August 28, 1998

Hispanic Ballplayers Have the Fans Without the Endorsement Deals

By Geralda Miller

ARLINGTON, Texas — Rangers star Ivan "Pudge" Rodriguez is known for his ability to catch. But he'd love to pitch. Products, that is.

Many Hispanic players — who comprise 24 percent of the Major League Baseball rosters — have the looks, fans and athletic skills, but only a select few have raked in hefty outside income from endorsement deals.

While various publications report that Chicago Bulls superstar Michael Jordan collects over $40 million and golfer Tiger Woods makes more than $24 million in advertising endorsements, Rodriguez's agent, Jeff Moorad, says his star catcher makes only $1 million yearly. Although Rangers slugger Juan Gonzalez's agent would not disclose what he earns, it is reported to be significantly less than $1 million.

Rodriguez, who has won six Gold Gloves, has an eight-year agreement with Nike to do TV commercials in Latin America. Gonzalez, who leads his team in home run hitting, has represented Reebok in the past. But both say Hispanic ballplayers deserve the opportunity to endorse products in this country.

"Well, you know, it is about time for agencies to start doing it," Rodriguez said. "There are so many great Latin players in the league right now."

Gonzalez is more blunt: "This game is for the white guys, the white people."

Sports marketing specialists blame Hispanic ballplayers' struggles for endorsements on several factors: They don't speak English well; the league has never been good at marketing and lost more ground with fans to the NBA and NFL after the 1994 strike; and many Hispanic players live in mid-sized U.S. cities where the Hispanic population is slim.

Rodriguez and Gonzalez grew up speaking Spanish in Vega Baja, Puerto Rico. Both have learned English since playing in the majors.

English fluency is key for advertisers, said Jose Masso, senior associate director at Northeastern University's Center for the Study of Sport in Society.

"It's unfortunate. It shouldn't be the deciding factor, but it is," Masso said. "The amount of English Pudge has is enough. It's not like they don't have the capacity to speak enough to pitch the product."

Jim Andrews, editor of IEG Endorsement Insider, a monthly trade publication, added that advertisers want the players representing them to be fan-friendly and comfortable in public settings. "There are a lot of English-speaking baseball players who are not good communicators," he noted.

The Rangers' Latin American liaison, Luis Mayoral, agreed that language is a barrier for his two stellar players. Gonzalez has struggled with English and only recently has become more comfortable with the language. Rodriguez is slightly more fluent.

"There is only one Latino player right now that has things going for him and that is Alex Rodriguez," Mayoral said of the Seattle shortstop. "Alex has the youth. He's got the looks and he speaks English."

"The Juan Gonzalezes and the Pudges — those guys never get a break," Mayoral said. "I feel they are looked down upon. Regardless of how good they are (people say), `Hey that is another Latino."'

Andrews said some advertisers may think of soccer players first if they're trying to target a Hispanic audience.

For example, Ronaldo, who plays for the Italian club Inter Milan, was one of the focal points of Nike's World Cup advertising campaign, including a popular TV commercial in which he and his teammates dribble a soccer ball through an airport.

Nike is trying to position Ronaldo —who is considered the world's best soccer player— as the Jordan or Woods of his sport, Andrews said.

"When you get to a certain level of superstardom, those kinds of players —and there are always going to be a handful of them— really transcend race," he said. "That's where Nike's trying to go with Ronaldo... just kind of turning him into an icon that is not necessarily tied to what country he comes from, what nationality or race he is."

However, Andrews said his perception is that advertisers don't look at ethnicity first when choosing someone to represent them. "I think (advertisers) want the best guy on that team, the most popular, the best performer, the best communicator that (they) can afford to do these commercials," he said.

Reebok spokesman Dave Fogelson agreed. He said the company selects athletes to endorse its shoes and apparel based on their ability to be "as real as they really are" — not based on race. Emmitt Smith of the Dallas Cowboys and Shaquille O'Neal of the Los Angeles Lakers are among the company's high-profile pitchmen.

Hispanic consumers could be considered an untapped market. They comprise 11.2 percent of the nation's population; the average household income was $29,500 in 1996, according to U.S. Census figures.

"When you start to realize that this is a consumer group that is large, growing and wealthy, then you start to pay attention to that group," said Dolores Kunda, Hispanic marketing director for Leo Burnett USA, a Chicago-based advertising agency. "When corporations realize that they are losing profitability, then they will pay attention to the Hispanic consumer."

Some corporations have already taken notice. A Spanish-speaking Chihuahua who exclaims "Yo quiero Taco Bell" has become a national TV advertising sensation.

"The Chihuahua is the most popular Hispanic figure," Kunda said. "This is an indication to how large the market is. It is becoming so popular that it is spilling into the culture at large."

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