Elevating Latinas in Sports

Jennifer Yepez-Blundell, founder of Drafted, discusses championing Latina representation in sports.

NB: Tell me a little bit about you. Where are you from? Where did you grow up? 

JYB: I’m a second-generation Mexican American from Texas. I’m Tejana through and through. I grew up in a smaller West Texas town where diversity was in pockets and it was not cool to be different, so the upbringing that I had was a very acculturated life. My parents just wanted us to “blend in” and not be “othered” the way that they were growing up in the town. 

My life has been a journey of learning and unlearning culture throughout. When I was 18, I started studying abroad in Mexico, as I wanted to be immersed, find my roots, find myself, and get ties back to my culture and ancestors. I haven’t looked back since. I went several times, traveled all over and read so many history books. 

My kids now are in bilingual dual-cultural schools, and they’re going to know no different. It’s an exciting growth period.

NB: On the note of supporting our community, tell us about your company, Drafted.

JYB: Drafted is a Latina sports culture company. We launched last year and we’re focused on celebrating and elevating Latinas in the world of sports. 

Our narratives are not represented in mass media and mainstream culture, and it’s up to us to change that. That was the impetus for starting Drafted. I was a former collegiate athlete, I’m a sports fan and a former sports marketer, so I know firsthand the audience that we have in Latinas when it comes to sports fandom and sports participation. We’re building the future of fandom.

NB: What are the challenges Latinas in the U.S. face in sports today? Can you talk about sports at the school, college and professional level? 

JYB: For me, sports was more than just a game. It was a sense of belonging because in that small West Texas town, I wasn’t reflected anywhere. With my dad being the coach and my mom being the team mom, they made sure that our teams were very diverse and inclusive of everybody. If you had talent, we were going to find a way for you to play. 

We know that girls by the age of 14 drop out of sports twice as fast as boys do. And from the Latina perspective, we know that they receive a lot of messages discouraging them from playing sports. 

There needs to be more research about this. The ones doing the research are two Latinas: Vera Lopez out of Arizona State University and Marilyn Castro from the University of California, Santa Barbara. They are looking at the main reasonsf why Latinas are dropping out of sport at such a young age or you’re not seeing them participate at all. And it all comes down to the messaging that they’re receiving. 

There are four types of messages that Vera uncovered. They are ideological beliefs around sport, gender and culture. For example,  I played tennis but my mom didn’t because my grandmother said “you’re a little girl, and girls don’t play sports; you’re not allowed to play tennis.” So those are the ideological beliefs that surround us. 

Then there are institutional messages. What are those common practices or policies that prohibit little girls from playing? Also, some are the instructional messages that they might be receiving from coaches. And the last one is interpersonal messages. Those are messages they get from peer pressure, from others taunting them 

In high school, I had a female coach. But when I got into college it was the first time that I had a different type of personality, a male, who was more of a harder coach. And that deterred me. That was one of the first times I questioned my talent, or my skills and it threw me off. We know from a coach’s perspective that the words they speak can take a toll on whether or not somebody chooses to continue to play.

All these messages line up to discourage Latinas from participating, which then affects the collegiate pipeline, which then affects the professional and even corporate and executive pipeline from a sports landscape perspective. It’s an entire ecosystem problem that needs to be solved.

In my case, I was the only Latina on the team and it makes a difference, especially just going into college. That’s the first time you’re away from your family. There are so many things at play. And I don’t think my college program held the proper space for us to evolve as humans, as players and as student-athletes.

That is one of our key focus areas with Drafted. If you don’t see it, how are you supposed to be it? Representation, visibility and access are key. For us as an emerging media company, we making sure that we’re centering and elevating Latinas in the world of sports. So Latinas at any age can see that Latina fandom is real, that athletes are real, that leadership experience within the sports industry is obtainable. We have to see it.

NB: Other than the messages being received, are there any other challenges they are facing?

JYB: It just doubles down on the systematic challenges and the access. If you look at somebody like Maria Sanchez, from the Houston Dash NWSL team, she made headlines in the Wall Street Journal for her record-breaking deal. But she never played club ball. It was unalienable for her and her family, yet she made it. Her story isn’t the norm though. And again, that’s one of those things where it’s a kink in the pipeline. From 2021, we have this stat that only 6% of collegiate student-athletes identified as Hispanic and Latino, and only 2% of coaches and athletic directors. There’s the funneling problem. We can’t get this professional grade player if she’s not able to get access in the collegiate area. 

There’s a wonderful non-profit organization out of California called Ella Sports Foundation. It’s Latina-led, and the founder’s daughter plays softball at an Ivy League school, and their mission is to level the playing field for young Latina and women of color athletes. In a sport like softball, scouts aren’t flying around the country to recruit talent. To get recruited, you have to go to a camp, and going to a scouting camp takes money and time, and it requires a parent or a guardian to take you. So all these systemic barriers are in place, hindering Latinas from growing as athletes.

NB: Do you think there’s an opportunity for brands to help sort or diminish that gap? What opportunities or white spaces are there for brands today?

JYB: It’s a whole ecosystem problem. Brands and organizations can help by simply starting  within their swim lanes and developing a Latina athlete or sports ecosytem strategy.. Brands can ask themselves, “how are we going to make sure that our athlete representation matches the country’s growth population? And how are we making sure that we’re playing a part in inclusion and equity?” It’s very much going to be a bespoke strategy for each brand and don’t feel like you have to go outside of your expertise. Stay within your lane, and try to solve the problem from within.

The numbers show that Latinas and Black girls are dropping out of sports at higher rates. Brands should look there to help solve the entire girls and women in sports ecosystem. You have to include and address the most underserved groups in order to truly make sports equitable. 

Women’s sports is a rocket ship – and if brands are not recognizing that, they areleaving consumers and money on the table.

I’m a strategist at heart. So I always look at the data because tugging on your heartstrings doesn’t get us that far. You have to prove ROI. And for fans of women’s sports, that data is there. They have higher sponsorship recall, they have higher engagement rates with brands and female athletes, and they have more trust and loyalty to those who support women’s sports. So it’s a win-win situation. Brands need to create a strong strategy and not wait too much longer.

NB: What should brands be considering when looking at the opportunities of investing in women and girls in sports? What’s the first step they should take?

JYB: Have them call me. Call Drafted.

When you’re taking the first initial steps and saying: “I want to explore Latina fandom and I understand Latina’s purchasing power, but I don’t know how to engage them.Where do I start? Where’s the landscape of opportunity?” You go to the Latina sports culture company who is doing it right. That’s us, and we will help you build that strategy. We know our audience like the back of our hands because we are her as well.  We’re the only ones harnessing the power of Latina fandom. You can tap into our community, you can build a relationship with her, and you can get insights into her fandom and beyond. And together, we’ll begin to move the needle.

NB:  Who is your Atrevido Preferido/Atrevida Preferida?

A lot of people come to mind. I think first and foremost it’s my grandparents who were my dad’s parents. They came to the United States from Mexico in search of that American dream. I unfortunately didn’t have a chance to meet them. They both passed before I was born, but my dad has done an amazing job telling me stories of their lives and their struggles and their accomplishments and I’m very fortunate that we have a lot of photos of them. So I keep those very close to me. I think the most daring thing that somebody can do is to step outside to the unknown, bet on themselves, and have faith in their heart that they will chart their own path. 

Another one that comes to mind is my mother, Linda Yepez. She’s an amazing person, she didn’t have the best role models growing up, yet she’s building her path brick by brick. She’s breaking cycles of trauma in how she raised her children and how she’s showing up as a grandparent. It has just been beautiful to witness. She is so bold and beautiful.

NB: Suerte o Sudor? What percentage do you attribute your success to in terms of luck vs. hard work? 

That’s a hard one for me because I truly believe everything happens for a reason. You can work hard and never get what you’ve been working towards or pining for. And for me, that is because it’s not meant for you. I don’t call it luck. I think destiny has a lot to do with it. 

So for me, it’s 30% destiny, but the majority, 70%, of it is hard work. Destiny can open the door, can open the window, but you had better be honing your craft, upskilling yourself, really digging into the meat of whatever industry that you’re in. So when you get that opportunity, you can pick up the ball and run with it to the best of your ability. 

But I also think a little bit of something else is sprinkled on top: emotional intelligence. I don’t think people talk about that enough. Being able to connect human to human and build meaningful relationships with people is important because those are the people who will become your champions and speak your name in rooms that you are not in.

NB:  Do you have any last pieces of advice for anyone who right now might be thinking of taking a leap of faith or wanting to grow in their careers and might be feeling stuck or less than?

I’ve been there, I know that feeling too well. And the advice would be to bet on yourself. If you want a job change, if you want to leave corporate to go into entrepreneurship, whatever it is, bet on yourself. Because what’s the worst that can happen? 

That’s the beautiful thing about Latinas. We always rebuild. We always pick ourselves up, and it’s okay. And even if you “fail”, it’s a lesson. It’s a life learning that you can take and you can use in your next chapter or your next pivot. So just bet on yourself.