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'Los Suns' show the way, but will other teams follow?

By Jim Litke, AP Columnist

Why stop with "Los Suns?"

For all the marketing schemes pro sports leagues have tried to woo Latinos in recent years, none probably resonated more powerfully with the target audience than the Phoenix Suns' decision to wear their "Los Suns" jerseys for Game 2 of their NBA playoff series against San Antonio earlier this week.

You can argue about whether politics should mix with sports or whether the decision by owner Robert Sarver and his team to don "Los Suns" in light of the angry immigration debate in Arizona was good politics. But there's not much argument about whether it was good for the bottom line.

"That's because it really spoke to a hot-button issue," said Mario Flores, managing director Los Angeles-based Sportivo, a Latino sports public relations and marketing agency. Nothing that comes to mind, at least in terms of sports, got this kind of a bounce."

The next census is expected to show Latinos make up roughly 15 percent of the U.S. population, with an estimated $1 trillion in purchasing power. Research shows they also make up a significant part of every pro sports league's audience, ranging from a high of 33 percent for Major League Soccer to eight percent for NASCAR and the NHL.

Given the chance to make a statement about valuing diversity -- and make money in the bargain -- what are the odds other owners, teams and leagues will come forward and take the same risk that Sarver and his players did?

Slim and none.

Too bad.

Ten NBA teams wore jerseys aimed at their Latino fans for two different games during a league-wide celebration in March. The Spurs said they, too, would have worn their "Los Spurs" jerseys to match Sarver's gesture had they been available, and still plan to if the series -- currently 2-0 in favor the Suns -- goes to a fifth game.

But so far neither of the two other NBA playoff teams with Latino-themed jerseys laying around -- "Los Lakers" and "El Magic" -- have announced plans to dust them off and put a foot down in the middle of the messy immigration debate. The same is true for MLS, NHL and major league baseball teams across the country.

You'll see promotions during their regular seasons, for example when the "Cerveceros" of Milwaukee play the "Piratas" of Pittsburgh in the coming weeks. You'll also see plenty of meaningful gestures designed to make Latino customers more comfortable in the ballparks and arenas, ranging from directions and signs in Spanish all the way down to the choices at the concessions stands.

But unlike the Suns' decision, the tough calls are being put off until the heat surrounding the immigration issue is turned down.

Baseball commissioner Bud Selig reportedly is being pressed to consider pulling the All-Star Game from Phoenix, where it's scheduled next season. The NFL pulled a Super Bowl out of Arizona two decades ago over the state's refusal to recognize the national holiday commemorating Martin Luther King Jr., returning only after legislators there relented.

Selig won't tip his hand on the matter this far out, but it wouldn't come as a complete surprise if he responds in a meaningful way sometime soon. He was in meetings and unavailable for comment Thursday, but he always has taken baseball's role as a force for driving social change very seriously.

Between 16 percent and 20 percent of baseball's audience is Latino; if MLB and the MLS wants to score points, there's no time like the present.

"It would be an incredible message across the country," Flores said. "To have an entire league, let alone all of them, putting their support behind this issue would be unprecedented. It would also be very, very smart.

"Latinos already know which teams value their fans by how welcome they feel the moment they step into a stadium. ... And it's clear from everything they're doing -- the Spanish-language websites, the broadcasts in Spanish, the advertising dollars -- that the leagues do value Latinos as fans."

Flores also is the first to acknowledge that what made the Suns' simple gesture stand out was the timing.

"All the promotions make a difference. But I don't think what the Suns did was to make a difference just on the marketing side of the ledger," he added. "They did it because they thought it was the right thing to do."

Now there's a novel way to do business.