About 75,000 NFL fans will be attendance on Monday night when the Houston Texans and the Oakland Raiders clash in the league’s first game in Mexico City since 2005. For proponents of NFL expansion, the contest will be a litmus test for whether the league should return to Mexico on an annual, or even permanent, basis.
While the NFL’s effort to expand its offerings in the United Kingdom has garnered the most attention, the league has quietly cultivated a large following south of the border. More than 20 million NFL fans live in Mexico, according to various estimates, placing the country among the league’s biggest fan bases outside the United States. Television viewership is on the rise, with four Mexican channels airing NFL games on a weekly basis.
The rapid growth of the NFL’s Mexico market, coupled with the relative ease with which the league is able to hold games in the country compared to other foreign cities, has fueled speculation that Mexico could soon land its own franchise.
Mark Waller, the head of the NFL’s international division, said rising participation among the country’s youth and the close ties between families living on both sides of the border make Mexico an attractive market.
“This is a community that is connected very directly to the U.S. and the U.S.-Hispanic community. There are so many people who have family and relations living and working in the U.S.,” Waller said. “That ability to connect the Hispanic communities across the two countries, I think that’s a really powerful unifying statement that we’ll be making.”
The matchup is projected to generate about $22 million in direct and indirect revenue, including $2.8 million in ticket sales and $16 million through sponsorship and branding efforts, Mexican Tourism Secretary Enrique de la Madrid said on November 14. The NFL will spend some $8 million of that total to cover expenses. Estadio Azteca, a soccer stadium in Mexico City, had its locker rooms and broadcasting booth renovated in advance of the game, which sold out last July in a matter of minutes.
“It’s not at all unusual, when we go into a stadium for the first time that you have to do work. Not many stadiums outside the U.S. are built for 53-man rosters and cheerleaders and chain-gang crews and all of the things that go with our games,” Waller said.
The Texans-Raiders game marks the first time the NFL has held one of its marquee “Monday Night Football” contests outside the United States. More than 100,000 fans were in attendance for the league’s last regular-season game in Mexico, when the Arizona Cardinals defeated the San Francisco 49ers in October 2005.
NFL executives are committed to playing more international games in the coming years. The league plans to expand its London series from three regular-season games in 2016 to at least four by 2018. Cities Germany and China are also being considered as potential hosts.
Playing games in Mexico is relatively easy compared to cities in Europe or Asia, where the NFL has to navigate time zones and travel logistics to fit contests into the schedule. That could increase Mexico City’s chances of hosting more NFL contests in the near future.
Rushing to pass both teams through customs and flown back to the United States in time for Thanksgiving weekend was the primary logistical hurdle, Waller said.
“The fact that we’re on the same or similar time zones and the distances are shorter is a huge advantage. One of the beauties of it is that it allows us to play the game on Monday night,” he added. “I think that really make the game feel bigger and more important, which is great.”
The unforeseen results of the 2016 presidential election present an unexpected complication. President-elect Donald Trump drew sharp criticism among Mexican-Americans throughout his campaign due to various disparaging racial comments, a hardline stance on immigration and repeated vows to force the Mexican government to pay for a wall across U.S.-Mexico border.
The relationship between the two countries remains tense, but Waller said Trump’s victory won’t impact the NFL’s plans in Mexico. He compared the situation to the NFL’s handling of its London series after the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union. Similarly, the league’s plans for the U.K. market remain unchanged.
“When you decide to be global and international, you take on a responsibility that you’re going to manage through those circumstances that come up, that you can’t control,” Waller said. “I’m really proud that, come Monday night, there’ll be two anthems sung and two communities will celebrate a really important game.”