Two weeks ago, BBVA Compass Stadium played host to an international doubleheader with Honduras and El Salvador playing their final group stage matches in the 2013 Gold Cup. Houston once again proved it's a perfect place to host meaningful international soccer. It also proved the city continues to be a perfect place to bring teams from Latin American countries.
For years, the Mexican National Team has been coming to Houston - normally occupying Reliant Stadium at a near capacity crowd. Mexico has so much support in Houston that regardless of the opponent - even the United States - Mexico is always the home team. Always.
In Monday night's doubleheader, El Salvador faced Haiti in the first match, while Honduras played Trinidad and Tobago in the nightcap. The soccer and officiating on the night could have been better, but regardless an announced sellout crowd of 21,783 took in the action.
As kickoff approached for the first match, news of overwhelming support and a possible sellout started to hit social media. A few people posted some pictures of the scene outside the stadium as folks clad in mostly blue and white made their way to the walk up ticket booths and the gates.
The massive support for the match got me thinking about an age old issue. Why can't the Houston Dynamo do a better job of tapping into the Hispanic soccer fans in Houston?
We're talking about a BBVA Compass Stadium sellout on a Monday night.
I get that fact that we're talking about fan support for two countries, not just a club like the Dynamo. I also get that the match offered not one, but two of the biggest Hispanic demographics in Houston - Salvadorians and Hondurans - a chance to see their country play. I guess in a sense it should sell out. That was likely the expectation when organizers chose this city for these two particular games.
But that still makes me think the Dynamo are missing something about the community they are in. Houston is Hispanic - and soccer support proves it.
When you take a look at the Dynamo organization from top down, there is a common theme. It's in need of a more Hispanic presence. Listen, I'm not saying the President of Business Operations has to speak Spanish; in fact, Chris Canetti has worked wonders in Houston since Oliver Luck was here and I am a big supporter of Canetti and the job he's done. And I'm not necessarily saying that only Hispanics can understand or sell to other Hispanics.
But there is an issue.
In a city like Houston, which according to this report has the third most Hispanics in the United States, a Latino presence in an organization is a must. For soccer, I'd say it's more important than most businesses. Soccer is the "world's game" and Americans are just in the beginning stages of embracing it.
Monday's attendance makes one thing very clear. There is a large Latino community that is willing to attend soccer matches in Houston. But even with a Honduran superstar in Oscar Boniek Garcia, the Houston Dynamo have made little impact on truly capturing these folks or even Honduran fans for that matter.
Some say that signing a "big" Mexican player would change that. That's not really the point here and if people think an individual player is the answer, they are focusing on the wrong thing. Let's say someone like Pablo Barrera signed for Houston a couple of years ago instead of Boniek. Barrera at that time was a Mexican National Team star and in my opinion was a perfect fit for the right side of the Houston midfield. The international star was solid in Mexico, but was coming off of an unsuccessful run in Europe. He would have done wonders for the Dynamo on the pitch.
If Houston had signed him would they have seen an increase in ticket sales? I doubt anything earth shattering. Depending on his success on the field, Barrera could have made a small positive impact on the business side and he would have likely have had solid marketability to the large Mexican population in Houston.
I use the words "could have" because the outcome depends on the way the Dynamo would have handled this hypothetical situation. Boniek has been with Houston for what will be a season and a half and while I won't pretend to know the extent that he is used in terms of player appearances, etc - but the fact that fans cannot really find information on the Dynamo in Spanish truly limits the reach of the star midfielder and the club.
The real issue simply starts with the content that is available to these fans I believe the Dynamo are overlooking. If Spanish speaking fans cannot find information on the local team, how will their interest in the organization grow? If they wanted to get to know these players, where do they go?
When is the last time the Dynamo website ran a Spanish language story? April 26. Prior to that, the Dynamo "en español" site had three stories that were actually from FutbolMLS.com linked on the page.
On April 1, the Dynamo website put up a post regarding the Academy U-18's being eliminated in the Dallas Cup in Spanish. The post was likely translated - which to be honest is a start.
According to the United States Census Bureau, Houston has a Hispanic population of 43.8% (2010). Additionally, the report says that 45.8% of Houstonians speak a language other than English in the household. Both of these numbers have greatly increased in recent years.
Earlier this season, I noticed something another MLS club was doing that made me think ‘why doesn't Houston do this.' Chivas USA might not be the best organization to use as an example, but try to keep an open mind.
Beginning sometime this season, Chivas USA decided to use bilingual communication for nearly every bit of content the club releases. That includes press releases, social media communication, website design, and all articles related to the team.
"I think [Chivas USA] going fully bilingual this season has been probably their best PR move in quite some time," Alicia Ratterree told me. Alicia is the Managing Editor of SB Nation's Chivas USA Blog, The Goat Parade.
In addition to their written communication, Alicia tells me the in game announcements are bilingual as well.
Now before we get too far, I am well aware of Chivas USA's actions that have taken place over the last year. Sadly, poor ownership has basically taken this team to its lowest point in history and the club's simple existence seems in jeopardy at times. But that doesn't mean everything they do is wrong. Sure it appears the organization is doing everything it can to alienate not only English speaking fans, but non Mexican-American players and personnel too.
But this particular change from English content to bilingual content is something Chivas USA got right.
With the growing diversity in the United States, we're entering an age where more and more things are becoming multicultural and multiple languages are used. In Houston, Spanish has become second nature to most people, things, and places. In nearly every business in Houston, Spanish is now longer an optional service, it's a basic necessity. Most businesses have to print any material they offer in both languages.
Why not Houston Dynamo content?
Are some fans turned off by so many business offering bilingual services? Sure they are. But the same could be said for personnel or player changes a soccer team executes, opponents for friendlies, spikes in ticket prices, etc. We as fans have to find something to discuss (and/or complain about) - and language is often near the top of the list.
In terms of how cities are becoming more and more multicultural and people not adapting to change, Alicia added, "There are neighborhoods all over America where this is the case, not only with Spanish, but other languages. This is just my opinion, but if people are going to be bothered because headlines are in English and another language, they are just looking to be bothered."
I agree. Especially regarding residents of the city of Houston.
So in a larger Hispanic setting, is marketing bilingually important? I think so and I think the Dynamo are missing out on a large majority of Hispanic fans because of it.
Does this instantly raise the attendance from 18K to 22K? Of course not. Does the base of roughly 12K season ticket holders immediately jump to 15K or 20K because your website is offered in Spanish? That would be a ridiculous statement.
The point is it's a start.
In seven years, the Houston Dynamo have worked wonders in terms of moving the dial of soccer interest in Houston. Winning championships help, but year over year Chris Canetti has successfully run the front office and Dominic Kinnear has consistently put together a championship caliber team.
In terms of online content, the Dynamo organization does a great job - in English. Darrell Lovell is the MLSsoccer.com beat writer assigned to Houston and the team announced the addition of Tom Dart and Sebastian Salazar earlier this year to beef up their coverage across print and Dynamo TV , Houston's YouTube channel. The quality these three have provided is outstanding and no doubt will continue to be.
But why can't the Dynamo add a couple of Spanish writers? Or start with someone who is qualified to translate all of their English language content to Spanish? If they are seriously invested in making an impact and translations are used, they have to be accurate.
One of the challenges that Chivas USA has had according to Alicia is the quality of the translations. "Sometimes they are Google Translate quality and that's not good enough for a professional sports organization."
Capturing a wider audience isn't only relevant in Major League Soccer. Another example of a team that is doing "something different" to capture a multicultural audience can be seen south of the border in the newly sponsored Liga Bancomer MX. The Mexican league welcomed a team in Tijuana just a few short years ago and since they've won a Mexican championship and valiantly competed in the prestigious Copa Libertadores.
The club boasts a handful of Mexican American players, including United States National Team forward Herculez Gomez. Last year, the club launched an official English language website and social media campaign.
It's truly an innovative approach that is unheard of in Mexico. Tijuana is roughly twenty short minutes from San Diego, but regardless the team sees a value to provide English language content to its fans. I wouldn't doubt that with continued success on the field, maintaining their Mexican American persona and their strong bilingual marketing the Xolos could wind up being one of the most popular Mexican clubs - not only in Mexico, but in the U.S.
These are just two examples of ways to market in a highly multicultural atmosphere, and it would be ignorant to say these are full proof or guarantee results. The point I am simply trying to make is in Houston there is a large number of folks being missed. Some important folks that care about soccer and have no idea who the Houston Dynamo are.
And it's not their fault.
I'd go as far as to say there were probably some fans in BBVA Compass Stadium last Monday that don't know what team plays there. Perhaps after leaving the game, they did a Google search for the stadium or Houston Dynamo.
If they prefer their content in Spanish, they probably gave up the search.