The minute that midfielder Marco Fabián entered the Suburban Sports Training Center in Conshohocken one day last month, children and parents flocked to him like ants to a cake crumb.
“¡Marco! ¡Marco, saluda a la familia!” a fan shouted, asking Fabián to wave at a family member watching the soccer star’s entrance over the phone.
At least 300 people — many Mexicans and Brazilians — waited in line for more than an hour for handshakes, photos, and autographs with the newest Latino Union player at a fund-raiser held by Súper Liga, an all-Hispanic soccer league for the Delaware Valley.
Yuan Valcárcel, 37, who drove from Kensington with her two sons, said the new opportunity to watch Fabián play in person — his last team was the German league’s Eintracht Frankfurt — will make the Puerto Rican mother more motivated to make the trek to the Union’s field in Chester.
“I don’t care if they win or lose," she said. "That doesn’t matter, anymore. I just want to go and see Marco.”
It was a sentiment that perfectly encapsulated the hopes of Union executives, who say the Mexican-born player has “accelerated” its recent outreach efforts to engage with Latinos, for whom soccer is a favorite sport. But after 10 seasons of what many say have been fits-and-starts attempts, many wonder: Can Fabián invigorate the Union’s Latino fan base?
Levittown resident Rubén Vásquez, 45, returned to the stadium in April for the first time after a two-year hiatus — a break preceded by a seven-year stint as a one-man marketing machine who started a Union fan club for Latinos. Even he, though, feels doubtful about what the Union’s latest player can do for the team’s connection to the communities.
“I don’t know if Marco is going to make a difference,” Vásquez said. “The Union dropped all its Hispanic players until now."
As for Fabián, audience engagement — although not necessarily solely with Latinos — is one of the main reasons he decided to come to the United States.
“It’s a long-term project with which we are trying to bring more people to fill the stadium, especially on the days that we play at home," he said. "We want people to support us.”
‘I thought others had the same enthusiasm’
When the Union formed nine years ago, people assumed the team would capitalize on the more than 350,000 Hispanics or Latinos living in the five-county area. In many ways, the excitement was immediate for the team ushered into existence by Sons of Ben fans.
Vásquez, a Colombian raised locally, had for years been traveling with friends to New York and Washington to watch MLS soccer or his European favorite, Manchester United. So he was ecstatic to learn Philadelphia would have its own team. And at the beginning, the team included Brazilian, Guatemalan, Colombian, and Mexican players.
“We would call their names," Vásquez said, “so they would get them on the field.”
With players also from Argentina, Costa Rica, Venezuela, Puerto Rico, and Panama, Vásquez was prompted to rename his traveling fan group to La Unión Latina, and began hosting Latino tailgates at every Union home game. When Vásquez started purchasing tickets for more than 200 fans, many of whom were Spanish speakers, he landed on the radar of Union executives.
They wanted to know how much he charged. He wanted to know how to become an official support group, à la Sons of Ben. The team offered discounted tickets to distribute to Latino fans and posted articles and a video on its website about Vásquez’s tailgates.
To officially establish La Unión Latina as an independent support club with its own section, the team would need the signatures of 120 season-ticket holders.
Vásquez created a logo, flags, T-shirts with the names of the countries of origin of team players, and a CD with Latin music to play at the stadium. He visited local restaurants and businesses to talk up the team.
Still, by February 2017, after two months of soliciting signatures (and seven years talking up the team) Vásquez sat with Union executives to share what he had: only 50 committed Latino fans.
“Soccer is in me, and I thought that others had the same enthusiasm I felt, but that wasn’t the case,” Vásquez said. By March, he decided he was not going back.
Solving the disconnect
In 2017, Hispanics accounted for 68 percent of televised soccer viewership in the U.S., according to Nielsen, compared with about 12 percent of all sports. MLS and soccer team websites are the second-most visited sites or apps by U.S. Hispanics.
Yet many local Latinos say they feel a disconnect with the team: The Union doesn’t cater to them, they say. It doesn’t understand their customs or interests.
Fernando Rodríguez, 27, manages a store in the Italian Market that sells soccer balls, cleats, and jerseys, everything from Real Madrid and Juventus to Chivas de Guadalajara. There are no Philadelphia Union products for sale, and Rodríguez has never had a customer ask for any.
Personally, Rodríguez doesn’t like Fabián’s playing style, nor the fact that he used to play on Chivas, the rival of his favorite Mexican team, Club América. But he said he would help promote the Union — if the club made more of an effort to show some cariño, or care and affection, to the Latinos in the area.
It’s clear they don’t, said Carlos Giraldo, a 37-year-old Colombian soccer player and real estate business owner who lives in Northern Liberties. He wasn’t aware Fabián was even playing with the Union this season, a consequence, he said, of the team’s failed outreach efforts.
“It’s obvious that the team has never targeted me in this process," Giraldo said.
He suggested the Union offer family-price packages (it currently has a discounted student rate), Facebook ads tailored to Latinos, and free access to Spanish-language play-by-plays, whether for online, radio, or TV.
Yet, the Union has missed opportunities to connect with Latinos already following the team, said José Carbone, a Venezuelan journalist who has reported from the Union’s press box since the team’s inception.
For instance, there was no Mexican music played for Fabián’s first home game, no Spanish-language announcements made in the stadium or on any of the Union’s social-media channels, he said. (The Union wouldn’t disclose whether it has Latino staffers, citing federal confidentiality regulations, but noted it has a Spanish interpreter in house, and is working with the University of Pennsylvania to get a Portuguese translator.)
“The website used to have a Spanish section, with the games schedule, news about the team and players, a roster, and the option to purchase tickets. It’s not there anymore," Carbone said. "How would you feel if they’d take your section away?”
While attendance at home games has generally gone down since the Union’s second season, the number of ticket buyers who self-identify as Latino has remained the same, at 15 percent, according to the Union’s communications director, although he didn’t offer specific numbers. Still, besides Fabián’s arrival, the team’s executives cited a handful of new ventures aimed at connecting with its Latino fan base:
A four-game broadcasting partnership with Hispanic TV network UniMás to provide Spanish play-by-play announcing.
A May 5 community event at Kennett Square’s Cinco de Mayo celebration, dubbed “Cinco de Marco.”
Adding a Latino academy to its already existing youth program by partnering with Hispanic leagues like Súper Liga.
Offering an office hours program where fans could discuss ideas and concerns with team staff members and executives.
At the same time, Sons of Ben en Español Twitter account, which had been dormant since March 2017, will rise again. This, after Héctor Vega, 30, a Puerto Rican who lives in South Jersey, and John Zapata, 25, a Philly-born Colombian, met with president Matt Gendaszek at the urging of Parceros United — the Latino support group for the MLS Atlanta United team that promotes other soccer teams to bolster their Latino fan base.
For Vega, a season-ticket holder, efforts like these have come late in the game: “It feels like we are being excluded with the way that they market. No wonder the games are so quiet, dry, and flavorless."
Gendaszek acknowledged Sons of Ben doesn’t currently have any Latino leadership. But he feels optimistic about his new relationship with Vega and Zapata.
“This is an initial phase of outreach that we were needing to grow the game of soccer in the Delaware Valley,” Gendaszek said.
Doug Vosik, the team’s marketing director, said executives have met with representatives of the Mexican Consulate and Hispanic Chamber of Commerce to find ways to engage with Latino communities. But he said that focusing on fans’ specific countries of origin isn’t the best outreach strategy.
“I think that a more general approach that is done in an authentic way is more effective than singling out small, individual groups among countries of origin or family legacy,” Vosik said.
That philosophy — of treating Latinos as a “total market” — doesn’t grasp that the communities comprise dozens of countries and customs and even variations of Spanish speakers, according to multicultural branding expert Linda González. In other words, Latinos are not a monolith.
“They know if you are representing their ethnic group respectfully,” she said. “Brands can’t say that they are inclusive [and not recognize] nuances.”
And yet, given the diversity among them, Latinos are the most difficult population group to define, said Joe Favorito, a sports marketing consultant and professor at Columbia University. Because players come and go, he suggested the team invest more in its brand, as strategies shouldn’t be limited to a stadium experience.
For instance, he said, the Union should be present at community festivals, bodegas, restaurants, and award ceremonies, and identify demographic shifts — such as the aging Latino population — and proactively cater to them.
La Unión Latina returns
Vásquez took out a plastic folding table from his SUV, and parked in the same spot he’s occupied since that original tailgate in 2010. Singing aloud to Puerto Rican salsa, he worked with his wife, Gail, to set up the family’s first tailgate of the season: two speakers, two beach chairs, four coolers, a propane gas tank, 10 gallons of water, a large cauldron, and the ingredients for his traditional homemade sancocho.
While cutting carrots, plantains, and corn, he greeted a group of about 45 friends with hugs and kisses, most of them wearing jerseys of the Union and the Colombian national football team.
Vásquez had been there, cooking for five hours, and it was time to serve the soup of meat and root vegetables with rice and pico. Couples danced to bachata music, while others took turns playing the wooden-ridged güiro.
Vásquez had daydreamed about this moment with nervous anticipation and excitement, a long-awaited return to the place and people he loves.
“I’ve come to recognize that this is family and nothing else matters.”