Mexico's national soccer team will play 13 games in two hemispheres and three time zones within the first seven months of this year. It will play on two continents, in outdoor stadiums, indoor stadiums and some with retractable roofs.
Where it won't play is in Mexico.
The reason is money — a lot of it. Playing in the United States is more lucrative, evidenced by Saturday's exhibition in the Coliseum against Ecuador, which is expected to draw a sellout crowd of 90,000. It doesn't stop there. Mexico will play seven games in the U.S. in the next 15 weeks — almost twice the number the U.S. team will play here.
Last year, Mexico played more games in the U.S. — eight — than the U.S. national team played domestically. Since February 2010, Mexico has played 30 of its 50 non-tournament games, called friendlies, in this country — many before sellout crowds.
This isn't to say the U.S. team isn't popular here. According to Adidas, the uniform provider for the Mexican national team, the U.S. and Mexico sold nearly an equal number of team jerseys in this country last year. Most second- and third-generation Mexican-Americans rate the U.S. as their second-favorite team.
Mexico is first.
"It's a win-win for both parties," said Adam Jacobson, a marketing consultant who specializes in the Hispanic market. "The businesses involved with the Mexican national team in the United States benefit. And it's beneficial for Mexico."
The national team has a four-year agreement with New York-based Soccer United Marketing (SUM), which guarantees Mexico $2 million a game to play no fewer than five exhibitions in the U.S. each year. It's about three times what the team makes for a friendly at home, said Hector Gonzalez, director of national teams for the Mexican soccer federation.
The Mexican federation also gets money from other U.S. events such as tournaments, like the upcoming CONCACAF Gold Cup, and friendlies it negotiates outside its deal with SUM. Gonzalez said the money earned in the U.S. funds all 11 of its national teams, which include the men's and women's World Cup teams and a beach soccer team.
"The Mexican national team exists in a commercial environment," said Jose Manuel "Chepo" de la Torre, a former player and coach for the national team. "It's something that's necessary for the federation because it provides for the other teams that don't have the same way of making money."
The U.S. has a Mexican American population of more than 35 million, accounting for more than 65% of a U.S. Spanish-speaking marketplace that is increasingly attractive to advertisers. The most popular team is the Mexican national team, which is why SUM has been able to get major corporations such as Wells Fargo, Unilever, Allstate, Castrol, Makita and Home Depot to sponsor U.S. tours.
Not surprisingly, the Mexican team's favorite cities are ones with huge expatriate populations such as Phoenix, Houston, Dallas and Los Angeles, where they regularly pack huge football stadiums.
In Southern California, Mexico drew more than 90,000 to the Rose Bowl for a meaningless midweek exhibition with New Zealand in 2010. A year later an overwhelmingly pro-Mexico crowd of 93,420 was in Pasadena for the Gold Cup final with the U.S. Some of the U.S. players were extremely unsettled at being the visiting team in their own country. The American national team hasn't played Mexico in Southern California since then.
The U.S. Soccer Federation, at least publicly, remains supportive of Mexico's popularity here, partly because it, too, has a marketing agreement with SUM.
"Our country is large enough and diverse enough for other federations to play here, whether it is Mexico, Brazil, Argentina or others," U.S. Soccer spokesman Neil Buethe said. "The growth of our professional leagues as well as more high-quality soccer being played in the U.S. helps build the overall fan interest in the game, which we have seen consistently since the 1994 World Cup was held in the United States."
Before 2003, the Mexican federation had to negotiate individual contracts with each market in which it played. But the promotion and the financial rewards were uneven, so fewer games were played here.
The relationship with SUM changed all that. Last year, the six largest crowds for a non-club soccer game in the U.S. involved Mexico, playing before an average of 64,326 fans.
"We look at it as, 'How do they maintain a connection with second-generation and in some cases third-generation Mexican Americans?'" said Kathryn Carter, president of SUM, which also does marketing for Major League Soccer. "The fan base has definitely evolved. And so has the positioning of the national team."
There is also a fan base in Mexico, where the team plays home World Cup qualifying games. Gonzalez said the federation would consider playing more friendlies there as well, especially with new stadiums being built in Guadalajara, Monterrey and Acapulco.
However, the finances frequently don't work.
Tickets for Saturday's game at the Coliseum range from $26 to $121, while seats for Liga MX games in Guadalajara's modern new stadium sell for as little as $8. Sponsorship and broadcast deals in Mexico pay a fraction of what similar deals are worth in the U.S.
"From a sheer business sense, it's smarter to have the Mexican national team play in Salt Lake City then to go to Durango" in Mexico, says Jacobson, the marketing expert. "It all comes down to dollars at the end of the day.
"Could the Mexican team do a tour of Mexico? Sure. But what are the tickets going to sell for? Who are the vendors? How much product am I going to move? Plus I'm speaking to a segment of the Mexican population [here] that, quite frankly, are more important consumers to those underwriting this."
Mexican Coach Miguel Herrera needs no convincing. Since he took over the national team 17 months ago, Mexico has played eight games in the U.S. — and it has drawn more than 51,000 fans for seven of them.
"Why doesn't Mexico play more in Mexico so the people can see us there? It's because the United States is a good market for us," he said.
"There are also a lot of Mexicans in the United States."