By John Lopez
July 14, 2009

The NFL has spent a lot of time and money taking mighty swings at the multi-billion dollar Hispanic market. The result? It's been as if the league has been blindfolded, spun around in circles, and told to hit a piñata with one-hand tied behind its collective back.

Arriba, Mark Sanchez.

Not since Yao Ming, perhaps, has one player been so important to a league's effort at expanding and entrenching itself into virtually un-mined gold. Indeed, this is one of those rare exceptions when the potential value of a player on the field is exceeded only by his value off of it.

Of course, it is huge pressure to heap onto Sanchez' shoulders. And, of course, Sanchez must produce for the New York Jets. He must play well, put up the numbers and win. But if he can handle both demands, put it this way: New York would be only the second-largest market Sanchez would conquer. And it would be a distant second at that.

Hispanics are the largest minority group in the United States and are growing faster than any other group. The most recent Census figures indicate that by next year Hispanics will account for $670 billion in personal income, with Mexican-American households accounting for $409 billion of that total. Hispanics also are younger and trending upward financially quicker than every other demographic. It truly is the ultimate prize the NFL has yet to win.

The NFL first began to realize the potential more than 25 million Hispanic sports fans could have on the league several years ago. But the plan was disorganized. Marketing the demographic was left mostly to individual teams and, frankly, it was not a front-burner issue. In recent years, the effort has been much more focused and league-driven.

There have been Hispanic Heritage Months, ventures into Hispanic communities and Spanish-language broadcasts of NFL games in several markets. There have been exhibition and regular-season games played in Mexico, the Web site hosted in Spanish and even the Madden Espanol video game, featuring Bears offensive lineman Roberto Garza.

But the mother lode -- in this case a demographic that should number more than 50 million in the 2010 Census and whose buying power should exceed more than $1.2 trillion by 2012 -- has yet to burst wide open.

Can one 22-year-old rookie have that big an impact?

Anyone who remembers Fernando-mania, in 1981, when rookie sensation Fernando Valenzuela changed everything in baseball, would tell you, yes, one rookie can.

Before he died in 1979, former Dodgers manager Walter O'Malley often mentioned he wished he could find, "a Mexican Sandy Koufax." Though O'Malley didn't live to see Valenzuela capture a nation's fancy, the manager's vision could not have been more profound.

It's one thing to have significant, popular, even Hall of Fame-caliber players of a certain demographic on an NFL roster. But it's quite another to have the most important position on the field and the face of the franchise be one that crosses cultures.

The NFL has had numerous big-time Hispanic players over the years, including Hall of Fame tackle Anthony Munoz, All Pro tight end Tony Gonzalez and defensive stars Luis Castillo and Tony Casillas. And while quarterbacks Tony Romo and Jeff Garcia have Hispanic blood on their fathers' side, not until Sanchez arrived has a Mexican-American player who completely embraced his culture stepped into the market and had such an opportunity.

If Sanchez' charisma, professionalism and talent translate onto the field, his influence could be worth hundreds of millions of dollars to the league. As things stand now, the NFL ranks first among all sports in English-speaking Hispanic households, but most polls indicate football remains behind soccer, boxing, baseball and basketball in Spanish-speaking households.

Some people will say it's unfair to consider a 22-year-old player yet to even wear NFL shoulder pads so pivotal to the league's initiative. But take it from someone who grew up in a Hispanic household in which Spanish was spoken and the television always was tuned into NFL football on Sunday afternoons: Sanchez is exactly what the league's initiative has been missing.

Simply put, he gets it. Or, seems to. And he never has shied away from taking on the added burden, to the point of taking Spanish classes at USC so he could better speak with Hispanics in the community and conduct interviews in Spanish.

No amount of group studies or contrived demo-specific events can replace having someone who speaks the language on so many levels entering millions of living rooms in HD. While it's nice to having Mariachis tooting horns in NFL parking lots, it's better having someone who looks the part, understands the part and plays the part becoming a star.

The great-grandson of South Texas and California fruit-pickers, with roots in South Los Angeles, Sanchez has lived the culture. The pride he feels for his heritage will be there, whether or not the NFL is banking on it.

Sanchez also has consistently connected with Mexican-American football fans, many of them wearing Zarapes, Mexican wrestler masks and other colorful costumes in his honor when he starred at USC. The USC band used to play "El Matador" whenever he jogged onto the field.

The Jets, for now, are traipsing delicately when it comes to Sanchez becoming anything more than just a good quarterback. In fact, they said as much when contacted about Sanchez being interviewed on the subject of his role in the Hispanic market. And most Jets fans probably could not care less about anything other than wins on Sunday afternoons, either.

But no matter if the Jets choose to look the other way for now, the biggest, best chance at finally cracking open the golden piñata is staring the league square in the face. And his name is Mark Sanchez.

GALLERY: Prominent Hispanics in NFL history.

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