What makes MLB's skillful wooing of Latino fans so fascinating is how starkly it differs from the sport's failed efforts to engage African Americans. Once blacks were among MLB's most die-hard fans, as MLB commissioner Bud Selig is fond of recalling. Selig revels in a childhood memory of sitting with his friend Herb Kohl (now a Democratic Senator from Wisconsin) at Chicago's Wrigley Field in May, 1947. "As I looked around I remember saying: 'My God, we're the only white people in the upper deck,"' Selig says.
Nearly 60 years later, blacks are fast vanishing from big-league seats -- and big-league fields. Black players held just 9% of roster spots in 2005, down from 18% in 1991. It's trickier to track black fans, because MLB doesn't keep count, but Scarborough Sports Marketing, based in New York, puts African American turnout at MLB games at 8% of total attendance. That's puny considering that blacks constitute 13% of the U.S. population and that more than a third of MLB teams are located in metro areas where blacks make up 25% or more of residents, according to 2000 U.S. Census data.
This tale of two minorities partly reflects cultural forces that MLB couldn't have anticipated. In black communities, baseball fell victim to "the perfect storm," says MLB Executive Vice-President Jimmie Lee Solomon. He cites the shrinking number of baseball diamonds in inner cities over several decades and the rise in popularity of football and basketball, which youths see as easier stepping stones to college scholarships and pro careers -- partly because baseball requires a long apprenticeship in the minor leagues.
Latinos, on the other hand, have proved a comparatively easy sell. Fans with roots in Latino nations make up 13% of big-league attendance, according to Scarborough. And they're not not just cheering at ballparks: The number of Latinos who watch baseball or listen on the radio is up about 15% since 2001.
Many of these aficionados brought a love of baseball with them from places like the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico, locales that also are pipelines for MLB players. Latinos now hold 29% of big-league positions, a record, up from 14% in 1991, according to the University of Central Florida's 2005 Racial & Gender Report Card. And many, from the Cardinals' Albert Pujols to the Mets' Carlos Beltran and Carlos Delgado, are major stars.
The growing Latino audience has big-league teams fishing for new customers. This season 17 teams, including the Kansas City Royals and Milwaukee Brewers, staged Latino heritage celebrations. Corporate America is tuning in, too. On Sept. 2, Coca-Cola (KO
) and Toyota (TM
) treated about 10,000 gyrating Los Angeles Dodgers fans to Viva Los Dodgers, a Latin dance party in the parking lot outside Dodger Stadium. "If you go to a Major League game anywhere, you see the same [Latino] influence. There's a more global flavor in who's playing and who's coming to watch," says Mets General Manager Omar Minaya.
What's missing, however, is many African American faces in the stands. One striking aspect of that phenomenon is how little MLB seems to know about it -- including when the exodus started and how quickly blacks drifted away. One of the few teams that does track attendance of minority fans, the Chicago White Sox, says a mere 4.5% of fans coming through the turnstiles are black -- in a city with an African American population of 37%.
That frustrates White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf, who bought the team in 1981 and is unusual for having put in place a Latino manager, Ozzie Guillen, and an African American general manager, Ken Williams. The standard explanations offered for low turnout among blacks -- high ticket prices, MLB's failure to have even one franchise owned by a black investor, inadequate marketing -- don't impress Reinsdorf. He says in the decades he has owned the White Sox and the Chicago Bulls of the National Basketball Assn., blacks have never turned out for either team in big numbers. He attributes it to another factor: "For whatever reason, the African American community seems to participate in sports but not watch them. Maybe they are smarter than the average person. Maybe there is something in the black culture that tells them: 'I don't benefit when the Cubs win or the White Sox win, so why spend money?"' Selig disagrees and maintains that black baseball fans can be won back.
MLB has tried to woo African Americans. Ten years ago, Selig presided over a season-long tribute to Jackie Robinson on the 50th anniversary of baseball's first black major leaguer. (Another league-wide tip of the cap is planned for next season, the 60th anniversary of Robinson's debut.) Events honoring Negro League history are now common. And MLB's most ambitious outreach to inner-city blacks is the Urban Youth Academy in Compton, Calif., a 10-acre oasis where young boys and girls play on manicured fields and are schooled in the game -- on MLB's tab. This year, in the academy's inaugural summer, about 900 boys and girls enrolled, most of them from troubled neighborhoods, almost all of them black. For many, it was their first experience owning a mitt or taking batting practice. When director Darrell Miller, a former major leaguer, took groups of students to see Dodgers and Angels games, that was a first, too.
Less impressive is baseball's marketing to Black America. "It doesn't make sense to me why they wouldn't do more," says Richard Lapchick, head of the DeVos Sport Business Management Program at the University of Central Florida. Solomon, MLB's highest-ranking black official, agrees: He's pushing for more daring marketing of the sport's top black stars, such as Florida Marlins pitching sensation Dontrelle Willis and Philadelphia Phillies slugger Ryan Howard. Says Solomon: "We've got to take these names and make them cool." But Tim Brosnan, MLB's executive vice-president for business, endorses the league's efforts and says: "There aren't any plans to market players differently than we have. That includes Latino players, African American players, players of all colors and stripes."
It may well be that MLB, setting attendance records year after year, figures if it ain't broke, why fix it? But it pains owners such as Reinsdorf to watch the African American audience slip away. "It's not an immediate problem," he grants. "But if we're America's game, we want all of America to be interested." By Mark Hyman