Eleven years ago, when the NFL played its first regular-season game outside the United States, it was in Mexico City in front of more than 103,000 people -- a resounding statement that football could travel. The lure of London was strong, though -- the bigger market, the potential for greater riches, the ease of a shared language -- so when the NFL focused in earnest on expanding its international footprint, it headed to the United Kingdom.
But when the NFL returns to Mexico City on Monday night for a showdown between the Oakland Raiders and the Houston Texans, it will be the first of what the NFL plans to be an annual game in Mexico.
According to Mark Waller, the NFL's international chief, this Mexico City game in Estadio Azteca is a test run of sorts. And if all goes well, the NFL will play another regular-season game in Mexico next season and, it hopes, for years to come, adding another recurring international game to the three that are now played every year in London.
"My goal would be similar to the U.K., where we're able to go back at least once a year and create our piece of the Mexico City sporting calendar," Waller said. "Mexico City has the size of NFL fan base that would rival any city in the United States. The area is 22 million people. It's a huge and very passionate fan base."
That is certainly true, which made the NFL's absence for more than a decade -- despite the fact that the league was seeking to broaden its international reach -- all the more curious. The NFL has been televised in Mexico since the 1960s, and in addition to the popularity of California and Texas teams because of their proximity, the Pittsburgh Steelers have an enormous following -- the team's fan club in Mexico is believed to be the largest outside of Pittsburgh -- because of the franchise's success in the 1970s, when Mexican fans were first getting acquainted with the sport. When tickets went on sale in July for Monday night's game, the NFL announced that they sold out in 30 minutes.
This is a critical next step for the NFL's plan to expand the game internationally, where pro baseball and basketball have a head-start not only in interest level but in participation. The business appeal of London was obvious, although the NFL had to put in much more work to attract and familiarize fans with football than it will have to in Mexico, which has a far greater knowledge of the game than the United Kingdom did when the NFL alighted on it. And the desire to make the NFL successful in London is what drove the NFL to stay out of Mexico this long.
Until recently, the league had few games to spread around the globe, because it was difficult to get most teams to sacrifice a home game to play abroad. And, Waller explained, league officials felt it was important to play consistently in the United Kingdom to build interest and maintain momentum. That has resulted in the growth of the series -- from its start with one game in 2007, to the three games played there now, with a possibility that a fourth game could be added in the future.
Finally, the NFL solved its inventory problem with a resolution that required teams in stadium transition -- like the Los Angeles Rams -- to play a home game abroad and for teams that win bids to host Super Bowls to give up a home game to play outside the United States. The increased number of available games combined with stadium issues in the United Kingdom that made it difficult to add even more contests there this season opened the door to taking the product into another market.
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Mexico City, then, became the obvious choice, particularly because the stadium was already receiving upgrades as part of a 50th anniversary celebration. The NFL poured on the improvements, too -- among other things, it constructed new locker rooms because the existing ones weren't large enough to accommodate 53 players. The other appealing part of Mexico for the league: Unlike games in London, which, because of the time difference, can only be played in the early afternoon for broadcast on Sunday mornings in the United States, games in Mexico City, which is in the Central time zone, can be played in the highest-profile Sunday and Monday prime-time slots. For teams, concerns about travel length and time changes are diminished, but they'll be forced to focus instead on dealing with Mexico City's altitude (over 7,200 feet above sea level, about 2,000 feet higher than Denver), a factor that will prompt some teams to arrive later in the week and depart immediately after the game. Waller says teams really have two options: either arrive early to adjust to the altitude or swoop in very late to minimize the overall impact on players. The Raiders and Texans, according to Waller, have chosen the latter: spend as little time as possible at altitude, get in and get out quickly.
The results -- on and off the field -- will be watched closely. Waller has ambitious ideas about spreading into other international markets -- a game in China has already been discussed -- and none of them preclude the idea of having a team based in London while also playing games in other counties. More than a decade ago, Mexico City was the NFL's first regular-season foray away from home. The look of the league for the next decade could hinge on how the return goes on Monday.
"I believe one of our unique advantages is because of our schedule, we can play in many different places," Waller said. "I would love to think over time we could play in other cities in Mexico. I think we should play in Canada. I think we should play in Germany. I think if you spread out 10 years, there would be, in every NFL season, a number of games that give you a real sense that we were part of the global sporting community in multiple cities throughout the season. I like the London strategy, but I think it was narrow. I would love to think, 10 years out, in a season we were playing Mexico City, Vancouver, Berlin, three or four in London. That feels very inclusive."
Follow Judy Battista on Twitter @judybattista.