By: Alex Riggins
When former Tijuana mayor and businessman Jorge Hank Rohn established a low-level club soccer team in Tijuana in 2007, it would have been hard to imagine the quick success the club would experience.
Located in the Mexican border town that sits just south of San Diego, the team was given the nickname Xoloitzcuintles – Xolos for short – referencing a type of hairless Aztec dog. The name was fitting since Estadio Caliente, the team’s home stadium, was built next to a dog-racing track at Rohn’s gambling and sports betting complex, Caliente.
With Rohn’s son, Jorge Alberto Hank, acting as team president, the Club Tijuana Xolos earned their way into the highest level of Mexican soccer in 2011 by winning a championship in the lower division. That championship earned the Xolos the privilege of replacing the worst team from the first division – a concept known as relegation that is common in professional sports outside of the U.S.
In their short existence, the Xolos have become a force in professional Mexican soccer. But just as amazing as their quick success on the field is their success among fans on both sides of the border. As Jorge Arangure Jr. wrote for the popular sports site SB Nation earlier this year, the Xolos are not just northern Mexico’s team – they are quickly becoming Southern California’s team. Club Tijuana’s management is now trying to capitalize on the fact that the Xolos appeal to Mexicans and Americans on both sides of the border.
Club Tijuana Xoloitzcuintles de Caliente: A bilingual team
Ivan Orozco, a Mexican-American graduate of San Diego State University, began covering the Xolos for the San Diego Union-Tribune and other news outlets while the Xolos were still in the second-tier of Mexican soccer.
Orozco made numerous contacts during his time covering the Xolos, including with the team’s assistant general manager, Roberto Cornejo. The relationship between Orozco and Cornejo ended up paying dividends once the team reached the highest division, Liga MX.
“One day [Cornejo] found out I wasn’t working in journalism anymore,” Orozco said. “So he called me and asked if I could help him start up an English language website.”
Orozco accepted the invitation and in October 2012, just over a year after the Xolos had joined Mexico’s top league, he began to help build the website, Twitter account and Facebook page. The English site was up and running by November, and the timing couldn’t have been better. On Dec. 2, 2012, the Club Tijuana Xoloitzcuintles de Caliente won the Liga MX Apertura championship.
They were the kings of Mexican soccer.
When English speaking soccer fans worldwide heard that an underdog team from Tijuana had won Mexico’s version of the Super Bowl, they had a brand new English language website to visit, Twitter account to follow and Facebook page to like.
The Xolos are still the only Liga MX club to have an online presence in English.
Building an American fan base
Team president Jorge Alberto Hank estimates that 17 percent of ticket sales come from the United States. Orozco said that number is a rough estimation and might be on the low side.
Just a glimpse of Estadio Caliente’s parking lot on a game day reveals the multinational nature of the fans. About a third of the cars parked outside the stadium have California license plates, and you can’t walk across the border on game day without coming across fans dressed in their red and black Xolos gear.
While most of the fans who cross the border to attend games are Mexican-Americans or Mexicans living in the United States, some of them are not.
Martin Albert is a California native who lives in the Ocean Beach community of San Diego. In his adolescence, Albert travelled to Mexico frequently to surf and skate and find adventure. His trips south of the border became less frequent in the mid-2000s when Tijuana earned the reputation of being unsafe, especially for white Americans.
But Albert was recently drawn back across the border by the allure of something that is missing in San Diego – high quality professional soccer.
“I’m 45 years old and this team has me hyped up like I haven’t been since I was a teenager,” Albert said.
Albert is the head of a small group of white Americans that crosses the border for every Xolos home match and meets at a restaurant in Ocean Beach to watch away matches. The group calls itself the “GringoXolos” and has an official Facebook page.
Albert is not of Mexican heritage, nor are the other members of the “GringoXolos,” and none of them speak more than a few phrases of Spanish. But that doesn’t stop them from enjoying the games and feeling a sense of pride in the team. For the “GringoXolos,” the border is little more than an inconvenience and will never stop the Xolos from being their hometown team.
“I’ve never been to any sporting event in my life – and I’m 45 – where people are telling me to get in there,” Albert said. “They want me to be part of that. I feel like I’m at home.”
Creating a U.S. marketing strategy
With the success that the Xolos have experienced, plus the absence of high-level professional soccer in San Diego, Club Tijuana’s management sees an opportunity to market the team to soccer fans just across the border.
On July 6 of this year, the Xolos will play an exhibition match at San Diego’s Petco Park against Liga MX rival Club América. It will be the second time Tijuana and América have played in San Diego. They met in the San Diego Clásico on June 30, 2012 at Qualcomm Stadium in Mission Valley.
In addition to the exhibition games on U.S soil, Club Tijuana’s management is brainstorming ideas on how to market the team to U.S fans.
On the first weekend of March this year, the San Diego State University Sports MBA program hosted an international case competition that featured MBA candidates from schools like Oxford, Notre Dame, and University of Southern California, among others. The competition: create the best U.S. marketing strategy for the Xolos.
The four-member group from SDSU’s sports MBA program won the competition, as judged by Cornejo and others from the Xolos’ front office. The winning team suggested that Club Tijuana enter corporate partnerships with American brands such as AutoZone, which according to their research has 337 stores across Mexico.
They also suggested sponsorship from Chevrolet, the number one American car retailer in Mexico, and Kraft, which according to their research has allocated 30 percent of its marketing budget to Hispanic consumers.
Other winning ideas for the SDSU group included broadcasting Xolos games on English language radio in the southwest United States, and creating a mobile merchandising truck, which would be an official team store, but with the advantage of being mobile.
“Cornejo really seemed to like the idea of the truck,” said Micah Porter, one of the members of the victorious SDSU group. “He thought it would bridge the gap between fans who aren’t able to go to the team’s official kiosk.”
The SDSU group also pitched the idea of an exhibition in the Phoenix area, as well as sponsoring youth soccer leagues to build loyalty among young fans. The Xolos already have youth academies in northern Baja California as well as two in southern California – one in Chula Vista and the other in Temecula – but would sponsor more youth teams across the southwest United States in order to gain young fans.
Johnny Du, another member of SDSU’s winning team, thinks the Xolos have an untapped market full of potential.
“The big opportunity that the Xolos have in reaching out to young Mexican-Americans who are still formulating their fandom is that the rest of the Liga MX teams are so far,” Du said, pointing out that the next closest team to the Xolos is over 950 miles away.
“Club Tijuana is the closest Liga MX team for anyone from California to New Mexico and even the western part of Texas. I think they have a great opportunity.”