Bench warmers: their heart is in the game, but even Mexico's top baseball squad suffers for its sport.
Despite being reigning champions and Mexico's most successful baseball team ever with 13 pennants, the Diablos still play most of their home games to crowds of less than 5,000, paying as little as US$1 a ticket and no more than $7. Comparatively, U.S. teams charge at least $4 for the cheap seats and up to $55 for infield seats, garnering twice to three times the fans per game for even last-place teams.
Breaking even is a struggle. Television fees currently bring zero to the club, a far cry from commercially developed sports such as Major League Baseball in the United States or Champions League soccer in Europe. The Diablos have signed a television contract this season with MVS, one of Mexico's largest pay-TV outfits, but MVS will not pay a single peso for the rights. Instead, the broadcaster and the baseball club will see what ratings the Devil's home games achieve before deciding whether to renew the contract for the following season and, if so, on what terms. "You buy a stake in a Mexican baseball team for love, because it is in your heart, not for business reasons," says Diablos business manager Eduardo de la Cerda.
Baseball may be Mexico's second sport after soccer, but it is a poor second. The concluding match of the Mexican national soccer league championship, between Toluca and Morelia, pulled in a 38% share of the country's television audience. By comparison, the last game of the most recent World Series, between U.S. teams San Francisco Giants and the Anaheim Angels, pulled in just a 13% share on Mexican television.
Your name here. Probably the most important source of income for the team is sponsorship. Players are covered in logos for Banamex bank, Sol beer, telecom giant Telmex and Coca-Cola. Sponsors plus ticket sales, souvenirs and ballpark food and drink concessions provide 85% of the team's income.
The team rents its stadium, the 26,000-seat Estadio Foro Sol, for $3,000 a game. Most of the rest of its income is spent on players' wages. For U.S. major league players, the annual minimum wage is $220,000. It's not clear what the Mexicans, whose play is farm league-level, earn per season, but even the biggest star is unlikely to approach the U.S. league minimum.
Even if Mexican teams get the cold shoulder, Mexican fans do watch big-time U.S. baseball when it comes to town. U.S. teams play a small number of games, pre-season and regular season, in Mexico. In March, the Los Angeles Dodgers played a two game spring training series against the New York Mets at the Foro Sol, attracting more than 37,000 fans over the two days. That has grown significantly from two years ago, when a total of nearly 21,500 watched the Pittsburgh Pirates and the Tampa Bay Devil Rays play two exhibition games.
There has been talk over the years of the U.S. league setting up a franchise in Mexico, probably in the capital or in Monterrey, where baseball is a bigger draw. De la Cerda acknowledges that the Diablos could not compete with a U.S. club in Mexico City. "We would have to pack our bags," he says. The Diablos manager is confident, however, that Mexico remains years away from hosting a U.S. club. Bluntly put, he asks, how many Mexican fans could afford $30 for a ticket?
That hasn't stopped some from trying. Mexican billionaire Carlos Peralta, owner of Mexico's Tigres de Angelopolis, made an unsuccessful attempt last year to buy California's Anaheim Angels. The Angels might have been a profitable enterprise for him, especially after the team won the World Series. There could have been a player-sharing agreement between the Tigres and the Angels. Arturo Moreno, an Arizona billboard executive, reportedly will buy the Angels from Disney, which has had the team on the market for years, for $180 million. Major League Baseball has not confirmed the deal.
Paul Archey, the Major League Baseball's senior vice president of international business operations, insists that for now the only expansion plan is to continue steadily developing the Mexican market, ensuring U.S. games are available on cable sports channel ESPN's international signal and, for those priced out of pay TV, on Mexico's leading broadcaster Televisa. "It is a big TV market, and, potentially, a big licensing and merchandising market," Archey says.
Already, too, there are strong links at many levels between the Mexican league and the U.S. big leagues. Perhaps the strongest is the two-year-old relationship between the Diablos and the San Diego Padres. Over a five-year contract, the Padres are paying the Mexican club about $2 million, as well as lending them second-tier players.
In return, the Padres get to choose players from the Diablos roster. In practice, that does not mean senior players go north. "They make straight for the juniors," says de la Cerda. "They want to develop the youngsters themselves." As soon as any promising teenager turns 17, the Padres sign him and take him to California. Given the tens of millions of dollars it costs to buy major league stars, the scheme makes economic sense for the Padres even if just one Mexican youngster develops into a first-team player every few years.
Home team. From the Padres' point of view, there is another reason why the club's relationship with the Devils makes sense: About 10% of the 28,000 fans who fill the San Diego team's ball park on game day are Mexicans who cross the border from Tijuana, says Kevin Towers, the Padres' Executive Vice President General Manager. That is on top of thousands of Mexicans and other U.S. Hispanics living in San Diego who also come to the games.
The Padres currently have four Latinos, including Yucatan pitcher Oliver Perez, on their first team roster. "People want to follow players from their own country," says Archey. "It increases ratings."
Latino players are not new to the majors. Adolfo Luque, a Cuban, was the first to play in a World Series, in 1923. In recent years, the number of Latinos playing in las grandes ligas, though, has skyrocketed. About 20% of major leaguers are Latin Americans, compared to just 8% a decade and a half ago. Including Perez, there are currently 19 Mexican nationals playing in the majors including sluggers such as the Oakland Athletics' Vinny Castillo and former Diablo Geronimo Gil, now batting .342 for the Baltimore Orioles. Twelve of the 19 are pitchers. Ever since southpaw L.A. Dodger Fernando Valenzuela blazed a trail in the 1980s, Mexicans have been regarded as natural pitchers above any other position.
Perhaps, as Mexican immigrants attune to U.S. sports folkways, Major League Baseball will one day have not just one but several franchises in Mexico; Canada, where ice hockey reigns, has supported two teams for decades. In the meantime, though, the Mexico City Diablos Rojos, with Bronswell Patrick opening, are strong favorites this year to win their 14th pennant.
SIMEON TEGEL * MEXICO CITY