Roar of Soccer at Coliseum

TIMES STAFF WRITER

It could be a carnival, this kaleidoscopic parade of jumbo buses streaming off the Harbor Freeway, the pickup trucks snaking through gridlock, the people blowing horns, waving Mexican flags, hurrying down the street with children clutching their hands and running to keep up.

In a few minutes, Mexico will face Argentina on the soccer field, and these ardent Latino fans know the 92,000-seat Coliseum will sell out, as it has before. They don't want to be stranded on the cold outskirts of the red-hot Ground Zero of California's fastest-growaing sport.

"Besides the Pope, only Brazil against Mexico could draw more people," said former junior lightweight boxing champion Genaro "El Chicanito" Hernandez, signing an autograph for a fan, Jorge Rodriguez.

"Every Mexican in Los Angeles is here tonight!" Rodriguez echoed, as Mexican soccer star Jorge Campos jogged onto the field and the crowd let out a mighty roar.

If this were an electoral referendum, soccer would be winning in a landslide. Soccer has quietly conquered Los Angeles, a testimony to the way Latin American immigration is reshaping California, where a third of the nation's estimated 30 million Latinos reside.

"There are three things that unite the Hispanic community: their flags, their religion, and soccer," said Manolo Cevallos, a top Los Angeles promoter. "Sometimes soccer trumps religion and nationality. Because for Hispanics, soccer is a religion."

And in Southern California, where consumerism is also a sacred creed, sponsors from Nike to Tecate are targeting soccer and scoring a direct hit with the Latino market, marketers say. While many in Los Angeles think only Bruce Springsteen or USC football can sell out the Coliseum, these sponsors know the truth:

No city in America draws bigger soccer crowds than Los Angeles. "Soccer is the future game of Los Angeles," says Mayor Richard Riordan.

Yet in 1994, when the World Cup came to Los Angeles, few had any idea that the tournament would be like a match struck in a roomful of gunpowder. The enthusiasm, diversity and the size of the local crowd shocked even the most optimistic planners.

Two years later, when Major League Soccer debuted and introduced the Los Angeles Galaxy at the Rose Bowl, 70,000 tickets were sold--an unprecedented 30,000 purchased the day of the game.

Yet in spite of the competition, crowds only grew at the Coliseum's Latin American national team games.

Soccer brought 123,000 people to the Coliseum in 1997. By last year, it had nearly quadrupled to 467,000 fans. That was more than the total attendance for the 1998 USC football games or the Raiders' final 1994 football season--though the average per-game attendance for soccer was lower. Still, the Coliseum's largest soccer crowd--the 91,585 at the recent Mexico vs. Argentina game--outdrew the 1998 USC-Notre Dame football audience of 90,069.

The Galaxy sold 349,000 Rose Bowl seats to Major League Soccer games in 1998--an average of 21,784 per game, leaving the league's 14,312 national per-game average in the dust. The first four Galaxy games of 1999 drew fewer--65,902 fans, an average of 16,476 per home game.

But at the Coliseum, more than 200,000 people have attended five soccer games in the first three months of 1999 alone.

Such attendance is still dwarfed by baseball. The Dodgers drew 3 million to 81 games last year. But perhaps there is no better sign of how recent waves of immigrants have expanded Latino culture and economic clout in Southern California than soccermania.

"We're making fortunes! We're making so much money we can't stand it," said Miami-based Noe Limon, one of the biggest Latin American soccer promoters in the nation. "Except we've been losing money for 29 years."

What finally turned the tide, promoters say, was the immigration wave of the 1980s.

The 6.3 million Latino consumers in the Los Angeles market--the vast metropolitan sprawl south of Santa Barbara and north of San Diego--have a collective buying power of $57 billion annually.

Soccer "is where [promoters] can really tap into the mother lode," said Daniel Villanueva, of Bastion Capitol, a Los Angeles firm that scouts Latino investment prospects. Villanueva was a Galaxy partner until a few months ago.

Strategy Research Corp., whose annual U.S. Hispanic Market Report is the most extensive survey of Latino consumer trends nationwide, says the appeal of soccer is strongest in Los Angeles, next strongest in San Diego and growing in San Jose--mirroring Latin American immigration.

For many immigrants, soccer is a nationalist lifeline to their homelands.

Marina Fletes, a native of Nicaragua at the Mexico-Argentina game, professed the kind of studied neutrality that must have helped her endure a decade of Central American civil strife.

"I'm with the team that wins," she said. But for Fletes, a garment industry seamstress by day and a janitor by night who put her daughter through UC Irvine and supports a son at Cal State L.A., the sport has a nostalgic appeal. For her and her friends the game is a trip, if only for an evening, back to hometown life.

"An American flag doesn't mean much here," Fletes said, gazing out at the overwhelmingly immigrant crowd at the Coliseum. She jokingly suggested that a $5 Mexican flag would be the best post-game passport to the parking lot.

But the deeply sentimental tie the games represent is no joke.

During a U.S.-Mexico game at the Coliseum last year, the sellout crowd jeered at the U.S. national anthem and booed and threw objects at the U.S. team. For a feverish instant, Los Angeles was Mexico. The display underscored the growing transnational character of the city--and the galvanizing power of soccer not just as a sport, but as a nationalistic mecca.

Among the many fans cheering Mexico against Argentina at the recent Coliseum game was Jaime Tinajero, 22, a senior in engineering at Cal State Northridge.

He once played soccer barefoot, kicking around a plastic bottle with his six brothers in Mexico City. When his family moved to Los Angeles, he quickly became a star of the Latino youth leagues that crisscross Southern California--where about 1 million play amateur soccer.

Tinajero spoke no English when he arrived, and soccer gave him a common language he could speak as well as any player. "In Mexico, we live soccer," said Tinajero. "When you watch the World Cup in Mexico, everything--everybody--just stops. Soccer's going to make it here. Once you get exposed to it you just feel it."

It is this dedicated Coliseum fan base--98% Latino, most Spanish-speaking immigrant men--that drives the huge demand for games between Latin American national teams.

A recent Hurricane Mitch soccer benefit at the Coliseum--announced just four days in advance--sold 47,000 seats and raised over $600,000, Coliseum managers say.

"It's unbelievable," said Ivan Gazidas, a vice president of Major League Soccer. "If you read the English-language press, it might escape your notice. But there are massive crowds for soccer in L.A."

The Galaxy, Major League Soccer's team in L.A., is the magnet for an audience that's about 60% Latino. If the Coliseum crowd is mostly immigrant, the Galaxy attracts the more established, U.S.-born children of immigrants, its marketers say.

But though the Galaxy is a U.S. team, its promoters amp up their fan base by wooing Latin American soccer gods. A few years ago the Galaxy featured goalkeeper Jorge Campos, who went to the Chicago Fire and plays for Mexico's national team.

Another imported star in the Galaxy constellation is Mauricio Cienfuegos, whose name--which means a "hundred fires"--doesn't begin to suggest the heat he generates in El Salvador. Galaxy vice president Michael Arya said that when the Galaxy played exhibition games in Guatemala two years ago, regional promoters compared Cienfuegos to Elvis.

"It's a no-brainer," Arya said. "[Latinos] are much more likely to come to a Galaxy game if we have a Salvadoran player. It's more than that he is a great soccer player--he's one of them."

For the 40% of the Galaxy audience that is not Latino, the Galaxy has featured stars of Iranian, Armenian, Nigerian and other soccer-loving backgrounds.

"A lot more than Latinos are tuning in to soccer," said Behrouz Afrakhan, an Iranian-American writer for soccerweek.com.

The perceived socioeconomic differences between the audiences at Galaxy games and in the Coliseum is reflected in their advertisers. The Galaxy is viewed as the vehicle for penetrating the upscale Latino market, while Coliseum sponsors--Tecate beer, Juanita foods, the La Curacao department store chain--are protecting their dominance of the Spanish-speaking market, Villanueva said.

"It's two different approaches to two different markets," Villanueva said. "If you're La Curacao you advertise at the Coliseum. If I was Carte Blanche, I would not be at the Coliseum."

The Coliseum has a populist ambience, an intimate, old-fashioned quality that has been sucked out of many American professional sports by escalating ticket prices and multimillion-dollar player contracts.

Prices at the Coliseum are designed to be accessible--about $22 in advance and $27 at the gate--to encourage entire families to attend. Women sometimes enter free, and there is often a hefty children's discount. About half the tickets for games are purchased within three days of the event, and many people wait until the day of the game to buy--a fact that some backers initially find nerve-racking.

There is a similar pattern for Los Angeles Galaxy tickets, though the Galaxy also sells 40% in season and group tickets.

Dodger annual attendance, by contrast, includes 1.75 million seats pre-sold via season tickets, and nearly a million more with phone, Internet, mail and group sales. Last-minute walk-up ticket sales at Dodger Stadium are less than 10% of the total.

Just days and weeks before the Coliseum games, ticket sales rain in from small Latino outlets--mom and pop grocers, music stores, botanicas--with runners picking up the cash and dropping off new tickets each day. A huge chunk of tickets are bought on the day of the event itself--by fans who wait in long lines that wrap around the block.

There are many theories to explain why:

Many immigrants live in a cash economy and do not have credit cards. They live within walking distance of the Coliseum and don't want to pay a Ticketmaster surcharge. They're not sure until the last minute if they can get time off from work or family.

Or simply: that's the way it's done in Latin America.

The last-minute suspense has a feverish effect on fans like Daniel Montana, who was almost at the head of the line when the Mexico-Argentina game at the Coliseum suddenly sold out.

Turning him away was like halting a speeding train.

Montana, an Argentine with a Long Beach cargo firm, begged and pleaded with ticket takers.

They were merciless, mocking his Italianate Argentine accent and telling him they backed the Mexican team. Montana walked off in a funk to watch the game on large-screen television at the adjacent Sports Arena. He must have cheered up plenty a little while later, when Mexico lost to Argentina 1-0.

The Argentine consul left quickly with what was described as the usual diplomatic security cordon.

But the crowd was forgiving. When retired Mexican soccer great Hugo Sanchez, handsome as any soap opera star in an European-cut suit, headed for the VIP parking lot, he was mobbed by an adoring crowd. Sanchez wore a deer-in-the-headlights expression for an instant but quickly regained his composure and began gracefully signing autographs.

Miami-based market analyst Raul Lopez believes that the Los Angeles soccer craze represents the peak of an imported trend that will decline as soon as immigrant families gravitate toward traditional U.S. pop-culture tastes, like football and rock and roll. Others, noting how American culture has been reshaped since its inception by waves of immigrants, say the popularity of soccer will only grow.

They cite the millions of boys and girls playing in youth leagues, the pride in the U.S. women's Olympic soccer triumph, the growing U.S. interest in what is already the world's most popular sport, from the British Isles to the Horn of Africa and Tierra del Fuego.

"We are in the Mexican American capital of the United States," Mexican Consul Jose Angel Pescador Osuna said. "Soccer is the most-played sport in the world, and it has a promising future in the United States. But in California, it is already well-established."

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Playing for the L.A. Crowd

Los Angeles draws larger soccer crowds than any other U.S. city. International soccer matches at the Coliseum have produced several sellouts, drawing on the region's immigrant population.

International soccer at Coliseum: Avg. attendance per game

1999*: 46,729

1998: 29,175

1997: 15,495

* through March 24

TOP DRAWS IN MAJOR LEAGUE SOCCER

Team: Avg. attendance/'98 home game

1. Los Angeles Galaxy: 21,784

2. N.E. Revolution: ,187

3. Chicago Fire: 7,886

4. N.Y./N.J. MetroStars: 16,519

5. D.C. United: 16,007

*--*

Avg. attendance/ Home games/ Stadium % of L.A. team 1998 home game 1998 season capacity capacity Dodgers 38,139 81 56,000 68 Galaxy 21,784 16 30,000** 73 Lakers ('97-'98) 16,878 41 17,505 96 Kings ('97-'98) 13,019 41 16,005 81 Clippers ('97-'98) 9,968 41 16,021 62

*--*

** Rose Bowl seating reduced for Galaxy games

Sources: SportsFeed World Wide Web site, Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum and Sports Arena, individual team media guides

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Researcher Robin Mayper contributed to this story.

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