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Volume 22 No. 23
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Sutton Impact: MiLB showing the way in courting Latino market

‘It’s Fun to Be a Fan’ campaign expanded to 33 teams this season, with the Oklahoma City Dodgers a shining example of immersion, activation.

In an attempt to better connect with the growing Hispanic population in the United States, Minor League Baseball launched the “Es Divertido Ser Un Fan” (It’s Fun to be a Fan) campaign in 2017 via a four-team trial. Encouraged by the results, the concept expanded to 33 teams located in 19 states in 2018 and the program was dubbed “Copa de la Diversion” (Fun Cup). In total, teams played more than 165 games in their new brand identities and each game featured culturally relevant game-day experiences through music, concessions, promotions, community partnerships and merchandise. Most notably, the main goal of the program was to better connect and develop a culture of fans to more closely match that of the communities’ home to the respective MiLB franchises. The program has proved to be very successful as Copa games showed an attendance growth of 12 percent versus same-date games the previous year and teams are reporting record merchandise sales.

Having spent eight years of my life in Oklahoma as a college student and marrying an Oklahoman, I have decided to profile the Oklahoma City Dodgers, whose Copa identification became Cielo Azul — Blue Sky.

During my tenure at the NBA, I was interested in ethnic marketing initiatives and engaged the services of a Hispanic marketing expert, Tom Cordova of the Córdova Marketing Group. What I remember from that interaction is the importance of having a genuine presence in the Hispanic community, asking for input and support, and being patient in terms of ROI, pursuing a strategy of long-term value.

The Oklahoma City Dodgers, under the leadership of Michael Byrnes (president) and Jenna Byrnes (SVP), followed those basic principles and created a very successful Hispanic marketing platform. The first step was formulating their brand identity and the Dodgers began by involving all members of their organization and engaging a local Latino marketing agency for thoughts and input. Three possible names and identities were then given to focus groups comprising key stakeholders in the OKC Latino community for their feedback and input. Cielo Azul was the clear winner because the group felt that it was the most inclusive and best vehicle to speak to not only Mexican Americans but the other Latino cultures living in Oklahoma City as well.

Once the name and logo had been developed, the organization hosted the OKC Hispanic Chamber After Hours Networking event to provide those attendees with an early unveil and to seek feedback regarding how to integrate an appropriate in-game experience in terms of food and beverage, music and entertainment. This was followed by a brand reveal event at Supermercados Morelos, a local grocery chain that has been a multiyear partner of the franchise, demonstrating to the local Latino community that they had ownership in this concept.

The Oklahoma City Dodgers’ rebranding to “Cielo Azul” was a carefully planned and executed marketing effort that included team, business and community stakeholders.

Byrnes and the team then hired a bilingual sales rep with roots in the local Latino community to not only focus on this initiative but to provide some familiarity for the community. Special ticket packages including F&B were created and included a $1 donation from each ticket sold to the Latino Community Development Agency. 

What came next was a combination of complete integration and immersion that I have found lacking in the efforts of professional sports franchises attempting to court the Latino market. A sample of these efforts, for all eight games played by OKC in the Copa Series, included:

Complete buy-in and support from the local Latino Chamber of Commerce.

Latino music.

Latino décor at every entrance and throughout the concourse.

Pregame and in-game PA announcements in both English and Spanish.

Multiple Spanish-speaking customer service staffers throughout the ballpark and ticket office with buttons identifying themselves as bilingual.

An impactful and relevant social media promotional campaign.

Bilingual game programs for the series with special cover illustrations featuring the Cielo Azul brand designed by a local Latino artist. 

Michael Byrnes summed up the experience by stating:

“The Es Divertido Ser Un Fan campaign created by MiLB gave us a great framework to develop our own outreach program that would have meaning in Oklahoma City. As this outreach program developed, we were able to include so many of our team members in the development of the brand identity and ballpark experience, which makes the outcome one that all of our team members can have pride in. Through the course of our dialogue with stakeholders, the element that exceeded my expectations was just how much these conversations helped us learn about our brand and its standing in our community. We also are extremely proud of how these relationships have created brand advocates for us in the community.”

It was by far the most thoroughly and strategically well-executed ethnic marketing effort I have ever witnessed. Tom Cordova, my Latino marketing expert, described it this way:

“The Oklahoma City Dodgers have won the imagination, hearts and wallets of Hispanics. Their fundamental-based approach is a lesson all leagues and teams should heed: Methodically engaging and learning from Hispanic community organizations, combined with making and funding the commitment to earn Hispanics’ business is an investment that brings an exponential return-on-investment.”

His sentiments were also echoed by one of the stakeholders, Cinthya Allen of AT&T Oklahoma, who stated:

“Being part of the OKC Dodgers’ Latino market fan-base program was an eye-opening experience to the dedication the Dodgers place on their brand and mission. The focus group discussions began with a brief history of the team and an understanding of their mission. However, it was evident that team leadership was very open to understanding and learning more about cultural connections. It was clear that they wanted to create a Latino-focused brand image that was genuine and created great inclusivity. Seeing this project come to life was amazing!”

Where does it go from here? MiLB CMO David Wright said that “in 2019 more than 70 MiLB clubs will participate in Copa and MiLB will continue to refine and take key learnings from each community to amplify the fan engagement initiative.”

It seems obvious to me that the major leagues can take a page from the minors’ playbook — as the minors develop far more than just players.

Bill Sutton (wsutton1@usf.edu) is the founding director of the sport and entertainment business management MBA at the University of South Florida and principal of Bill Sutton & Associates. Follow him on Twitter @Sutton_ImpactU.