First and foremost, the Los Angeles Angels targeted Albert Pujols because he’s a premier player.
But it didn’t hurt the Angels organization that Pujols’ ethnic background may have particular brand appeal in Southern California. Signing Pujols might help the Angels maximize their return on this massive investment in their baseball future.
There is a plethora of academic literature that examines the issue of customer discrimination in sports; customer discrimination asserts that part of the reason fans attend games is because they feel some type of connection with the athletes they are watching … for whatever reason.
It may not be happenstance that the Miami Marlins and Los Angeles Angels were the two most aggressive franchises in trying to land Pujols in free agency.
According to data from the U.S. Census Bureau:
• 48% of Los Angeles County is of Hispanic/Latino descent, as is 34% of Orange County;
• 65% of Miami-Date County is of Hispanic/Latino descent;
• 3% of St Louis County is of Hispanic/Latino descent.
One need only look back to 2008 and 2009 when the Dodgers picked up Manny Ramirez as to the power that ethnic connections can have in sports.
“Mannywood” was all the rage for 10 months as ticket and merchandise sales increased with his arrival. Only his "Manny being Manny" act — coupled with being outed as a juicer — eventually sullied the relationship.
Customer discrimination has impacted teams, leagues, and fan bases for years.
During the ’70s and ’80s, the three NBA teams that generally had more white players on their teams were Boston, San Antonio and Utah. Not coincidentally, those cities also had the smallest percentage of minority populations among NBA cities.
Tiger Woods single-handedly increased minority participation in, and viewership of, golf.
Customer discrimination helped the WNBA and Major League Soccer establish a foothold.
When the WNBA began in 1997, star college players were assigned to markets nearest their college stardom. Lisa Leslie (USC) to the LA Sparks, Rebecca Lobo (Connecticut) to the NY Mercury, and Sheryl Swoops (Texas Tech) to the Houston Comets are just several examples.
When Major League Soccer started in 1996, the league assigned the limited number of foreign-born players to cities with ethnic populations similar to the players’. Polish players were assigned to the Chicago franchise, Irish and Italian stars were assigned to the New York club, and Hispanic and Latino players were assigned to markets with large Hispanic and Latino populations such as Tampa Bay, Los Angeles and San Jose.
Circling back to the present day, Pujols chose the Angels over the Cardinals (and vice-versa) not solely nor primarily because of an ethnic connection.
The Angels made him the highest paid first baseman in the game and the designated hitter opportunity will protect his performance value as a hitter over the long run.
Pujols probably chose the Angels over the Marlins because he sees the Angels being more competitive over time, and they have a more loyal fan base than Miami’s.
But make no mistake … the power of ethnic connection played a small but important role in this.
The Angels can afford to pay more because of their market size and because they believe the ethnic connection between Pujols and the Latino community of Los Angeles and Orange Counties will help the organization maximize the return on its investment.
Pujols may have been baseball royalty in St Louis. But when you factor in demographics, he may become a deity among some Angels fans as he continues his march toward baseball immortality.
Dr. Patrick Rishe is a sports economist at the George Herbert Walker School of Business & Technology, the largest of Webster University’s five schools and colleges with undergraduate and graduate degree programs offered throughout the University’s global network of campuses (www.webster.edu/wsbt). Dr. Rishe’s areas of teaching include sports economics, sports finance and sports marketing.