Commentary: Sure, He's Latino. But Don't Expect Salsa at the Park

As the first Latino American to own a pro sports franchise, Arturo "Arte" Moreno should be a powerful symbol of where ambition and hard work can lead. But at times the full measure of a man can be obscured by the lilt of a surname.

Moreno, who just bought the Anaheim Angels from Walt Disney (DIS ) Co. for $180 million, had such a moment on May 15. Standing beside Commissioner Bud Selig in the Major League Baseball offices in New York, the soft-spoken Moreno told reporters that his ethnic heritage means no more or less than the roots of other Americans. "Most of us are immigrants from someplace," the owner said, shrugging. Moreno's words still hung in the air when a reporter blurted out the next question -- in Spanish.

The exchange points up the reluctance with which Moreno approaches the banner of a long-excluded minority. Among some Latinos, hopes are soaring like a towering fly ball that the new owner finally will give their ethnic group a fair shake in the front office and will roll out the red carpet for Latinos at Edison International Field, home of the reigning world champion Angels.

But can expectations be so high that anything short of replacing Take Me Out to the Ball Game with salsa music will feel like a letdown? There's no doubt that Moreno, a fourth-generation Mexican American who amassed a nearly billion-dollar fortune as an outdoor advertising exec, has quickly emerged as a champion in Latino communities from the South Bronx to Santa Ana.

Julio Pabón, the president of Latino Sports Ventures Inc. in the Bronx, says his reaction on hearing that Moreno had bagged the Angels was a surge of excitement. "I was proud instantly. Finally, someone like me owns a major league team," says Pabón, whose company handles marketing for Latino athletes.

Peter P. Roby, director of the Center for the Study of Sport in Society at Northeastern University, says Moreno's ascent tells sports-minded minority kids that batting cleanup isn't the only path to the big leagues. "Now we can say, 'Why not get your education and be in position to own the team?"' says Roby.

Latinos, like African Americans, have traveled the long, lonely road of exclusion in American sports business. Last season, a remarkable 60% of big-league shortstops were of Latino extraction. But Latino faces in baseball front offices fill just 4% of senior administrative posts, according to a recent survey by the Institute for Diversity & Ethics in Sport at the University of Central Florida.

Latino fans hardly are massing at the ticket windows, either. According to an ESPN Sports Poll last year, Latinos make up 12% of big-league fans, about equal to their 11% of the population. But at ballparks like Edison Field, Latinos seem woefully underrepresented. One in three residents of Orange County, the Angels' home turf, is of Latino descent. And nearby Santa Ana boasts a higher proportion of Spanish speakers than any other U.S. city. It doesn't take a statistician to notice that most are staying away from Angels games.

Pabón of Latino Sports Ventures believes the answer may be as simple as opening the gates a little wider to Latino fans. Among his suggestions for all teams: hiring more bilingual ticket takers and ushers to help guide Latinos through the ballpark, and posting restroom signs in Spanish. "If you come to the ballpark and don't feel welcome, why would you come back?" Pabón asks.

For his part, Moreno steps lightly when speaking of changes in the front office or the grandstand. "They have been marketing to Hispanics. We'll enhance that," the new owner tells BusinessWeek. More often, the message Moreno pushes is one of inclusion: "We want to target everyone interested in going to a ball game. We don't want to put up any barriers." That philosophy resonates in any language -- but if Latinos are looking for a front-office crusader, they'd better not bank on Arturo Moreno.

By Mark Hyman

With Ronald Grover in Los Angeles

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