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Q&A: MLS's Gabe Gabor on Latino Impact in the League

Click graphic for better view. (Graphic courtesy of MLS)

Apologies for the silence around here of late, but there sure is lots bubbling under the surface in the world of American Fútbol. Believe it or not, coaxing donations out of in-laws and bartering with Colombian car dealers for a sponsored vehicle is taxing work.

However, this week we did have time for a chat with an MLS official about the growing Latino impact in MLS. Of the roughly 460 players in the league in 2013, 142 hailed from Latin America or are of Hispanic descent. When 30% of your domestic league is Latino, it's an impact worth exploring, no?

Gabe Gabor has been with MLS and Soccer United Marketing (SUM) since the early days, starting off with the now defunct Miami Fusion, and now serves as an International Communications representative. He’s seen the ups and downs of the league, and has been behind the Latino outreach from day one. As an Argentinian based in Miami, he’s certainly well-placed to comment on the topic. Here’s our Q&A with Gabe:

First off, Latino representation on the field has never been better, but what about in the stands? What is MLS doing to try and get more Latino supporters through the gates?

Good question. First of all, we know have the highest percentage of Hispanic viewers and fans of any other pro sports league in the US.

However, our mentality on increasing this percentage has changed. It used to be ‘Let’s convert sports fans into soccer fans.’ Now, it’s ‘Let’s convert soccer fans into MLS fans.’ But in terms of Hispanics, we aren’t telling the Boca Juniors fan in New York City, or the Santa Fe fan in Miami 'you should stop supporting their teams.' But obviously, you can only support these clubs remotely, through TV. So if you want the stadium experience, then support your local team. That’s the message we have to get through. And each team in the league has it’s own marketing initiative toward Hispanics that are trying to do that.

We also have the most robust Hispanic media outreach of any U.S. sports league. Whereas other leagues have a Hispanic recognition month, we’ve been doing it every month since the start of the MLS. Hispanics are part of our DNA. A huge chunk of our players originate from Hispanic countries, as do our fans, and we've recognized that from the beginning.

With the recent departures of Michael Farfan (Philadelphia), Rafael Baca (San Jose), Jose Villarreal (LA) and the most recent circus with Camilo Sanvezzo (Vancouver), is there any concern in MLS about losing top Latino talent? 

José Villarreal, Rafael Baca & Michael Farfán all left MLS for Cruz Azul this winter.

No. MLS has and will continue to become a more desirable league for players from Latin America. Why? Because we have top training facilities, it's secure here, we have financially viable teams, and year after year, the league becomes more competitive.

(In terms of attendance), it's not a concerning factor. With Chivas USA, the problem is they lack a quality product. They certainly don't lack Hispanic players. A good example of this is the two championships Houston Dynamo won in a row. The majority of their fans at that time were Hispanics, but they had zero Hispanic players. It proved the Hispanic fan is an educated soccer fan that will come out for good competition. So for clubs, it's more about bringing players on to help a team, not players who your Hispanic demographic might cheer more for. If it’s a quality team, they’ll come out regardless. 

What about the Hispanic fans who mostly support Liga MX or other Latin American leagues, how does MLS want to convert them? 

First, if you look at our ratings on Univision, they’re solid. So we know there is interest there. The way we want to convert them into supporters of MLS, like I mentioned, is to get them to the stadium, where they can experience a good, competitive atmosphere you obviously don’t get from TV, no matter what league you are watching.

RSL's Alvaro Saborio & Kyle Beckerman react to losing the 2011 CCL Final to MexicanMonterrey

But we also need to prove to them the MLS is the real deal. That’s why MLS is so absolutely focused on winning the CONCACAF Champions League. The goal is to show more success against Liga MX teams, and get us on the world stage and give people an MLS team to cheer for at the Club World Cup.

Another part of our initiative to become one of the top leagues in the world by 2022 includes media outreach to a lot of Latin American countries. In the past few years, I’ve been to Mexico, Colombia, Argentina twice, Brazil, Honduras and Costa Rica to meet with national media outlets to educate them about our league and develop a relationship. Why? Because we know for a fact that a Colombian American is more likely to hear about how Juan Pablo Angel is playing for the New York Red Bulls by reading Colombian news. It’s a great way to spread awareness and change perception of the league, and a big part of our overall strategy for the Hispanic market.

Colombia, in fact, has become a big part of this strategy, because in recent years they have become a market leader in Latin American news, along with Argentina.

On the field too, Colombians have become a big part of MLS, leading Latin America in exports to the league for the past few years. What do you think is behind this Colombia influx?

The same reasons I mentioned before: it’s safe here, the clubs are doing well financially, there's good competition, and, on average, our stadiums draw bigger crowds.

But also, for a lot of Latino players, to be a star on the field and live a normal life off it, that’s an attractive thing. They don’t get that in their own countries. Guillermo Schelotto talked about that a lot at Columbus. He was a huge star for them and he loved playing here. I really recommend the MLS Insider story on Diego Valeri. He talks about this exactly, going from Argentina to Portland. 

Last question: What are your thoughts on MLS expansion in Miami? It's divisive topic, and many doubt the demographic after what happened to the Fusion. I find it interesting some people point out that the high Cuban population cares more about baseball than soccer, causing the assumed soccer-loving demo to be a bit deceiving.  

Beckham & Co. scouting stadium locations in Miami in November.

Well, Miami isn't what it was in 1998. At that time, the population was 60 per cent Cuban, now its 40 per cent. So things have changed in that regard. But lots of other things have too. The size of the league, the level of play, the market, exposure is readily available in television here, it’s all different. I really think there’s a great opportunity here.

We’re focusing hard on getting a great stadium in downtown Miami, putting together a great product on the field and finding proper ownership. Obviously we’re working with David Beckham and his people. And I don’t think many people realize how smart a business man David really is. 

 

Many thanks to Gabe Gabor for taking the time to chat with us. You can follow him Gabe on Twitter @MLSGabor.