How The NFL Built A 25 Million Person Hispanic Fan Base

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When it comes to assessing market trends and identifying growing contingencies of potential fans, the NFL is on top of its game.  From September 15 through October 15, the NFL will recognize Hispanic Heritage Month by engaging in league-wide and team-sponsored initiatives focused upon the Hispanic community.

The month-long celebration comes in the wake of significant research depicting the fast and significant growth of the Hispanic population–and associated spending power–in the United States.  According to 2010 Census data, between 2000 and 2010, the United States’ Hispanic population increased by 15.2 million.  This number represents over half of the United States’ total population growth during the decade.  The 2010 Census found that 50.5 million of the 308.7 million people living in the United States on April 1, 2010 were of Hispanic or Latino origin.

Internal research likewise demonstrated to the NFL the growing presence of the Hispanic population.  However, for the NFL, the realization of the role the Hispanic community could play in expanding its fan base began years before the 2010 Census data confirmed the growing importance of the Hispanic population in the American economy.

In 2002, former NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue launched an internal task force for the NFL to begin researching and learning about the Hispanic fan base.  By 2005, that group’s efforts culminated in the NFL hosting a game in Mexico City.  “The 2005 game in Mexico City was a galvanizing moment.  It was a great springboard for bringing the commitment to the Hispanic population across the league.  From there, it really started to institutionalize the notion of designating a time period in our  year to celebrate Hispanic fans and in a consistent way that is really visible,” said the NFL’s vice president of fan strategy and marketing, Peter O’Reilly.

The NFL’s efforts to attract the Hispanic population to its product have not gone unnoticed.  A 2012 ESPN Sports Poll found that 25 million Hispanics in the United States identify themselves as NFL fans.  The popularity of the league amongst the Hispanic population allowed Super Bowls XLVI and XLVII to become the most-watched TV programs (English or Spanish) on record among U.S. Hispanics.  The growth of the NFL’s Hispanic fan base has yet to plateau.  This is demonstrated in part by a Nielsen Media 2012 NFL Season Reach study, which found that 2012 was the most-viewed NFL regular season on record among U.S. Hispanics.

Today, as the NFL continues to work to grow its Hispanic fan base, it has created an internal steering committee.  That committee serves as a conduit for the league and teams to share research on attracting the Hispanic fan base.  “We have regular calls and meetings where we share what is working and what is resonating,” O’Reilly explained.

What then, is resonating amongst Hispanic NFL fans?  What is driving the growth of the NFL’s Hispanic fan base?

As it turns out, the biggest factor driving growth of the NFL’s Hispanic fan base is the media access the NFL gives to its Hispanic fans.  “We have spent a lot of time really working with and asking Hispanic fans how they want to consume the NFL.  For us, it is about making sure that we are delivering the game in customized and unique ways to serve the Hispanic population’s needs,” O’Reilly noted.

One thing unique about the NFL’s distribution of its games to its Hispanic fan base, is that the NFL is the only major league in the United States to televise all of its games in Spanish.  That the number of games it hosts each season pales in comparison to the other three leagues in the United States, gives the NFL a leg up in winning over the Hispanic market.  It is much more financially feasible to televise a 16-game regular season in Spanish, than it is to say, televise an 82-game regular season.  “There is a media piece that’s bringing the NFL to places it hasn’t been.  Some of this is tied to the number of games the NFL has each season, as we are the only sports league that delivers all of its games in Spanish,” O’Reilly pointed out.

In addition to televising all of its games in Spanish, the NFL has utilized other innovative media endeavors across a wide variety of channels to send the message about its product to the Hispanic population.  These endeavors include programming with ESPN Deportes, Telemundo, Univision, and the NFL Network.  Additionally, the NFL has utilized its own website to attract Hispanic fans.  “A lot of what we continue to do, is make sure we can teach the basics of the game in fun and accessible ways in Spanish.  There is a section of our website that allows fans to go in and get answers to basic questions about the game in Spanish.  We recognize that for some, understanding the game is a barrier to enjoying it,” O’Reilly said.

NFL teams have fallen in step behind the league’s efforts to attract a wider Hispanic fan base.  One team leading the charge is the Chicago Bears, who recently spent over two years researching Hispanic consumers in Chicago before launching the team’s “Vamos Bears” engagement platform.  Realizing that ticket sales would not be the team’s priority when it came to attracting a Hispanic fan base, as Bears tickets have been sold out for 28 seasons, the team looked to building a wider Spanish media presence.

In 2012, the Bears partnered with Chicago Spanish radio station, La Ley 107.9, to air the team’s games in Spanish on the radio for the first time.  Initially a one-year test deal, the team quickly realized that partnering with a well-respected Spanish station could not only increase their reach amongst Hispanic fans, but could also help the team gain insight into the Hispanic community.  “We saw that La Ley was a group living and breathing in the Hispanic community.  We rely upon them not only as our radio partner, but as our community guide,” said the Chicago Bears’ vice president of sales and marketing, Chris Hibbs.

Going forward, the Bears plan to expand into other media markets to grow the team’s Hispanic fan base.  “We are working right now on digital content.  What should our web presence be for Vamos Bears?  How much of that presence is in Spanish and how much is in English?” Hibbs remarked.

For teams, spending money on research and campaigns to engage Hispanic fans is a smart business strategy.  “On our side, it’s a vehicle to drive advertising revenue. Brands are looking for ways to engage this very important demographic of Hispanic consumers,” Hibbs noted.

Yet, for all that teams gain monetarily by attracting a wider Hispanic fan base, they are also quick to note that they have a responsibility to serve the demographic.  “We had two to three business meetings with the NFL to talk about future development and growth where we were hearing a ton about Hispanic consumers and seeing lots of great data and trends about the predominance of this consumer in the country and how thirsty they were for sports.  We had to listen.  There was an opportunity for us to really engage this consumer.  We’ve under-served them.  The Bears have been around for 93 years, and we have done very little with this community,” Hibbs explained.

Likewise, while the NFL is focused upon growing fans of its product, it is cognizant of the role that its product plays in building the future of American culture.  “Without overstating our role, there is a role the NFL can serve in terms of being a bridge to American culture.  The NFL is such a strong American passion and a badge of our culture.  In a lot of American communities, football is a glue.  Hispanic fans tell us it’s a connection point.  It’s certainly about making sure our fan base grows, but beyond that, we believe that given the unifying nature of the NFL, there’s a role we can play beyond that,” the NFL’s O’Reilly remarked.

Alicia Jessop

Founder of Ruling Sports


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