Growth beyond borders: Inside the NFL’s reach in Mexico

Growth beyond borders: Inside the NFL’s reach in Mexico

The stands at Estadio Azteca in Mexico City were filled with 49ers fans when San Francisco took on the Arizona Cardinals. (Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images)

The stands at Estadio Azteca in Mexico City were filled with 49ers fans when San Francisco took on the Arizona Cardinals. (Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images)

MEXICO CITY – Viva la NFL!

More than 48 million NFL fans reside in Mexico, and some of them descended upon Pinche Gringo BBQ Warehouse in Mexico City on a cloudy Sunday afternoon. The San Francisco 49ers rented out the American restaurant for three days, which served as the team’s official fan headquarters, ahead of their division game against the Arizona Cardinals on Nov. 21.

Attendees took pictures with former Niner players, cheerleaders and their mascot and participated in Niner-themed giveaways, trivia and inflatable obstacle courses a day before the “Monday Night Football” game. “Vamos Niners” and “Let’s go Niners” rang throughout the venue, while fans ate food and watched NFL games.

“In Mexico, there’s a big Niners following from a long time ago because they’ve come here a couple of times,” Querétaro, Mexico native Tanya Oseguera said. “People really appreciate any team that comes.”

The country benefits economically from these visits. The Texans-Raiders game in Mexico City in 2016 generated an increase of $45 million in the city’s gross revenues, according to a study commissioned by the NFL.

Mexican residents have watched the NFL since the 1970s, which has attracted large, organic fandoms to teams that have historically won championships like the 49ers, Pittsburgh Steelers and Dallas Cowboys.

The NFL continues to flirt with international expansion as the league came back to Mexico City for the fifth time, held its first game in Munich, Germany, and returned to London for its International Series.

A football fan poses for a picture while attending the 2019 game between Kansas City Chiefs and Los Angeles Chargers in Mexico City. The league is considering expansion in Mexico. (Photo by Pedro Pardo/AFP via Getty Images)

The league tapped into its Mexico City fanbase in the week leading up the game with NFL youth camps, fan events and meet and greets. Mexican fans radiated love for their favorite NFL teams throughout the “City of Palaces” by painting 49ers-Cardinals murals, flaunting their flags and wearing jerseys, hats and Luchador masks.

For the first time since 2019, the NFL hosted a game in Mexico City, where the San Francisco 49ers defeated the Arizona Cardinals 38-10 in front of 78,427 people. The “Monday Night Football” game felt like the Super Bowl with a postseason feel thanks to the attendees, who made the weekend memorable. Fans took over the Estadio Azteca with their deafening cheers, boos and chants, which left 49ers and Cardinals coaches and players impressed.

“Man, I love San Francisco but if we couldn’t be there, I would love to be here,” 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan said after the Week 11 win. “This place is awesome.”

If the NFL expanded to Mexico, the country offers more convenient travel for teams despite Aztec Stadium’s high altitude. Europe trips have long flights over the Atlantic, while Mexico City flights are normal for most NFL teams, such as the Cardinals, Las Vegas Raiders, Houston Texans and both Los Angeles teams.

“The NFL has fans worldwide and to perform and play in front of those fans that don’t get a lot of opportunities to see NFL games live, I think it’s amazing,” 49ers tight end George Kittle said after the victory. “I love playing — and this is my first game out of the country, but I think every international game that’s here has put on a good show.”

Yet teams couldn’t market themselves south of the border despite having an undying fandom for many NFL teams. Only the league could advertise and build its growth, which left an untapped Mexican market.

This changed in December 2021 when the NFL launched the international home marketing areas (IHMA) initiative, which allowed clubs access to international territories for marketing, fan engagement and commercialization to build their brands and increase fan growth. As a result, nine teams, including the Cardinals, 49ers and Steelers, bid and received IHMA rights in Mexico.

“Mexico is the second largest country for NFL fans in the world, and of course, we’re neighbors, so there’s a lot of cultural diffusion,” Pinche Gringo BBQ founder Dan DeFossey said. “Mexico has adopted a lot of the passion for football, Mexican fans have their teams they’re very passionate about their game, and I think that’s something that the NFL understands.”

Members of the Cardinals and 49ers traveled to Mexico City to promote the Mexico game months before. Cardinals Spanish-language play-by-play announcer Luis Hernandez visited in April to announce the team’s sixth-round selection in the 2022 NFL Draft, while linebacker Markus Golden came in July.

The Mexico and United States flags hang on display during ahead of November’s “Monday Night Football” game between the Arizona Cardinals and San Francisco 49ers. (Photo by Derrian Carter/Cronkite News)

The 49ers traveled to Mexico City for a team tour in October that featured four-time Super Bowl champion Jesse Sapolu and the 49ers’ chief marketing officer Alex Chang.

The Steelers used running back Najee Harris to announce their fourth-round pick in the 2022 NFL Draft in Mexico City. The Cowboys partnered with TelevisaUnivision, a Spanish-language media and content company, in August that allowed the media company to broadcast the team’s preseason games and provide weekly content throughout the NFL season.

“We embrace a lot of American culture, and I think the NFL is one of the high-valued things in American culture,” former Mexican professional soccer player Ana Paola López Yrigoyen said.

The IHMA program’s early results are “mixed, with some clubs very active and others not so much,” according to the Athletic. One of the program’s challenges was to build huge followings internationally similar to European soccer clubs, whose teams are free from league restrictions and have amassed large social followings, such as Manchester United, Chelsea FC and Liverpool FC, who exceed over 20 million Twitter followers.

While there are many ways to measure success, the NFL’s reluctance for clubs to market to its international fanbase is one reason teams have minimal reach on their international social accounts. For example, only the Steelers (50,800), Cowboys (41,200) and 49ers (23,000) have over 10,000 Twitter followers on their Spanish or Mexico accounts despite the vast number of fans in Mexico.

While the league aims for commercial and fan growth in Mexico, Mexican residents hope to see more representation in the NFL.

The league allowed over 200 players, coaches and executives to wear helmet decals of the country or territory’s flag that represents their nationality or cultural heritage during Weeks 4 and 5, yet only nine players and one coach participated with the Mexico flag decal.

The NFL held its first game in Mexico City since 2019 on Nov. 21 at Estadio Azteca, where the Arizona Cardinals suffered a 38-10 loss to the San Francisco 49ers. (Photo by Derrian Carter/Cronkite News)

Hispanic or Latino players make up less than 1% of the NFL, per the Institute of Diversity and Ethics in Sport. There are only seven NFL players that identify as Hispanic or Latino, and the percentage of players hasn’t exceeded 1% since 1991.

For more Hispanic or Latino players to enter the NFL, Fernando Langle, who played wide receiver in Mexico’s Liga de Fútbol Americano Profesional league, believes players’ mentality and understanding of football needs to change. He cited people who thought football was about being “big and strong” versus possessing the skills and knowledge.

“We need to prepare more,” Langle said. “If you compare a college guy from the U.S. and a college guy from Mexico City, the football speed here, it’s a little slow compared to the U.S. one.”

Langle noticed Mexican football’s mindset shift recently with colleges in his country emphasizing speed and training. The NFL has also helped with the expansion of its flag football presence in Mexico, which offers a more accessible option for kids to play and learn the sport.

With the league’s continued focus to grow the game south of the border, 49ers defensive end Nick Bosa is hopeful the amount of Hispanic or Latino players will increase.

“I mean, anything’s possible, and I think Fred Warner being on our team is a testament to that,” Bosa said about his Mexican-American teammate after the Week 11 game, “That a kid from Mexico could, if he has the work ethic and the right situation, he can make it in the NFL.”

The NFL continues to leave its mark in Mexico, attempting to grow its sport and fan support. The league’s reception at the 49ers- Cardinals game signaled Mexico is in the NFL’s long-term plans.

Derrian Carter

Sports Reporter, Phoenix

Derrian Carter expects to graduate in December 2022 with a master’s degree in sports journalism. Carter, who has interned with Tuscaloosa News and the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta, was a research associate for the Knight-Cronkite News Lab, a fellow for Front Office Sports and a copy editor and reporter for the Poynter Institute.

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