At a recent Phoenix Suns game, the US Airways arena is fairly full. Yet team president Jason Rowley says the Suns can do more to grow its international fan base.
“If you really look at where we are positioned geographically, that is something that I think we can really move the needle on,” Rowley said.
Particularly on the other side of the border, where the economy is growing and there are reports of a growing middle class.
“There are people in Mexico with a lot of money to spend,” Rowley said. “Who are sports fans, who like to go on vacations, who like to come to travel up here to the states.”
Basketball is increasingly a global sport, and Rowley is angling for the Suns to be the team to capture fans in Mexico and even Central America.
The Suns launched a new Spanish-language website this season, and the team is hoping to bring the Mexican national team to Arizona for an exhibition game, which would raise the Suns' profile back in Mexico.
They aren’t the only Phoenix-based professional team thinking about this audience.
“We’ve just introduced a Sonoran hot dog at our ballpark, which is very popular in Mexico,” said Luis Gonzalez, one of the shining stars in Diamondbacks history who now works for the baseball team’s front office.
The new menu item comes with bacon beans and all the trimmings.
The team is also giving away the audio broadcasts of weekend games to six Sonoran radio stations. An office in Sonora’s capitol, Hermosillo, sells Diamondbacks tickets.
Representatives of the team say a big part of the strategy is long-term: if they can win over young fans in Mexico now, they will buy some merchandise, and one day, eventually, attend a game.
Sports business analyst Maury Brown said there is a push for all the major sports leagues to grow internationally.
“And if it is something easily reachable from countries nearby, border states, that would make the most logical sense for any sports league to look at,” Brown said.
American sports have a strong following in Mexico, particularly the NFL. Some teams, such as the Dallas Cowboys, have managed to make deep inroads with Mexican fans.
The L.A. Dodgers won over a loyal Mexican following in the 1980s due to the famed Mexican pitcher, Fernando Valenzuela.
The Diamondbacks in turn say they are keeping their eyes peeled for the next Valenzuela.
But analyst Maury Brown says even teams without big stars can build support by courting fans who have never been courted before.
“We kind of look at this as a ‘land grab’ from a marketing perspective,” Brown said. “The one that is there first has the ability to entrench brand loyalty.”
Earlier this month the Diamondbacks and the Suns joined a Phoenix trade mission to Mexico City. Also in attendance was David Rousseau, president of the Salt River Project, who is chairing the committee in charge of bringing the Super Bowl to Glendale, Ariz. in 2015.
One purpose of the mission was to repair tensions caused by the state’s immigration enforcement law, SB 1070, and gain back Mexican tourists — who account for the second biggest group of tourists to the United States.
The three-day trip included a meeting with Mexican travel agents to discuss selling Phoenix vacation packages centered around sporting events.
At a press conference in Mexico City, the Diamondbacks’ Luis Gonzalez told Mexican sports reporters that Mexicans are welcome in Phoenix.
Gonzalez, who is Cuban-American, gave some remarks in Spanish.
"We want Mexicans to follow our teams," he said.
Sports reporter Juan Pablo Sanchez with the Mexican newspaper Milenio appreciated the message.
“I have never been in a press conference like this,” Sanchez said. “And I think it is very cool, because we the media we can spread the message that Phoenix is open for the Mexicans, and not always closed like the news said.”
Still, Sanchez said, here in Mexico City, far from the border, the Diamondbacks and the Suns will have to do more to get their brand out.
He said the world-famous American teams — like the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox, or the Chicago Bulls — still seem to hold the most sway here in the Mexican capitol.