One of the more interesting stories to come out of the NFL this year is Mark Sanchez, the rookie quarterback for los Jets de Nueva York. After a few bumps in the middle of the season, he magically led his team to the AFC Championship game, only to fall to los Potros de Indianápolis Sunday. But if his success continues, he could be the thing the NFL has been looking for…an in with the “untapped” Latino market. (It’s always about money, no?)
The NFL has been champing at the bit for a while now to interest Latinos in their dominant sports and business brand. Early last decade, the league made a commitment to reaching Spanish-speakers in North America by hiring marketing firm Lumina Americas to help them penetrate this demographic that normally follows fútbol, boxing, and baseball. In their quest, they’ve created NFLatino and a plethora of Spanish-language commercials. They’ve also held several matches in Mexico, including a game in México, D.F. (Mexico City) in 2005 that drew over 100,000 attendees. But for all that, the league has generally lacked high-profile players with a Latino identity—the kind of thing that could ignite passion in the community for the game. But that could change because of the full-blooded Mexican-American Mark Sanchez, who—unlike some other Latino players in the past—proudly wears his heritage on his sleeve.
Sanchez first came to prominence as a player when he was the quarterback at the University of Southern California. As you probably know, USC is located in Los Angeles, which is home to more than 4 1/2 million Latinos, roughly 75% of whom are of Mexican decent. Mark’s good-boy charm and Mexican heritage made him an instant hit with LA Latinos, and his fame even spread south to parts of Mexico. Sanchez eagerly embraced his popularity with the Latino community there by acting as a role model to Latino youth in the area and even briefly wearing a mouthpiece colored with the stripes of the Mexican flag (it proved to be a controversial move). He also worked on boosting his Spanish-language skills while at USC so he could more easily participate in interviews with Spanish-language media.
Can Sanchez build a similar reputation in New York, and even the country as a whole, now that he’s playing with the Jets? Obviously New York also has a huge Latino population, but it’s mostly comprised of Puerto Ricans and Dominicans—folks known mostly for their love of béisbol. It will be interesting to see if he tries to court them the way he did the Mexican community in Southern California. And while I should say at this point that I generally can’t stand the Jets, I have no problem rooting for Sanchez. He seems like a stand-up guy, and you have to respect his hardworking roots and interesting family story. His great-grandfather Nicholas Sánchez, for instance, came to the United States to perform backbreaking work as a fruit picker. His grandfather George settled in the Palo Verde section of Chávez Ravine, only to be displaced when the area was cleared to build Dodger Stadium. Mark’s father is a firefighter and trained his children to excel in everything they do. For instance, the elder Sanchez would practice Mark and his brothers well into the evening by pulling his truck up to the field and running them through drills by the illumination of headlights. Anyway, I wish him success. ¡Viva Sánchez!