The second season of Minor League Baseball's "Copa de la Diversión" Hispanic fan engagement initiative officially started in Columbus on Friday night as the "expansion" Veleros de Columbus began its 11-game series scheduled for all Friday home games at Huntington Park in 2019.
While the Veleros' extra-inning win over Indianapolis added to participating Copa teams' winning ways (home teams donning the culturally relevant Copa caps and uniforms last season went 87-76), the outcome of the game takes a back seat to the campaign's core objective: establish an authentic, season-long connection with MiLB's robust Hispanic fan base, embracing and celebrating communities and cultures that are passionate about baseball.
"Copa is a bold initiative to undertake," said Ken Schnacke, president and general manager for the Columbus Clippers/Veleros. "It's new and different, and this is sometimes difficult to find these days. As the name suggests, Copa is fun for the team and the community, providing us a chance to make a difference in our cities."
MiLB introduced Copa de la Diversión, or the "Fun Cup," in 2018 as part of its nationally coordinated effort to further engage and invite its growing Hispanic fan base to MiLB ballparks nationwide. According to a recent ESPN Sports Poll survey, more than 18.3 million U.S. Hispanics designated themselves as "MiLB fans," ranking MiLB third in most Hispanic fans in professional sports, only behind the NBA and MLS.
Based on Copa's inaugural season's results, the campaign's intended target appears to have embraced the concept and its fun-centric, authentic outreach.
Charles Rodriguez, a lifelong Yankees' fan who recently moved to Columbus, noted how the Veleros' brand unveiling introduced him to the Clippers' organization.
"The Veleros' logo popped up in my Instagram feed, and the next thing I know I am buying Veleros' caps and T-shirts for me and my family," Rodriguez said. "And I plan to come to a lot of Friday games."
A young fan enjoys the Veleros de Columbus' first game Friday night. (César Bravo)
Standing by the drink rail on the third base line, Ashlee and Jordan Schmitt from nearby Delaware, Ohio, were outfitted in Veleros' caps and replica jerseys.
"Transforming into the Veleros and creating this cool atmosphere shows a true gratitude and understanding of baseball's culture," Ashlee Schmitt said. "I'm obsessed with everything about tonight: I love the uniforms, I love the bright colors. It brings an extra element of fun to the game."
Across the country, Albuquerque Isotopes' vice president and general manager, John Traub, was preparing for the Mariachis de Nuevo México's first game as reigning Copa champions. The Mariachis won the vote from MiLB's new Hispanic Advisory Committee comprised of leaders in multicultural academia, media and marketing, who deemed the hard work and passionate commitment the Isotopes/Mariachis' front office and community partners poured into their Copa activities last season.
The early-arriving crowd waiting for the first Mariachis de Nuevo México's game in 2019. (Tim March)
"We say it often: the mariachi is the soundtrack of our lives," Traub said prior to the Mariachis' 2019 debut Saturday night. "Once we established the name and logo, the community embraced it unlike anything I have seen before. I constantly have people stop and thank me for introducing the Mariachis into their lives. It's humbling and an honor to know that we have made that kind of impact in a short period of time."
Last season, Albuquerque set Isotopes Park's single-game attendance record (16,975) for the Mariachis' first game. The buzz and momentum in the community continued throughout the year, with the team averaging 5,227 more attendees for its Copa-designated games than the comparable games in 2017.
But the real impact can be felt in Albuquerque's community. Jim Garcia, Vice President of the Albuquerque Hispano Chamber of Commerce, announced prior to Saturday night's game that the Hispano Chamber created a new annual scholarship based on the significant philanthropic impact the Mariachis' jersey auction held at the end of last season.
"The Mariachis sparked a wonderful connection with Hispanic fans throughout New Mexico," Garcia said. "The Isotopes' commitment to its Hispanic fan base is real, as is how much the Hispanic fan base has clearly reciprocated the love back."
Last year's Copa momentum in Albuquerque picked up exactly where it left off: Saturday night's crowd was 59.5% larger than the Isotopes' first Saturday home game in 2018.
In Columbus, the Clippers partnered with its local Hispanic Chamber of Commerce and consulted with the Chamber's leadership in every facet of planning for its first Copa season.
"Copa is more than a name, logo or even game," said César Bravo, Vice President of the Columbus Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. "This effort brings me home; it speaks to me. This makes me and other Hispanics in the community feel special because the team is directly talking to us."
Kurt Hunzeker is Vice President, Marketing Strategy & Research for Minor League Baseball.
This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.