A season-long ‘Copa’ for Minor League Baseball

Latino passion for baseball is not recent. It dates back to the 1860s, when Cuban students like Esteban “Steve” Bellán, the first Latino to play professionally, brought the game back from the United States as part of what they learned in studies. But they did more than transport the game. They made baseball their national pastime and actively shared it across the Caribbean and Latin America. Indeed, for generations, Latinos have arrived from Cuba, Dominican Republic, México, Puerto Rico, Venezuela and other places in Latin America with baseball already a part of who we are and what we celebrate.

This year, Minor League Baseball has organized the Copa de la Diversión — loosely translated as the Fun Cup —a season-long competition among 33 minor league teams in the U.S. aimed at capturing the passion Latinos have for baseball. The Copa moves beyond the once-a-season approach of an exhibition game; rather, it seeks to engage the local Latino communities in 33 minor league towns with outreach efforts, special gameday promotions, and collaboration with local Latino social organizations on community improvement.

A Local Transformation

In 2017, three teams — the Charlotte Knights, Las Vegas 51s and Visalia Rawhide — identified significant opportunities to engage their Latino fans and created a pilot program to enhance the ballpark experience for them. All created a regionally specific alter-ego on the field and created programming for their Latino fans. In so doing, the clubs sought to connect with the history of Latinos in their community.

According to Kurt Hunzeker, MiLB’s vice president of marketing strategy and research, the 2017 program exceeded expectations. Attendance was significantly up at all three parks and the corresponding auctions of the new-look jerseys raised thousands of dollars for local charities.

Based on the success of the “It’s Fun to Be a Fan” — Es Divertido Ser Un Fan — marketing campaign in 2017, MiLB decided to expand its Latino outreach in 2018. When the success of the 2017 campaign was presented at the winter meetings, Hunzeker noted that teams were lining up to participate in the next generation of the program.

In mid-February, MiLB announced its new initiative — Copa de la Diversión. This year’s program has expanded from three teams to 33 from coast-to-coast — but the initiative isn’t only about teams wearing a uniform bearing a Spanish translation of the team’s name.

Each team will be required to have bilingual staff, multicultural representation in its sales and marketing offices and provide a better representation of its Latino fan base and the local community in the music, food and merchandise at the park.

El Cambio

La Vida Baseball spoke with Michael Byrnes, president/general manager of the Oklahoma City Dodgers — or, as they will be known during the Copa, Cielo Azul — about his team’s participation.

“At the Los Angeles Dodgers’ affiliate reception at spring training, a couple of their programmed activities and guest speakers really focused on the transition for not only the Latin players heading somewhere like Ogden, Utah but also collegiate players moving from college to the professional game,” Byrnes said.

Byrnes is aware that minor league teams have to be proactive in bringing Latinos to the ballpark, and to make them feel at home. Oklahoma City is one of the fastest-growing Latino markets in the United States. Moreover, the Dodgers’ organization on the whole advocates reaching out to Latino fans.

“We’ve had intent to engage the Latino population in Oklahoma City for a few years now,” Byrnes continued. “For three years, we’ve had bilingual sales reps and been in the community. The local Hispanic Chamber wanted us to be more involved, and we’ve been working on that. So when Kurt [Hunzeker] called, it was easy for us to say yes.”

“There’s a market we haven’t been serving the right way enough,” he said. “We need to use this as a tool to ask how to serve the Latino community better.”

With that in mind, the OKC Dodgers held a series of focus groups for 20 Latino leaders from the local community to provide some information about the new program. The Dodgers shared concepts for their new look and new food items and then “shut up and listened,” according to Byrnes.

“The point was for us to have conversations about deepening relationships,” Byrnes said. “It was such a healthy process. We have developed great friendships with people we met for the first time because of an introduction. These stakeholders are now attending all of our events and giving us great feedback and becoming friends of the organization.”

“We want to be more than a different jersey on the field,” Byrnes said.

Creating the ‘Copa’

Much like the minor league teams affiliated with organized baseball, one can find significant Latino communities in small towns across the Midwest, such as Iowa, Nebraska, and Oklahoma, to places throughout the Nueva South, in Alabama, Georgia, and the Carolinas. The continued spread of Latino communities in search of jobs and opportunities makes these locales Latinos now call home new places for minor league teams to act on the passion of Latinos for baseball.

Participating in the 2018 event: Albuquerque Isotopes, Bowie Baysox, Brooklyn Cyclones, Charlotte Knights, Corpus Christi Hooks, Daytona Tortugas, Durham Bulls, El Paso Chihuahuas, Eugene Emeralds, Everett AquaSox, Greenville Drive, Hartford Yard Goats, Hillsboro Hops, Inland Empire 66ers of San Bernardino, Kane County Cougars, Kannapolis Intimidators, Lake Elsinore Storm, Las Vegas 51s, Lehigh Valley IronPigs, Memphis Redbirds, Oklahoma City Dodgers, Omaha Storm Chasers, Pawtucket Red Sox, Rancho Cucamonga Quakes, Round Rock Express, Sacramento River Cats, Salt Lake Bees, San Antonio Missions, San Jose Giants, Stockton Ports, Tulsa Drillers, Visalia Rawhide and Winston-Salem Dash.

They’ll all have new monikers — and logos on their caps and jerseys. La Vida Baseball has a first-look at the logos for the teams, which are being announced today (March 20).

The Copa de la Diversión, will feature a 160-game series beginning on April 8, in Round Rock, Texas. The winner of the national series will take home a 3-foot tall Copa de la Diversión trophy, which will then tour all 33 participating cities — a tour called the Gira de la Copa, or the Cup Tour.

You can view the full schedule of games at MiLB.com.

Inset Image: Charlotte Knights Facebook