The Los Angeles Lakers have played just nine games so far this season — and at 1-8, they're already off to their worst start ever. But off the court, the Lakers have become the leader in something the NBA has been working on for almost 20 years: courting Latino fans.
The Lakers are a perfect fit for the job. First off, despite the last few seasons, they're still 16-time NBA champions, the home of legends like Kobe Bryant, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Magic Johnson.
But just as importantly, there are more than 10 million people living in Los Angeles County, and nearly half are Hispanic.
A poll conducted by ESPN back in 2009 found that the Lakers were the favorite team of U.S. Latinos. More recently, the website FiveThirtyEight estimated that nearly a quarter of all Lakers fans were Hispanic — the second-highest share in the league.
The Lakers En Español
More than half the 30 NBA teams broadcast at least some of their games in Spanish, over the radio. But the Lakers are the only team to have a dedicated Spanish-language TV channel and broadcast crew: TWC Deportes.
It's the real deal. Fifteen minutes before tipoff, play-by-play announcer Adrián García Márquez is down on the court, prepping for the game. He and color commentator Francisco Pinto are taking turns doing live pregame spots from the court. They're surrounded by producers with a camera and lights setup that's just as elaborate as the two English-language crews across the court.
Back in 2011, the Lakers signed a broadcast deal with Time Warner Cable unlike any other in basketball: they'd make two Lakers channels, instead of just one. There's the English-language TWC SportsNet, and the Spanish-language TWC Deportes. Both channels carry any Lakers game, home or away, that hasn't been picked up by a national broadcaster like ESPN or ABC. And these days, with the Lakers' struggles, national pickup is happening less and less.
Deportes hired García Márquez right off the bat. He grew up in San Diego, the American-born kid of Mexican immigrants.
"My dad was kind of strict with, 'Habla español.' You know, 'Speak Spanish.' But we were allowed to say Padres and Chargers — even though Padres is technically a word in español, padres, right? — but you know, Padres, Chargers, sports stuff we could speak in English."
The result: a bicultural guy making a bicultural broadcast. García Márquez uses words like "jumpercito" — a little jumper, four or five feet from the basket — and "threepotitlan," a play on the phrase "three-point land" and the name Tenochtitlan, the Aztec capital where Mexico City is today.
Targeting "Bicultural" Latinos
Hispanic marketing expert Heidi Pellerano says this bicultural sound is very purposeful.
She's with a consulting firm called Wasserman Media Group. She says a lot of companies make the mistake of trying to reach Hispanics, but with no nuance.
"When you go market your product, do you market your product the same way to a boomer that you would do [to] a millennial?" she asks. "Would you market your product the same way to a male or a female? No. The answer's always no, no, no."
She's Hispanic herself, and used to work for the NBA back when they started these targeted efforts in the 1990s.
"The NBA really did a lot of homework and research, and honed it that their sweet spot was gonna be the more bicultural and acculturated Hispanic consumer," she explains.
A good example of that might be the jerseys a handful of teams trot out every March, for "Noche Latina" events, with team names like "El Heat" and "Los Lakers."
Some Latino fans take offense at those.
"That's not just lazy, it's insulting and condescending. It's the sporting equivalent of the guy who pretends to speak Spanish by saying something like, 'Yo speako el Englisho,' " wrote Rafael Noboa y Rivera earlier this year.
But Nelson Guevara disagrees. He's a 23-year-old Lakers fan, born and raised in LA County.
"A lot of companies go straight to the stereotype. They go straight to the Aztec warrior," he says. "[The NBA] didn't do that. They just took the language — which is how we say 'Los Lakers' anyways — and they ran with that."
Guevara is also the American-born child of immigrants. His parents came to LA from El Salvador back in the 1970s.
He grew up speaking Spanish at home and English at school. In other words, he's exactly who the NBA is after.
He can tell. And it feels a little weird, he told me. But he's benefiting from it too. His family used to have to listen to games on the Spanish radio, or just watch the English TV broadcast on mute. But now, they can watch the games together in Spanish on TWC Deportes.
On the other hand, it wasn't the marketing that hooked his parents on the Lakers, he says. It was the winning. When his parents came to the U.S., the Lakers were huge. They won the NBA championship five times in the '80s.
But now that the Lakers are so bad, Nelson wonders: "It's gonna be interesting to see how many fans become [LA] Clippers fans."
And maybe he's onto something: for the first time in years, more people are coming to see the Clippers — home and away — than the 16-time champion Lakers.
ARUN RATH, HOST:
The Los Angeles Lakers have played just nine games so far, but it's already their worst start ever. They're just 1-8. There is one thing, though, the Lakers are doing right, and that's winning Latino fans. The media research company Nielsen says 12 percent of the NBA's overall fan base is Hispanic. But according to the website FiveThirtyEight, the Lakers have almost double that. NPR's Becky Sullivan has the story.
BECKY SULLIVAN, BYLINE: Before tipoff at the Staples Center, the Lakers' home-court in downtown Los Angeles, the lights are bright and the music is loud.
(SOUNDBITE OF BASKETBALL GAME ANNOUNCEMENT)
SULLIVAN: More than half of the 30 NBA teams broadcast at least some of their games in Spanish, but they're radio only. Only the Lakers have a dedicated TV broadcast crew and channel all about the Lakers, all in Spanish. And it is the real deal.
ADRIAN GARCIA MARQUEZ: Pre-game, talk to the producer and then we're up for pre-game Lakers...
SULLIVAN: This is Adrian Garcia Marquez, la voz de los Lakers. We're standing courtside near the basket, next to a full-blown camera and lights set-up. This is the third season where Garcia Marquez and color commentator Francisco Pinto have gotten to call almost every Lakers' game. A few minutes later, the teams are on the court, ready for tipoff, and Garcia Marquez goes on.
GARCIA MARQUEZ: (Speaking Spanish).
SULLIVAN: In 2011, the Lakers signed a deal with Time Warner Cable, the first of its kind. It set up two TV channels for Lakers' games instead of just one. Along with the English-language SportsNet, there'd also be the Spanish-language Time Warner Cable Deportes. They immediately hired Adrian Garcia Marques. He grew up in San Diego, the American-born kid of Mexican immigrants.
ADRIAN GARCIA MARQUEZ: My dad was kind of strict with habla espanol, you know, speak Spanish. But we were allowed to say Padres and Chargers, even though Padres is technically a word in español, padres, right? But, you know, Padres, Chargers, sports stuff, we could speak in English.
SULLIVAN: The result is a Spanish-language broadcast that is clearly bicultural. Garcia Marquez uses words like jumpercito - a little jump shot, four, five feet from the basket - or this call from the game recap on Deportes.
GARCIA MARQUEZ: (Speaking Spanish).
SULLIVAN: Kobe Bryant from threepotitlan (ph). That's a play on the phrase three-point land and Tenochtitlan, the Aztec capital where Mexico City is today.
Heidi Pellerano is a Hispanic marketing expert and she says this bicultural sound is totally on purpose. She says a lot of companies make a mistake when they say let's reach out to Hispanics. There's no nuance. But basketball's efforts are more targeted.
HEIDI PELLERANO: The NBA really did a lot of homework and research, and honed in that their sweet spot was going to be the more bicultural and acculturated Hispanic consumer.
SULLIVAN: One famous example of this bicultural marketing are those jerseys that say El Heat or Los Lakers. Some Latino fans take offense at this. They say do you really think we wouldn't understand El Calor as The Heat or Los Lagadores are The Lakers?
NELSON GUEVARA: A lot of companies go straight to the stereotype.
SULLIVAN: Nelson Guevara is a 23-year-old Lakers' fan.
GUEVARA: And they didn't do that. They just took the language, which is how we say 'Los Lakers' anyways, and they ran with that.
SULLIVAN: Nelson's lived in L.A. County his whole life. He's the kid of immigrants, too - these ones from El Salvador - and he grew up speaking Spanish at home and English in school. So in other words, he's exactly who the NBA is after. And he can tell.
It feels a little weird, he says, but he's benefiting from it, too. His family used to have to listen to the games on the Spanish radio or just watch the English broadcast on mute. But now they can watch the games together in Spanish on Deportes. On the other hand, Nelson says, it wasn't the marketing that hooked his parents on Laker basketball. It was all the winning the team was doing when his folks immigrated back in the '70s. But now that the Lakers are so bad, he says...
GUEVARA: I guess, it's going to be interesting to see how many fans become Clipper fans now.
SULLIVAN: That's the Los Angeles Clippers. And maybe Nelson is on to something. For the first time in years, more people are going to see the Clippers at home games and away than the 16-time champs - the Lakers. Becky Sullivan, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.