The Big Read: How the Coyotes hope to grow the game in the Latinx community

Authentic, grassroots approach at core of plan

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On Oct. 17, the Coyotes celebrated Hispanic Heritage Month by wearing Los Yotes jerseys and calling the night, Noche de los Yotes. All photos courtesy of Arizona Coyotes

Watching Auston Matthews operate on Friday night was a reminder of all that is possible with Arizona hockey. The Scottsdale product, whose mother, Ema, is from Hermosillo, Mexico, had assists on the second and third Maple Leafs goals — the latter tied the game — and Matthews scored the game-winning goal at 13:10 of overtime as Toronto rallied from a three-goal deficit in the final 3:03 of regulation to even its series with the Columbus Blue Jackets in a 4-3 win.

New Coyotes president and CEO Xavier Gutierrez would like to see similar scenes play out at rinks all over the state, the nation, North America and the world. The Coyotes’ objective has always been to grow the game of hockey in Arizona, and they have made significant strides in their 24 years in the Valley, per USA Hockey statistics.

The Latinx community remains a largely untapped market opportunity, however, and it is a significant opportunity. Per 2019 census bureau estimates, 31.7 percent of Arizona’s roughly 7.3 million residents cite Hispanic or Latinx origin. Owner Alex Meruelo, a Cuban-American, and Gutierrez, who was born in Guadalajara, Mexico, would like to see a greater percentage of that population either carrying sticks in their hands or sitting in the Gila River Arena stands.

To achieve that goal, Gutierrez said the Coyotes will intensify a multi-pronged, grassroots approach.

“First and foremost is to have us, me in particular, really extend our hand out to this community to welcome them, to open our arms to them, to say, ‘Hey, you are part of our team, you are part of our community, you are part of our pack,’” Gutierrez said. “It really starts with us saying, ‘We want you.’

“I have shared the story a number of times of my nephews in southern California. Their first love is hockey and why is that? It’s because the (Los Angeles) Kings and the (Anaheim) Ducks decided to focus on the youth market in southern California and when you look at the youth market, it has a large percentage of Latinos. Now I have a different kind of challenge. I am trying to convert my nephews by doing some mind bending so that they’re no longer wearing Luc Robitaille and Wayne Gretzky Kings jerseys, but instead they’re rocking Taylor Hall and Conor Garland Coyotes jerseys.”

While the NHL is one of the most nationality diverse sports in the world, with players hailing from 17 countries, it has not had great success reaching the Latinx community. Matthews and Vegas’ Alec Martinez and Max Pacioretty are among a handful of Latinx players. What’s keeping Latinos from the NHL?

“Part of it is there are no identifiable stars,” said Arizona State Rep. Lorenzo Sierra (District 19). “It’s not like baseball where you’ve got any number of Latin American stars. In football, there is an increasing number of Latin American players, and even in basketball they are mostly from abroad but you’ve still got Hispanics that are making their way in the NBA.

“There’s about five Hispanic hockey players and none of them are on the Coyotes. Until there’s a good number of Hispanic players in the NHL, it’s hard for kids to visualize it.”

Scottsdale product Auston Matthews

While Gutierrez admits that having Latino stars in the NHL would help grow the game in Latinx communities, neither he nor Sierra believe that the current dearth of pro players is an insurmountable hurdle.

“Don’t get me wrong,” Gutierrez said. “It would be amazing to have Latino stars. I grew up in the Bay Arena (San Jose) but I’m a Dodgers fan because in 1982, I went to my first baseball game and I saw (Mexican born) Fernando Valenzuela pitch at Dodgers Stadium and that was it. It was a transformative experience for me. I never wavered, even when I went to Candlestick Park as a Dodgers fan and had beer thrown on me as a 13-year-old.

“I agree that if you have a role model that you can follow and relate to, it is powerful, and yet it is not the only thing and truth be told, probably not the most significant thing. Look at how many Latino fans there are of the Phoenix Suns and truth be told, there haven’t been great strides in having Latino basketball players and coaches in the United States, so I don’t necessarily ascribe to that theory.”

Gutierrez believes there are relatable experiences that transcend ethnicity.

“Hockey players are amazing athletes with incredible personal stories, and a lot of those stories resonate with the Latino community,” he said. “There’s a lot of first generation immigrants from other countries coming here and fulfilling their athletic dreams. Our players are really good guys. They’re very personable, they’re a little shy, they’re pretty humble and they just want to focus on their sport. That’s very relatable. Making that connection by telling their stories is another area where we can do better.”

Sierra also believes that hockey is an easy sell once you bring people to games.

“It’s fast-paced, it’s exciting and nothing beats being there live to watch a hockey game; it’s an experience,” he said. “In the games that I have gone to, just looking around, there was a good number of Hispanic Coyotes fans. I think it’s just a matter of introducing the sport to the community.”

Focus on youth

If the Coyotes hope to cement hockey’s place in Arizona’s Latinx community, they will have to start with kids, but there are entry points to the game that create issues, most notably the availability of ice and the cost of equipment and ice time. On Thursday, the Coyotes announced a rink partnership with Hill Hockey and the Arizona Made Ice Forum in Mesa. The rink will serve as the official training facility and home arena for the Arizona Kachinas girls and women's hockey program, another key cohort in the Coyotes’ grassroots effort to grow the game.

The Arizona Made Ice Forum raises the total number of ice arenas in the state to 10, and the number of ice sheets available to players to 15. By contrast, consider the prevalence of football fields, soccer fields, baseball diamonds and basketball courts across the Valley and state.

Ice arenas (sheets) in Arizona

Ice Den Scottsdale (3)

Ice Den Chandler (2)

AZ Ice Peoria (2)

AZ Ice Gilbert (2)

AZ Ice Arcadia, Phoenix (1)

Arizona Made Ice Forum, Mesa (1)

Oceanside Ice Arena, Tempe (1)

Jay Lively Activity Center, Flagstaff (1)

Gila River Arena (1)

Tucson Arena (1)

The Findlay Toyota Center in Prescott offers ice part of the year. Northern Arizona University has plans for another rink in Flagstaff that could eventually house the school’s club team if the team can raise the requisite funds. Developers have also broken ground on an indoor sports facility in north Phoenix that will include two sheets of ice, but even with those arenas’ openings, the Valley and state face a shortage of ice sheets.

“When I was growing up outside Toronto, every town had its own rink,” Coyotes coach Rick Tocchet said. “I know this isn’t Canada, but if you look at some of the hockey hotbeds in the U.S., it’s the same thing in Chicago, Minnesota, Boston, Detroit. You’ve got to make it accessible to kids.”

Outside of the Phoenix metro area and Flagstaff, the problem is even more pronounced. Yuma, the state’s 11th most populous city (more than half of which is Hispanic/Latinx), has no ice sheets. Tucson is the state’s second largest city with a greater metropolitan population in excess of one million. About 42 percent of that population is Hispanic or Latinx. Tucson is also the home of the Coyotes’ American Hockey League affiliate. In spite of that presence, a strong club program at the University of Arizona and a growing youth program, Tucson does not have a permanent sheet of ice. The Roadrunners play at Tucson Arena, but the ice is taken out once their season concludes. Tucson’s youth players often commute to the Ice Den Chandler for ice time, or play with Chandler-based teams full time.

“I went down there and I said, ‘’Let me get this straight. You have the University of Arizona, which has a really incredible club hockey program, and we’re the only professional sport in town with the Roadrunners but nobody has thought to put a permanent rink down here?” Gutierrez said. “I don’t know why the University of Arizona hasn’t done that as a community asset. That’s a nice little business that they could have created, but I am not privy to all of their concerns and constraints. The bottom line is that we should address that and we should work with the city. We’re going to create it. You should want your kids to stay in Tucson to play hockey, so let’s figure out how we do a public-private venture here.”

Gutierrez sees more unconventional opportunities as well, whether they be more roller hockey opportunities for kids, more street hockey opportunities or creatively constructed ice arenas.

“Where are spaces right now that are going to have to be re-imagined,” he said. “There are plenty of big-box retailers that are no longer in existence so how do you reimagine that space? Let’s be creative. How do you utilize infrastructure, parking, buildings that are already up. Maybe there is an opportunity there. I don’t know but we are certainly going to pursue it. The solution isn’t always necessarily going to be to just throw up a rink. Maybe you reposition a real estate asset to become a rink?”

The Coyotes and/or their partners would need to conduct market research to determine the best locations for arenas around the state, but according to USA Hockey Director of Software Development Cameron Eickmeyer, a new data initiative of USA Hockey could help. USA Hockey’s analytics module is now mining 30-plus years of hockey participation data to provide a wealth of new information, including where to build rinks.

Sierra sees an obvious, open location in his district.

“There need to be at least a couple facilities, or at least one in the Southwest Valley,” he said. “Right now, if a kid from Avondale wants to play hockey, the closest community rink is maybe Peoria. We just don’t have that available.”

Cost is another barrier. Ice time is expensive and hockey requires more equipment – skates, sticks, helmets, mouthguards, shin pads (or leg pads for goalies), hockey pants, athletic cups, elbow pads, shoulder pads (plus chest protectors for goalies) and gloves – than any other sport.

“I asked Toc about that and I said, ‘What is it that you absolutely have to own vs. what you do in youth football where they loan it to you and you give it back at the end of the season?” Gutierrez said. “Mouthguard sure. Gloves probably, but do you really need to own skates? Probably not so what can we do to make it accessible? How do we make it more prevalent in communities where there is a potential demand but the supply isn’t there?”

Sierra believes there are multiple avenues to overcome the cost barrier, and he believes Latinx families are willing.

“Hispanic families will find always a way to do it,” he said. “You can look at the tackle football program as an example, which has a cost barrier to entry as well. I grew up in a limited income family but my old man always found a way for me to play football.

“You could have scholarships, you could loan equipment, you could give coupons to Play-It-Again Sports for used equipment because it’s probably going to be hand-me-downs for the first couple of years. I used to get used cleats when I was playing. Like I said, as long is the access is there and there is a concerted effort to bring in that community, I can’t imagine them not wanting to play because it’s a great sport. It just hasn’t been, in warmer climates, something that has become cultural like it has in colder climates.”

Peer review

The Coyotes have been active in their outreach efforts over the past quarter century, but other teams may offer further ideas.

The Kings have had a Spanish language radio broadcast for the past four seasons that follows a longer term community and grassroots initiative. They partnered with Discovery Cube Los Angeles to create a popular science of hockey exhibit that impacts all of L.A,. but sits in a neighborhood with a high concentration of Latinx people.

Like most teams, the Kings offer some sort of Hispanic or Latinx heritage night, but the Kings are also hyper-focused on what’s hip and current in the Latinx community. They shot footage with UFC star Henry Briones who lives in Tijuana but travels to San Diego to play hockey. They amplify celebrities who are also fans, and in 2018, they hosted a youth hockey camp for 100 kids in Mexico City where the turnout exceeded expectations.

The Sharks have built on their popular Los Tiburones Night (Spanish for The Sharks) where players wear a themed jersey for warm-ups which is re-designed by a local artist each year. There are giveaways, culturally appropriate foods and there is a Spanish-speaking audio team to call the game.

Along the way, the Sharks, who sit in one of the most culturally diverse regions of the country, have learned some valuable lessons about catering to the Latinx market.

“Over the last three to four years of our new season tickets coming in, about 20 percent identify themselves with Hispanic orientation,” Sharks vice president of communications Scott Emmert said. “Does that audience want their broadcast in Spanish or do they prefer it in English? There are data that suggest that group does prefer English.

“It’s interesting because ESPN Deportes radio in LA went out of business and you would think if it’s going to work anywhere, that’s where it would be a grand slam. It’s possibly a lesson in trying to be engaging but informed to avoid being patronizing or forcing something on folks before we have a good handle as to what their preference is.”

Prior to joining the Diamondbacks in 2005, Derrick Hall spent parts of 12 seasons with the Dodgers. One of his main contributions was overseeing the reintroduction of Valenzuela into that organization.

“He was such a big part of the Hispanic movement when he was pitching and his popularity never waned,” Hall, the D-backs president and CEO said. “It was important to bring him back but we were already doing so much with Hispanic concerts, bringing in Latino food, signage.

“When I came here we did a similar study. At its simplest form we said, ‘Let’s step back and see what are we doing, what’s effective, what more can we do, in particular starting with the ballpark? How inviting is it? How welcome do Latino fans feel when they come here? We didn’t have bi-lingual signage so the first thing we did was make sure we had signage in both English and Spanish. We did the same thing with pre-game announcements. And then during our heritage night we introduced the Los D-backs jerseys. Those were the simplest initiatives.”

The Diamondbacks broadcast every game in Spanish on radio and they have added games on TV through Fox Sports Arizona Plus. They created an ambassadors program with Latinx leaders to solicit feedback, ideas and criticism for their approach on everything from outreach efforts to ballpark food choices and cost.

“We solicit the same sort of feedback from our Latino players,” Hall said. “It’s one thing to have names on the back of jerseys but they asked us, ‘Why aren’t there accent marks?’ Prior to 2015 we didn’t do that. That was important to us and the other thing we heard from that group was, with our proximity to Mexico, we should naturally have a spillover to that fan base. We found that we had such a presence in Sonora and Hermosillo that we opened up a ticket outlet there and we provided busses on weekends to come up here and it was amazing the fan base that we found there.

“We had exhibition games in Monterrey, Mexico. We have been underwriting the costs for the Tuzos (youth) Soccer Club since 2009. And we have exhibition and preseason games in Hermosillo and invite those fans. We just tell them, ‘Come up and see us and we’ll sell tickets there to make it easy for you.’ It has been a wonderful relationship so we spend as much time in Mexico as we can. A lot of teams want to open up their seasons in Japan or England, To us, we’ll always prioritize Mexico.”

Cultural relevance, sensitivity, authenticity

There is a danger in marketing to the Latinx community in believing that one size fits all. Within the Latinx community exist a wide array of cultures, values and experiences, but assumptions are often made about the greater community.

“People get a little surprised when I say this, but we need to utilize technology within this community,” Gutierrez said. “Latinos over index in cell phone usage and in social media usage relative to what you would expect that percentage of the population to be engaged in. They like to communicate, and again, they don’t necessarily like to engage in Spanish. That’s a component, but that’s not the only one, so it’s important to understand those nuances.”

The Coyotes executive staff may have a better understanding of those nuances than most. Meruelo is a Cuban-American who was born in Brooklyn and grew up in Los Angeles. Gutierrez is a Mexican-American, born in Guadalajara and raised in the Bay Area.

Xavier Gutierrez

“I think the challenge is for those who don’t understand the complexity of this community, but clearly Alex and I do understand that this community is not a monolith, so we flip it around and we see the commonality,” Gutierrez said. “The commonality is the focus on family; on doing better for our children, our extended family and our community. There is real pride in our cultural norms, whether it be food or music or events where you invite 10 people and 50 show up and you don’t get upset because that’s just the way it is. My wife is the youngest of eight. My son, on my wife’s side, is one of 19 and on my side is one of five. He’s got a lot of cousins. My son makes fun of my wife all the time. He’ll ask her, ‘Who is coming over?’ and she’ll say, ‘It’s just us.’ Just us turns into 25 people.

“It’s about understanding that, understanding that we want to share and we want to be together and we have pride in our culture. That commonality is really how we can show people that we understand, we authentically embrace it and we want to be there for them. To me, the Latino is not a consumer. Yes, the market has growth potential to buy tickets, to watch games and to sell jerseys but it is also the community I am from. I want to help it, along with others, but there is obviously a personal connection there.”

With the COVID-19 pandemic often confining him to Zoom or phone calls in his still-not-fully furnished home in Paradise Valley, Gutierrez has already begun work on augmenting the franchise’s philanthropic efforts. He wants to build on the franchise’s already successful community outreach efforts that were a highlight of previous president Ahron Cohen’s tenure. He has also begun assembling an array of Latinx advisors. He has spoken to community leaders, business leaders such as Monica Villalobos, the president and CEO of the Arizona Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, and Gary Trujillo, the board chairman for the nonprofit Be A Leader, and he has spoken to political leaders such as Sierra, Phoenix Mayor Kate Gallego, Tucson Mayor Regina Romero and Glendale councilman Jamie Aldama.

“One of the reason I finally said yes to Alex Meruelo was this opportunity at this point in my career,” Gutierrez said. “It was not just to pursue this as a business opportunity, but to pursue this as an opportunity to really make an impact in my community. Sports is an incredibly high-profile consumer product and service. It’s entertainment. As a result, you have the ability to really tap into the folks around you, to be a voice, to create a platform that helps solve problems. We don’t have all the answers but we can be a part of the discussion. We can help make a difference.

“With the Latino community, they want to know that you are authentic, that you care and that you will be there for them. If you reach out and become a part of their community and they see you as someone who cares, then it really has an impact. This is a cohort that is incredibly brand loyal. If you connect with them they will be loyal to you and embrace you.”

Follow Craig Morgan on Twitter: @CraigSMorgan