Anna Gallegos became an NHL fan largely by chance.
“My older brother and I used to watch a lot of sports, and we stumbled upon the final game in the Stanley Cup playoffs between the Dallas Stars and Buffalo Sabers [in 1999],” Gallegos recalled. “I must have been about 8 years old. For some reason, the speed of the players captivated me.”
She’s been hooked ever since.
But when it comes to Latinos, Gallegos will be among a small minority tuning in to watch this year’s Stanley Cup. Demographics show that 9.4 percent of the NHL’s fan base is Hispanic. It’s important to note that’s just among the league’s fans, not 9.4 percent of Latinos overall. And hockey is pretty close to the bottom of the list of sports Hispanics participate in, both as players and spectators, Only one percent of Latinos have watched a regular-season NHL game in the last year, according to data from Scarborough Research.
“From the statistics and numbers that I’ve seen, NHL just does not resonate among Latino consumers and Latino sports fans,” said Mario Flores, managing director of Sportivo, a Latino-focused sports public relations and marketing agency.
Probably more than any other U.S. professional sport, hockey faces an uphill battle for breaking into the Hispanic market. The almost nonexistent presence of hockey in Latin America and barriers of entry to play (such as lack of rinks in many minority neighborhoods and cost to participate) are two huge obstacles.
Then there is the undeniable fact that the NHL – both on and off the ice – is a predominately white sport. As of October 2011, 43 of the NHL’s 720 players, or 6 percent, were minorities. Of those players, only four were Hispanic.
Some of these challenges are easier for the NHL to overcome than others. The NHL does not have a specific Hispanic marketing campaign. However, it seeks to reach the Hispanic community through NHL Diversity, which oversees overall minority outreach as a part of the NHL Foundation.
NHL Diversity, through its “Hockey is for Everyone” initiative, seeks to introduce the sport to minority kids who wouldn’t otherwise have the opportunity to participate in hockey. According to NHL vice president of community and diversity programming Ken Martin, the NHL reaches about 45,000 kids each year through these programs.
The youth outreach efforts, combined with an increasing number of minorities playing professionally, are “making the sport more visible to Hispanic populations,” Martin said.
You may see some of the more acculturated, assimilated Latinos who might follow hockey or go to a games, but prior to first generation, there’s really no [cultural] relevancy there. … It’s still a sport that I quite honestly don’t see breaking into the Hispanic sports fan’s psyche.
This year’s Stanley Cup should provide an even larger bump as it features a team from the nation’s largest Hispanic market (the Los Angeles Kings) as well as one of the few Hispanic players currently in the league (Kings defenseman Alec Martinez).
Martin openly acknowledges the NHL is not where it ultimately hopes to be as far as diversity, but takes pride in the league’s approach as it works to achieve those goals.
Overcoming the cultural divide poses a much larger challenge.
“Hockey is just not a sport that has been played from the Mexican border and down,” Flores said. “You may see some of the more acculturated, assimilated Latinos who might follow hockey or go to a games, but prior to first generation, there’s really no [cultural] relevancy there. … It’s still a sport that I quite honestly don’t see breaking into the Hispanic sports fan’s psyche.”
That’s not to say the league couldn’t try to tap into the Hispanic market more actively.
“It would be interesting to see the league, and particularly teams in locales with a high percentage of Latinos in its population, be more aggressive in seeking to attract that segment of the population,” said Dr. Jorge Iber, chair of Texas Tech University’s history department and co-author of the book Latinos in U.S. Sport.
A recent Harris Interactive poll supports his suggestion. The survey found that of fans who follow more than one sport, 26 percent of Hispanics list professional football as their favorite sport, compared to just 20 percent for baseball, a sport typically associated with Latino fans. There’s virtually no data on Hispanics who identify hockey as their favorite sport.
Gallegos is proof that reaching Hispanic fans is possible, but she also serves to illustrate how far the NHL still has to go. Asked how many other Latino hockey fans she knows, she didn’t have to take long to tally up her answer.
That’s a start, but when it comes to the Hispanic demographic, the NHL has some work to do reach the masses.