by David Mitchel, Vice President of Marketing at Norton Mitchel Marketing

Now that the NBA regular season has ended and the playoffs have begun, it is the perfect time to reflect on some of the more notable occurrences in the league this year. In terms of marketing, one of the more notable occurrences was Noche Latina (Latin Night in Spanish). Noche Latina is the NBA’s flagship Hispanic marketing initiative. In various NBA arenas in the month of March, teams in cities with high Hispanic populations (Los Angeles, Miami, Orlando, Phoenix, San Antonio, Dallas, Houston, Chicago and New York) celebrated Latin culture through a multitude of game night activities. The 2009-2010 season was the fourth consecutive season that the NBA engaged in the Noche Latina promotion. It will likely be back for a fifth season next year. With Noche Latina, the league has a quality basic idea in how to conduct a multicultural marketing initiative. However, the league has taken actions with Noche Latina that have diminished its effectiveness in the Hispanic community. If Noche Latina is to have the effect of increasing brand awareness and fostering positive brand beliefs about the NBA amongst Hispanics, it must change for next season.

The NBA must be recognized for its understanding of the importance of the Hispanic marketplace. In the press release that announced Noche Latina events for March 2010, Saskia Sorrosa, the NBA’s Senior Director of Hispanic Marketing, said “With Hispanics comprising 15 percent of our fan base, we have a responsibility to connect with them in meaningful ways.” The first step in creating successful Hispanic marketing initiatives is to understand the importance of the group. At the 2000 Census, Hispanics made up 12.5% of the United States population. This is when Hispanics officially became the largest minority group in the US, surpassing the 12.3% African American population. This data fulfilled a controversial 1978 prediction by Time Magazine that Hispanics would soon become the largest minority group. By 2005, Hispanics accounted for 14% of the US population. When the 2010 Census information is released, it is likely that Hispanics will comprise at least 15% of the US population. With 15% of the NBA fans reportedly Hispanic and Hispanics likely comprising 15% of the US population at the present time, one could surmise that the NBA is doing at least an adequate job in building the brand amongst Hispanics.

With Noche Latina, the league is doing many positive things. Noche Latina consists of events such as pre, post and in-game Hispanic/Latino cultural celebrations and the launch of www.nba.com/enebea in Spanish. As an example, when the Miami Heat hosted Noche Latina, they featured salsa dancers outside the arena at halftime, Latin routines/performances by the Heat dancers during timeouts and a performance by Latin Jazz artist Tito Puente Jr. during player introductions. The website, www.nba.com/enebea, is the best part of the NBA’s Hispanic marketing strategy. It is a resource that is available every day, covering the league in Spanish. A true marketing initiative must be a consistent focus, not an isolated event.

The Miami Heat are a shining example of this. Eric Woolworth, President of Business Operations for the Heat, said “Because Miami has the largest Hispanic fan base in the NBA, for us, every night is a Latin night.” Of all the teams that participated in Noche Latina, the Miami Heat appeared to be the most organized. The Heat had the most information about their Noche Latina events posted on their English language website in comparison with other NBA teams. For Noche Latina to be truly meaningful across markets, all teams should promote Noche Latina by following the standard set by the Heat.

The NBA and some of its teams made some other smaller mistakes with the promotion. The Denver Nuggets and Golden State Warriors were not designated to participate in the event despite the fact that both Denver and the Bay Area have significant Hispanic/Latino populations. 34% of Denver County is Hispanic, along with 20% of the state of Colorado. The Bay Area has a Hispanic population of nearly 22%. All these figures exceed the national average. The Houston Rockets promoted Noche Latina on their website in the week prior to their event on March 30th. An image of Rockets forward and Argentina native Luis Scola graced the Rockets’ website. Luis Scola fits in with the theme of Noche Latina but exemplifies a classic mistake made by brands in Hispanic marketing initiatives-assuming that all Spanish language speakers are culturally similar. The vast majority of Houston’s Hispanic population are of Mexican ancestry. Mexico and Argentina are immensely different culturally. As a result, the presence of Luis Scola in promotions for Noche Latina is unlikely to sway Mexican-Americans additionally towards the NBA since Scola would be perceived as differently culturally by the majority of the target market.  However, it would be difficult to market Mexican-American players in cities with significant Mexican-American populations. Only one player in the NBA fits the bill for that: Eduardo Najera with the Dallas Mavericks. Najera has never been a star player during the course of his 10 year NBA career.

The NBA loses the most amount of credibility on Noche Latina with the home team jerseys. Home teams jerseys feature “El” and “Los” before the team name. For example, the Los Angeles Lakers have "Los Lakers" on the front of their home jersey instead of the usual "Lakers" and the Miami Heat are "El Heat" instead of the usual "Heat". The NBA apparently does this because they believe this is how teams are referred to in casual Spanish conversation, which is linguistically correct. However, this is not likely to resonate in Hispanic communities and could be perceived as insulting. Just because an "El" and "Los" is in front of the team name for one evening, that does not make the team any more authentically Hispanic.

Since this promotion is likely to be back next season, it would be wise of the NBA to think of ways to make this promotional event more meaningful. They are off to a good start with many of the pre, post and in-game festivities. The first corrective action that the league must take is to remove the “El” and “Los” from the home team jerseys. They must also add Denver and Golden State as markets for the event. Teams should be leveraging technology in similar ways to promote the event. One new and simple suggestion that I would have for the teams that participate would be to do the starting lineup introductions in Spanish. It would create a more authentic Latin American experience that transcends the cultures of the various Hispanic subgroups.

Ultimately, for the NBA to be successful in marketing to Hispanics, they need to shift their thinking away from one night a year of focused Hispanic marketing to a concentrated effort of making Hispanic marketing a part of everyday marketing. NBA.com in Spanish is one of the best things that the league has done so far in this regard. Further community outreach would also be a positive. Strong market research and implementation of marketing initiatives desired by Hispanic/Latino fans are both essential to the league being successful in attracting new fans and maintaining relationships with existing ones. The Miami Heat organization understands this principle and their actions could serve as a blueprint for the rest of the league.

  • Great article. Interesting points.
    I agree with pretty much everything you say, except for the “El/Los” thing & the Intros in Spanish.
    The majority of Hispanics that follow the NBA are actually High Acculturation. And one big thing going on with these folks is this idea of retroacculturation (the desire to have a closer tie to your roots). I think the “El/Los” addition to the Jerseys is actually a fun way to give that nod to the culture. It also sends a pretty big message: you’ve changed the game. And Hispanics will dig that.
    The intros in Spanish—meh. Again, most fans are high acculturation, so they’ll probably get a bit lost themselves. Just look at TV viewership among Hispanics: quite a bit of english going on! Here’s some back of the napkin math to frighten you a bit: http://bit.ly/bzwpfq
    But hey, kudos to NBA for doing anything at all! They’ve probably realized that a 15% Hispanic fan base is actually an underindex (given that 20% of folks 16-25 are Hispanic…and that’s the age-range that digs the game–I’m guessing)