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Are the Phoenix Suns doing enough to tap into booming Latino market?

Daniel Gonzalez
The Republic | azcentral.com

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When the Phoenix Suns played in Mexico City on Saturday, they were not just trying to notch a win against the San Antonio Spurs.

The game in Mexico City, which the Suns lost in overtime 121-119, was part of a larger effort by the NBA to win over Latino fans on both sides of the border.

"Getting a win is my main focus, but it is in a place that doesn't get to see NBA basketball up-close and personal," Suns coach Monty Williams said before the game. "I think that's important, not just to grow the game, but to give young kids and fans an experience. That's the part I look forward to."

The Suns-Spurs match up, a thriller in front of 20,013 fired up fans, was the second NBA game in three days played in Mexico City, and the first time four NBA teams have competed in Mexico in the same season.

The first game took place Thursday, when the Dallas Mavericks beat the Detroit Pistons 122-111 at the 22,300-seat Arena Ciudad de Mexico.

Suns officials say the team has been trying to reach out to Latino fans for years, and they are doubling down on those efforts.

"As an organization, we understand the significance of the Hispanic community in Arizona," Phoenix Suns President and CEO Jason Rowley said in a written statement.  "It's a growing segment of the population locally as well as nationally and our overall approach has been to engage Latino fans in culturally authentic and meaningful ways."  

The team has introduced "Los Suns" social media accounts in Spanish on Instagram and Twitter.

This year, the Suns commissioned Mexican-American artist Lalo Cota to refresh a "Los Suns" mural on the east side of Carly's Bistro in the Roosevelt Row Arts District near downtown Phoenix.

The new Suns mural.

And during a home game Monday at Talking Stick Resort Arena against the Minnesota Timberwolves, players streamed out onto the court wearing newly designed "Los Suns Noche City Edition" uniforms while an announcer introduced players in Spanish. The Suns will sport the new uniforms during Saturday's game against the Spurs in Mexico City, where the Suns last played two games in January 2017.

"There are boundless opportunities down there to help grow our business and continue to establish the Suns as Mexico's NBA team," Rowley said.

Monday's game was one of four Latino-themed nights the Suns will host this year. Home games are broadcast in Spanish on radio station KSUN-AM (1400) and Spanish language TV broadcasts for home games are available on cable TV using the SAP feature.

But the number of Latinos in attendance at Monday's game was sparse on a night that was specifically aimed at catering to Latino fans.

In one cringe-worthy moment, the Suns team mascot, Gorilla, ran out onto the floor dancing to Latin music wearing an over-sized sombrero on his head and a Mexican serape draped around his shoulders painted orange and purple, the team's colors.

Some Latino fans and public relations executives who specialize in the Latino market said they appreciate the efforts by the team to reach out to Latino fans.

But they believe the Suns haven't done enough to tap into the 1.7 million Latinos who live in the metro Phoenix area, home to the 8th largest Hispanic population in the country.

The team now has a lot of catching up to do, they say. They also believe the Suns have failed to capitalize on the Hispanic heritage of two of the team's biggest stars.

"I don't think they reach out enough to the community. The D-backs seem to be more popular among Latinos," said Robert Rivera, 34, of Phoenix, referring to Arizona's Major League Baseball team, the Diamondbacks.

Rivera attended Monday's game with three cousins. He was unaware that the Suns were hosting a Latino-themed event that night. He was also surprised to learn the Suns were flying to Mexico City for a game against the Spurs.

"I didn't know, but you know, that's awesome because they are reaching out not only to the Latino community, but to the Mexican community," Rivera said.

Then came the biggest surprise of all.

Robert Rivera, 34, of Phoenix, far right, with his cousins, Abraham Holguin, 58, center, Armando Lozano, 43, far left, and Sylvia Holguin, 61, at the Suns game on Monday night against the Minnesota Timberwolves. The four cousins are Mexican-Americans and die-hard Suns fans. The Suns are trying to do more to reach out to Latinos in Arizona.

Although Rivera is Mexican-American, and said he has been a Suns fan since "before I was born," he could only name one of the team's two Hispanic players: Ricky Rubio, who scored a team high 25 points with 13 assists in Saturday's loss in Mexico City. The Suns acquired the 29-year-old starting point guard this summer after Rubio signed a 3-year $51 million deal. He was born in Spain.

Ricky Rubio:Estrella de los Phoenix Suns, quiere que más hispanos sigan el basketball

After multiple attempts at guessing the Suns second Latino player, Rivera and his cousins gave up.

How about a hint? He's the Suns biggest star.

"Booker?" Rivera asked in disbelief.

Dec 5, 2019: Phoenix Suns guard Devin Booker reacts during the second half against the New Orleans Pelicans at the Smoothie King Center.

Yes, Booker's mother is of Mexican descent, he was told. Rivera was shocked.

"I didn't know that," Rivera said. "Oh wow, that's awesome."

Booker, who did not play during Saturday's game in Mexico City because of a forearm injury, is one of the NBA's top shooters. In March 2017, the 23-year-old point guard became just the sixth player in NBA history to score 70 points in a game, setting a franchise record.

Yet five years after he was drafted by the Suns after playing one year at the University of Kentucky, many Latino fans remain unaware of his Mexican heritage.

"I had no idea," said Jose Reyes, 28, of Glendale, as he walked through the concourse of Talking Stick Resort Arena with his parents, both natives of Mexico, and his son, Michael Angelo. The 8-year-old could not stop pointing at a giant team photo of the Suns players hung above the concourse and yelling, "Booker! Booker!"

Jose Reyes, 28, of Glendale, with his son, Michael Angelo, 8, who are Mexican-American are longtime Suns fans. But they did not know their favorite player, Devin Booker is of Mexican descent.

Booker told the Phoenix New Times in 2018 that he is the son of an African-American father, Melvin Booker, a former professional basketball player from Mississippi, and a Mexican-American mother, Veronica Gutiérrez, from Michigan, whose father was a native of Nogales, Sonora.

“I’m trying to get more connected in Phoenix with kids who have Mexican heritage,” Booker told the New Times. “All kids need to see someone succeed who came from the same place. … That’s important to me. … Every day I wake up, I know I can affect the next generation.”

But some marketing experts say neither the Suns nor the NBA have done enough to promote Booker's Mexican heritage to connect with Latino fans. 

"Absolutely, that's an opportunity for the Phoenix Suns," said Mario Flores, managing director of Sportivo, a Los Angeles-based Hispanic public relations firm that specializes in sports brands. " ... He's young, a great player, charismatic, his personality shines."

Flores said he is unaware of any other NBA players who are of Mexican American heritage. 

Only about 2% of NBA players are Latino, which translates to 11 players, according to an NPR report. 

Studies show that sports teams can't expand their fan base without reaching out to Latinos, Flores said. Latinos represent 18% of the U.S. population and nearly 33% of Arizona's population, according to U.S. Census data.

"The growth of the market, the growth of business, is going to come from the Latino consumer," Flores said. "The Latino community is going to drive a lot of that growth and brands that aren't doing that are going to miss out."

Some Latino marketing specialists believe the Suns haven't done as well at reaching out to Latino fans as other professional sports teams in the Phoenix market. About 87% of Latinos in Arizona are of Mexican descent, according Pew Research Center. 

"You know who does a tremendous job? The Arizona Diamondbacks. ... They are super ahead of the Suns. They wipe out the Suns when it comes to Latino marketing," said Diana Prieto, owner and president of Ideaz Media, a Scottsdale marketing firm that specializes in the Latino market. "They understand the importance of reaching the Latino market and they have been able to see a huge difference."

@LosDbacks, the Diamondbacks Spanish language Twitter account, for example, has more than 39,900 followers compared to @LosSuns fewer than 6,000 followers.

Los Suns Noche City Edition uniform for the 2019-20 season.

Prieto cited a Hispanic Heritage Day event the Diamondbacks hosted Aug. 31 at Chase Field during a game against the Los Angeles Dodgers. The event featured giveaways, mascots from the 10 Mexican Pacific League teams, and a live concert after the game by the cumbia band, Su Majestad La Brissa, from Sonora, Mexico.

"The stands were packed. Can you imagine the concession sales?" Prieto said.

Suns are trying to make strides

The Suns recognize that they need to do more to reach out to the Latinos if they want to grow the team's fan base, said Christina Gonzalez, marketing and operations director at the Arizona Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.

Twenty-five percent of Hispanic males between 18-49 attended a Suns game in 2015, according to data published by the Arizona Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. That lagged behind 31% of Latino males who said they attended a Diamondbacks baseball game and 35% who attended a Cardinals football game. 

"I think they are doing a fair amount and I think they want to do more," Gonzalez said. 

Among the team's new Latino initiatives is a program launched in 2018 in conjunction with Spanish language television station Univision and the Hispanic chamber that highlights the economic contributions of Hispanic-owned businesses in Arizona.  

Businesses selected for the "Los Suns Small Business MVP" award are recognized during a pregame ceremony on Latino-themed nights and during a 30-second video during the game.

This season the number of businesses to be honored was expanded to four, Gonzalez said. 

On Monday, employees of Del Sol Furniture jumped and screamed while posing with the Gorilla in a VIP suite when the business was announced as a Los Suns MVP.

The Suns also have launched a "Los Suns Business Advisory Council" made up of business and community leaders to develop plans about how to better reach out to Latino fans, Gonzalez said.

"The numbers tell us that the (demographics) are changing and if the Suns or any sports business want to be successful they have to invest in this community because they are the future," Gonzalez said. "If they don’t invest in the Hispanic community, they will be losing out on fans in the future." 

Javier Arce of La Voz contributed to this story.

Reach the reporter at daniel.gonzalez@arizonarepublic.com or at 602-444-8312. Follow him on Twitter @azdangonzalez. Support local journalism. Subscribe to azcentral.com today.