural nuances and partnered with Latino organizations in local communities for guidance. The league has even hired bilingual staffers to better reach Latino fans who speak Spanish.

At the season’s end, each participating team will auction its Copa caps and jerseys and donate the proceeds to Latino-focused organizations in team communities.

These steps, among others, are an attempt to show genuine interest in a growing and increasingly influential demographic, according to Jorge Moraga, a professor at California State University Bakersfield, who studies the sociology of sport, Latino history, and comparative race and ethnicity.

“The Copa is an opportunity for us to accurately reflect the communities we serve,” said Kurt Hunzeker, league vice president of marketing strategy and research. “We need to better represent our holistic community, and not just certain segments.”

Although Latinos account for more than 40 percent of minor league players, the organization has not been as successful at bringing Latino fans into ballparks, Hunzeker said. Over the past three years, the league has worked to better understand local markets and how best to engage with them. Every club involved in the Copa was responsible for choosing its own name, basing the decision on their fan demographics and local culture.

Clubs were told not to simply put “los” or “las” in front of their English team name similar to the way NBA teams did in the Noche Latina campaign. Critics have called the basketball campaign lazy and culturally condescending marketing toward Latino fans.

“In its approach and style of marketing, this campaign feels different,” Moraga said. “In this instance, it’s not just commodifying, but it’s actually trying to be culturally empathetic and sensitive.”

Moraga points to teams like Las Monarcas de Eugene in Oregon, who transformed from the Eugene Emeralds into the monarch, a butterfly which migrates between Mexico and the United States. Las Monarcas included 33 white spots on their logo to represent each Latin American nation, a deliberate nod to the United States’ immigrant story. This added level of complexity speaks to questions of immigration and belonging which are likely to resonate within the Latino community, according to Moraga.

Other teams, such as the the Raspas of Corpus Christi – who usually go by the Hooks, and the Flying Chanclas of San Antonio – normally the Missions – incorporate a component of nostalgia to their name. Latino children know well to fear the chancla, orchanclazo, a sandal that, when worn by mothers and grandmothers, often doubles as a discipline tool. The San Antonio Missions have taken the chancla, a symbol deeply entrenched in San Antonio’s Tex-Mex culture, and turned it into their new identity.

Christopher Charles, known on Twitter as @RiddleMeeChris, is a long-time Missions fan and loves to bring his sons to games. He was one of the first fans to order a fitted cap featuring the new logo.

“I’m excited for the Flying Chanclas because of what it represents. Almost every Latino adult or child, for generations, know, fear, and respect the long arm of the Chancla,” said Charles, in an interview over Twitter. He took to social media to show off his new hat. “The almighty Chanclas is universally recognized as the source of power!”

After the Copa launched, the Missions had more than 1,000 T-shirt and hat orders in under 24 hours. By week’s end, there were more than 2,000. Part-time employees were brought in to help package merchandise.

Other teams have also seen their new merchandise sell out and have had to order more.

Another encouraging sign, experts say, is the length of the campaign. Unlike Noche Latina, this campaign lasts several months and spans more than 19 states. This allows the minor league to examine what is working for one club and apply those lessons to a different club later on.

Michael Butterworth, a professor of communication studies at the University of Texas at Austin, said Minor League Baseball is known industry-wide for “the art of ballpark promotion.” He notes that the league, in its attempts to reach fans in “unique and creative ways,” is undoubtedly cognizant of the country’s changing demographics and the potential power of the Latino consumer.

“There’s a recognition of that influence,” said Butterworth, who studies sports culture, social issues, and communication. “If it’s just simply another demographic that we can carve people into and sell them merchandise, from a marketing and promotions standpoint there’s a logic there. But if it’s a recognition that this is a prominent and influential part of the community, that this is a means by which that community can have more ownership over the team’s identity, then that’s a very different thing.”

For the fan-centric minor leagues, the end goal is to create an experience that is more welcoming and familiar to all of its fans. And while it may be too early to know for sure, there appears to be a genuine excitement for the Copa that distinguishes it from hispandering missteps of the past.

“We were fairly adamant this had to be a multi-game initiative,” Hunzeker said. “It can’t be a one-hit wonder, because that’s not telling the story we want to tell of being committed to our communities.”