Growth in Latin participation good business

If sports fans notice America celebrating Hispanic Heritage Month, they might think of the great Latino players in Major League Baseball, in which 29 percent of the players are Latino. Some might think of Latino boxers. Depending on their interests, they might know that 20 percent of Major League Soccer players are Latino. Still others might know that more than 3 percent of NBA players and Division I college student-athletes are Latino.

But would anyone think about NASCAR, winter sports or the importance of Latinas playing sport? Or whether Latinos are targets for sports marketers? Would anyone think of the impact of participation in sports on the integration of Latinos who immigrated to the United States and whether playing sports in the United States makes Latinos feel more American? Does rooting for people who look like you and have similar cultural backgrounds increase your ethnic pride?

Latinos have made their presence felt in baseball. Their numbers have increased, and they have become dominant players and managers. Between 2000 and 2005, Latino players were among the leaders in RBIs, home runs and batting average. Omar Minaya, who was born in the Dominican Republic, became the first Latino general manager in Major League Baseball when the Montreal Expos named him to that position in 2002. In 2004, he joined the New York Mets, who this season own the best record in the major leagues and won their first division title since 1988. And Ozzie Guillen, from Venezuela, became the first Latin-born manager to win a World Series when he led the Chicago White Sox to the 2005 World Series title.

Baseball is trying to help Latino players who come to the United States make the transition. But are they using the same techniques to help players from the Dominican Republic, Mexico, Cuba and Venezuela? That would be like applying the same standards to people from Britain, France and Italy. Do we try to understand the nuances between cultures to help the individual athletes?

Do the successes of these stars help break stereotypes that Caucasians and African-Americans might have of Latinos?

Is all of this new?

Texas Tech professor Jorge Iber writes that as far back as the 1950s, Bobby Cavazos, a Mexican-American football player at Tech, led the team to a 10-1 season and the 1954 Gator Bowl championship. That was in spite of the fact that Mexican-Americans could not use public toilets in Lubbock, Texas, which helped create a stereotype that they were "lazy dirty." Iber maintains that Lubbock residents had to rethink their assumptions after Cavazos helped the home team.

It was virtually unheard of for a Mexican-American to hold a prestigious high school coaching job in football-crazed Texas. But Coach EC Lerma, first a teacher in rural Benavides, Texas, became the coach in 1940. Over the next 14 years, his team won 13 district, five bi-district and two regional titles. The team went 30 years before making the playoffs again after Lerma left. In 1991, the high school stadium was named after him. Lerma and Cavazos were smashing barriers up to seven decades ago.

Building Ethnic Pride

Boxing is another example of a sport that made people proud because of an athlete's heritage. Jewish, Italian and Irish immigrants took great pride in their fighters in the early 20th Century. There are many books and articles written about how Joe Louis did this for African-Americans. Julio Cesar Chavez, a boxer of Mexican-American descent, united his community nationally like no athlete before him. Like Louis, Chavez was the precursor of boxers like Oscar de la Hoya.

In "Mexican Boxing: Our Pride and Passion," Juan Angel Zurita wrote: "Personally, not many feelings compare to the energetic rush that I experience during a boxing match with an arena filled with other Mexican/Mexican-American boxing fans. When I hear the rancherita ring walk music or when I see the beautiful green, white and red, something inside of me explodes. It's a very powerful feeling. It's pride, fervor and machismo wrapped up into one feeling. One has to experience it to understand it. … For Mexican/Mexican-American boxing fans, it is very important that our ring warriors proudly represent our people and our culture. It allows us to identify with something positive, something victorious."

Sometimes second- or third-generation ethnic communities feel estranged from new immigrants from their own countries. In his doctorate dissertation "Palaces of Pain: Arenas of Mexican American Dreams," about boxing and the formation of ethnic Mexican identities in 20th-century Southern California, Gregory S. Rodriguez wrote that, "boxing contributed to the restructuring or reproduction of ethnic, gender and national identities over the course of the 20th century. Boxing arenas became metaphors for the struggles over the meaning of race, gender, and citizenship that has preoccupied United States society in the twentieth century … an examination of Mexican-American boxing industries highlights the ways ethnic, familial, linguistic and class dynamics influenced Mexican-Americans and Mexican immigrants in negotiating new urban identities through popular culture." Rodriguez went back further than Zurita to the 19th Century for the boxing career of Aurelio Herrera.

Latinos Managing Professional Sports

Just as the number of African-Americans athletes increased, Latinos gradually emerged as professional staff in pro sports league offices. Latinos hold 13, 7 and 22 percent of the professional positions in, respectively, Major League Baseball, the NBA and MLS league offices. MLS is way ahead of both at the team level with 30 percent of professional positions, compared to 5 and 8 percent in MLB and the NBA, respectively. Unlike the case of African-Americans, there are higher percentages of Latinos holding league and front office professional positions in the NBA and MLS than there are Latinos playing in those leagues.

The biggest breakthrough occurred when Arturo Moreno became the first Latino majority owner of a major U.S. sports team when he purchased the Anaheim (now Los Angeles) Angels. He is a fourth-generation Mexican-American. Both Anaheim and Los Angeles have large Latino populations, which now are being courted by the team. The Angels added to their Spanish-language media, advertising and community outreach.

Latinas Competing in Sport

While machismo might be a big part of the Latino culture, Latinas are starting to play more sport. The Women's Sports Foundation Report: Minorities in Sports (1989) demonstrated the benefits to participation. A higher percentage of Latina student-athletes had better grades in high school, were more likely to graduate and attend college than non-athletes in the same schools.

This report was reinforced by a study undertaken by Julie Laible, who looked at Mexican-American females in two high schools on the border of Texas and Mexico where a high percentage of Mexican-American girls fail academically.

Her results showed that sports participation by Mexican-American girls increased their chances for academic success. Where they had Mexican-American female coaches, the girls had higher self-esteem and even higher levels of academic performance.

New Faces in Familiar Sports

Just as it is trying to increase the number of African-American fans, NASCAR is looking to increase its Mexican fan base. NASCAR held its second Busch Series race in Mexico City in March. The event included Mexican drivers Adrian Fernandez and Jorge Goeters. Carlos Contreras has competed in more than 80 Craftsman Truck and Busch Series events. Like the virtual absence of African-Americans in the Nextel Cup Series – Bill Lester made his first series start in 2006 – the biggest boost for Latino fans would come from a Latino presence at that level.

Roberto Lopez Moreno and Jorge Benjamin Haynes founded Alpino, an organization committed to increasing minority participation in snow sports. Among others, the founders recognize the need to appeal to young people to build and sustain interest in winter sports. A huge percentage of the 18-under crowd is multicultural, and an even larger percentage is influenced by hip-hop, which has its roots in urban America.

"If we as an industry don't figure out a way of breaking the code and becoming more inclusive to people of color, we're out of business in 25 years," Moreno said.

A ski spot outside of Los Angeles called Mountain High strategically increased the diversity of its staff and began advertising on Spanish language and hip-hop radio stations. Prior to this marketing move, it was a struggling operation. Now it is one of the more popular slopes in the country. More than half of its skiers are young people of color.

Mountain High was not the only resort looking to change who comes to its slopes. Bill Jensen, the Vail ski resort's chief operating officer, staged a performance by Snoop Dogg at its end of the season festival. It was the biggest crowd in the history of the event. Hip-hop, African-American, Latino – marketed correctly, it can all increase the bottom line.

The future of Latinos in sport, both as participants and fans, will benefit from the understanding by the world of sports that diversity is a business imperative. But right now both participation and fans in the stands remain on a third tier behind whites and African-Americans. However, there is no doubt that there is an explosive opportunity for Latinos in sport.

Richard E. Lapchick is the chair of the DeVos Sport Business Management Graduate Program in the College of Business Administration at the University of Central Florida. The author of 12 books, Lapchick also directs UCF's Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport, is the author of the annual Racial and Gender Report Card, and is the director of the National Consortium for Academics and Sport. He has joined ESPN.com as a regular commentator on issues of diversity and ethics in sport.