Lakers Get Latin
When it comes to sports, there are certain things that can only happen in L.A.
Latinos in Los Angeles embracing local sports teams is nothing new. Anyone who witnessed Fernando Valenzuela igniting the 1980s groundswell of support for Dodgers baseball that engulfed the city in “Fernandomania” could tell you that, although at the time it was considered a one-shot phenomenon.
So much for unique occurrences—it’s happening again, only this time it’s the Lakers. Southern Californians of every cultural background love sports, that’s for sure. Fans have packed stadiums and arenas for years for almost any athletic event imaginable: baseball, football, basketball, hockey, tennis, golf, racing, extreme sports, the Olympics—you name it. Latino fans have always supported soccer, boxing to a certain extent and baseball. But quietly, somehow under the radar of most media outlets, the Lakers have reached out to the Latino community in a huge way.
This April 12, for the eighth straight year, the Lakers will pack the L.A. Convention Center with an estimated 50,000 fans. And not for a game but for an event called Fiesta Lakers, which is best described as a giant party with the Lakers as the theme. The Laker Girls perform, as do several Latino musical acts. The highlight is an appearance by several Laker players, including Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol. It is arguably the most successful sports-related event—that isn’t an actual game—in L.A. history.
That’s right, thousands turn up for a sporting event that isn’t a competition. And this year, the team could be forced to turn away fans because Fiesta Lakers has become too popular.
“Every year, the Latino community gives us a reason why we should do this event—and then some,” says Tim Harris, the team’s senior vice president. “It’s really a credit to KWKW, which does most of the heavy lifting.”
KWKW is the Lakers’ Spanish-speaking radio affiliate (and one of the country’s oldest Spanish-language stations, having started in 1922), which partners with the team to host the event. According to the NBA, although 10 teams (including the Lakers) broadcast their games in Spanish, no franchise has anything like Fiesta Lakers.
The inspiration for what has become the biggest annual event you’ve probably never heard of can be traced back to a single day: June 18, 2001. The Lakers were celebrating at their second consecutive championship parade. Each of the players spoke to the crowd of nearly 550,000 from a podium outside Staples Center. Mark Madsen, a popular but little-used reserve, did something no Laker had ever done: He spoke in Spanish: “Les agradecemos y les decimos que el ano que viene lo haremos otra vez.” (Translation: “We thank you, and we tell you that next year we’ll do it again.”)
It was only 14 words, but the reaction was staggering, and those watching immediately saw what was now obvious—Latinos were out in full force. Madsen, who had learned to speak Spanish while on a Mormon mission in Spain, had forever changed the dynamic of the Lakers’ fan base. “I remember hearing this deafening roar,” he says today. “And stepping down from that podium, I thought how great it was that all the people had come together as one community.”
Harris, the Lakers VP who had been at the parade site all day, had noticed something happening hours earlier: “At 8 in the morning, I went to the corner of 11th and Figueroa to check the parade route, and it hit me like a ton of bricks how much the Latino community loves this team.”
Juan Rodriguez, KWKW program director, had already been thinking about a way to have a Lakers event for his listeners, without all of the costs that come along with attending a game. “I used to go to parties catered toward the Latino sports community, and the events were just too expensive,” he says. “Only three or four thousand people would show up, and even then, they didn’t have enough resources or security. So I came up with the idea to have a street fair.”
The team loved the idea. The next season, KWKW rented the Convention Center for Fiesta Lakers. The Lakers were already on Spanish radio, so there was a built-in outlet. Fernando Gonzalez and Jose “Pepe” Mantilla, the station’s Spanish-language broadcast team, were recruited to host. The first year drew 12,000 fans. Last year, it swelled to 50,000, and that was just in the building. “You should have seen the lines outside,” Rodriguez recalls. “There were at least that many waiting to get in.”
That’s one issue both the Lakers and KWKW are trying to control. “What we’re balancing now is how big to let it become,” Harris says. “We’re almost at the tipping point. We want fans to get a great experience, to meet some of the players if possible and to really enjoy it. But do we want 100,000 people? No. We want those who attend to be able to participate, and that means we have to do our job to keep it fun and manageable.”
What makes Fiesta Lakers so popular? Depends on whom you ask. “A lot of our listeners may not be able to acquire game tickets throughout the season,” Rodriguez says. “But at Fiesta Lakers, they get a chance to see the players live. The Laker Girls and the musical acts add a lot, too. The Convention Center just goes crazy.”
“It helps that you have the Lakers, and especially Dr. Buss [Lakers owner Jerry Buss],” Mantilla adds. “He understands how important the Spanish-speaking fans are, and he pays attention to that.” He says there’s a perfect storm in Los Angeles right now—a championship-caliber team that has a Spanish star in Pau Gasol, who was acquired last year in a blockbuster trade with Memphis.
Gasol, born in Barcelona, is the team’s second-best player and a marketer’s dream. “He’s the best thing to happen to me since I crossed the border,” Mantilla jokes. “He speaks Spanish, he doesn’t have an attitude, and he’s always willing to speak on behalf of the team. For the Latino people, bringing him here was great.”
Gonzalez says Gasol brings people from all over the globe: “Just look around, not just at Fiesta Lakers but at all the events. You’ll see people from Spain, from Argentina, from all over the Latin community. To fans, he’s worth more than a typical great player.”
The combination of a great team, a great Spanish player and a city with a large Latino population seems to be what has turned Fiesta Lakers from a street fair into a full-blown festival. Last year, the event ran from noon to 5 and stayed packed from start to finish. Fans can acquire tickets through KWKW or the Lakers Website—and, yes, they’re gone almost as soon as they become available.
When you ask Rodriguez what he’s most proud of after creating one of the city’s most successful Latino events, the answer is surprising: “It’s that it’s not just for Latino fans anymore. In our city, like most things, the mix is growing, and it has become bicultural. What we have now is one room with many different races enjoying everything the event has to offer.” In other words, it could only happen in L.A.