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Root, Root, Root for the Home Team

Interesting story last week in The Dallas Morning News on the struggles F.C. Dallas has had in attracting Mexican fans. In the story, G.M. Michael Hitchcock said he wasn’t interested in taking advantage of the new designated player rule (which allowed the L.A. Galaxy to sign David Beckham) to sign a fading Latino star just to increase attendance. “We want true FC Dallas fans, and we think we are building that,” he told the paper.

Never mind that when the Chicago Fire announced that it was signing Mexican superstar Cuauhtemoc Blanco 6,000 people showed up at the press conference, or that the Galaxy (the only team in the MLS besides FC Dallas that continually turns a profit) estimates that 50 percent of its fans are Hispanic, or that there are an estimated 1.2 million people of Mexican descent in the DFW area.

As the DMN story notes, part of the problem is that Latino fans are loyal to teams from their home countries, and continue to follow them even decades after arriving here. Which is why it makes sense to sign aging players from leagues in Mexico and other Latin American countries.

The L.A. Galaxy understands the importance of catering to the Latino fan base. In a recent story on SI.com on the much-hyped arrival of David Beckham, Galaxy president Alexi Lalas estimates that 50 percent of its fans are Hispanic. Tim Leiweke, president of the team’s ownership group, says that with all due respect to Beckham’s buddy Tom Cruise, the Galaxy is much more concerned with how Beckham’s arrival will be perceived by Latino fans. “We build our core around the Hispanic community.”

No disrespect to Hoops fans, because there is a small group of hardcore FC Dallas supporters, but anyone who has been to a Houston Dynamo game knows the atmosphere there is decidedly different. More rabid soccer fan and less suburban soccer mom. One has to think that part of the reason for this is that for whatever reason, the Latino community has more fully embraced the Dynamo.

(As a recent Houston Chronicle story noted, the Dynamo has two organized groups of fans:

“the Texian Army, mostly Anglo, mostly English-speaking soccer fans, and El Batallón, a Spanish-speaking, pan-American group fond of songs…. In two years, the groups have grown to more than 500, the majority of them men in their 20s through middle age. They're a lot like Latin American hinchadas or European fan clubs, except in Houston, languages and traditions have mixed. At any given time, the white guys have broken into a song from South America, and the Latinos are using traditional English sports chants.

When they tailgate, they tailgate next to each other at the south end of the stadium. That's when they unfurl their flags - yards and yards of orange fabric, sewn, taped or glued to 8-foot plastic pipes - say their prayers and practice their chants.”)

It’s not like FC Dallas couldn’t use a shot in the arm. As the FC Dallas soccer blog The Offside notes, attendance at Hoops games is about 14,947, slightly below the leage average (15,089); and that contrary to popular belief the team has struggled to draw fans since it moved from Fair Park to Frisco. There’s no doubt this has something to do with the demographics of both areas.

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Then there’s this: In 1996, the team averaged 16,011 fans per game, still best in its history. It wasn’t a coincidence that Mexican striker Hugo Sanchez was on that team.

It seems that if soccer is ever going to take off in America, the time is now. A player like Beckham (who is as popular as Jordan ever was globally) only comes along once a generation. His arrival has put the league in the spotlight. On top of that, hockey, once America’s 4th sport (after the NFL, the NBA and the MLB) is fading into oblivion (a soccer game on Univision last December between two Mexican clubs got better ratings in the U.S. than the 2007 Stanley Cup finals). But for the MLS to reach the level of popularity hockey once claimed, it’s got to do everything it can to cater to the Latino population here, which is growing every day.

And the Hoops should do the same. --Jesse Hyde

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