Winning the Mexican MLB market: After Monterrey, now what?

As the Dodgers and Padres took the field for the first game in the MLB showcase Mexico Series in Monterrey, the “home team” Padres were faced with a sold-out crowd consisting of 80 to 90 percent Dodger fans. Padres ownership had a first-hand look from their luxury box at what a daunting task chasing their stated goal of winning the Mexican market was going to be. As Walker Buehler and the Dodgers closed out a combined no-hitter, throngs of Dodgers fans celebrated wildly in the stands while Monterrey’s Estadio de Beisbol fired off fireworks celebrating the “home team’s” embarrassing loss. The result was as far away as possible from a hallmark victory Padres ownership had hoped would spark interest in the team after cavalierly declaring to ESPN’s Eric Gomez, “We want to become the team of Mexico”.  

One of the most common clichés about the barriers the Padres face in achieving growth is that they have the Angels and Dodgers to the north, the desert to the east, the ocean to the west and Mexico to the south. This is a statement that’s been said so often it could be engraved on Padres fans’ tombstones. What is excluded in this statement are the structural barriers put in place by Major League Baseball and the Federal Government making it very difficult for individual franchises to grow their business in Mexico.

In today’s day and age, televised games are one of the most powerful tools to expand a fan base, especially within a nation that is kept at arm’s length from the United States by an increasingly militarized border. For the Padres, it’s not as easy as signing agreements with Mexican satellite and cable providers to carry their regional sports network, Fox Sports San Diego. Major League Baseball negotiates international television rights with providers in each country. In the case of Mexico, they renewed their longtime agreement with Televisa in 2016, providing a single over-the-air Game of the Week on Saturday afternoons, as well as at least one game on either Tuesday or Thursday night on their cable network, TDN. Other sources of televised games are national games carried by ESPN Deportes or Fox Sports Latin America. As is the case with featured games in the United States, these games generally feature marquee matchups and more popular teams such as the Dodgers, Yankees and Red Sox. The Padres rarely are afforded the chance to appear on these broadcasts, which becomes a self-perpetuating problem for them, as the marquee teams pad their popularity with continued exposure.

The Padres televised games cannot even be shown in border cities Tijuana and Mexicali, two cities that have a combined population of nearly 3 million. To the Padres’ detriment, they have been unable to wrest home TV territory control of even adjoining Baja California Norte from Major League Baseball. It cannot be stressed how closely the symbiotic relationship is between San Diego and Tijuana, with tens of thousands regularly crossing the border in both directions each day for work; the two cities even crafted plans to submit a joint Olympics hosting bid spanning the border. And yet, despite being able to see the lights of Petco Park and downtown San Diego from the Playas de Tijuana neighborhood, residents are unable to watch the broadcast. This is a major impediment for the Padres to gain inroads in a region that remembers Fernando Valenzuela’s tenure with the Dodgers far more than it recalls his 1995 to 1997 run with the Padres.

As a way to attract attendance from neighboring Baja, the Padres famously opened a team store located in the Plaza Rio mall in Tijuana and organized bus trips to games. Unfortunately, they couldn’t have foreseen 9-11 and national politics leading to much stricter border control, and as a result, much longer waits and scrutiny to cross the border. What used to be a flash of a driver’s license or passport at the border when the team store opened in 1996 turned into hours-long waits to cross. Data pulled from U.S. Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) shows that average wait for Saturday and Sunday game times at the San Ysidro port of entry exceed 60 minutes. The average Tijuanense is faced with a titanic effort and block of time needed to be able to attend games at Petco Park.

The Mexican National Institute of Statistics and Geography estimated Tijuana’s average household income at $843 per month.  Meanwhile, for four tickets to this Saturday night’s Padres game in the Park At The Park — the grass berm past the outfield bleachers — would cost $93.50, and that doesn’t count parking, travel expenses or concessions. In other words, these tickets would be 11 percent of the gross monthly income for the average Tijuana household. Unfortunately, the Padres have as much ability to influence the Federal Government’s control of the border or the macroeconomic conditions in Baja as they have ability to compete for the playoffs this season: none. As evidence of these difficulties, the Padres retrenched and closed the Plaza Rio store in 2016.

So we’re back to the Padres’ growth being fenced in geographically. Luckily, it’s not entirely a lost cause.  MLB does not regulate radio rights in Mexico. The Padres Radio Network consists of two stations — by far the smallest in baseball — but this includes one Spanish language partner broadcasting in Tijuana. Unfortunately the signal doesn’t reach coastal neighbor Ensenada or eastern neighbor Mexicali. With a little elbow grease on the part of the Padres’ marketing department, this is a potential area of growth for the team, especially with a group of young native Mexican players close to making their mark on the big league team including Christian Villanueva, Luis Urias and Tirso Ornelas. As a point of comparison, the Arizona Diamondbacks have a radio network that blankets the state of Sonora with four radio affiliates. Baja California extends 760 miles south of San Diego, providing the Padres low-hanging fruit to create a Mexican Padres Radio Network covering Tijuana to Cabo San Lucas. Of course, given the team’s recent highly publicized failures with their flagship radio station — the series of gaffes includes suicide and cancer jokes made by hosts — as well as an FM signal that doesn’t cover the northern half of San Diego County, there may be other priorities within Petco Park ahead of ambitiously controlling the Baja radio waves.

In the end, one key pillar of the plan to capture Mexico’s attention is to win. This is the way to win more TV screen time on Televisa, and the way to get Baja residents to part with large shares of their income to attend games.  With the Padres losing games at roughly a two out of three clip so far this season, they are not there yet.  The Dodgers are by far Mexico’s favorite team thanks to Fernandomania and consistent success, and it may be patronizing to believe the Mexican brand of fan would throw away an established attachment to the Dodgers, Yankees or the other five teams ranked by MLB to be more popular in Mexico to adopt the kid brother down Interstate 5 from LA, regardless of the rebuild’s possible success. It will take more than Padres victories on the field led by young Mexican players to see progress in this arena. With the Monterrey Mexico Series in the rear-view mirror, it’ll take time for Padres ownership — confident as they were that weekend — to figure out ways to navigate the many structural barriers and carve out their share with a very long term project of proving their relevancy.

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