NFL's popularity in Mexico continues to grow

A week from Sunday, Carlos Meza will join nearly two dozen friends and family members in front of the TV in his stepfather's tiny second-floor apartment. They'll gather behind tables filled with takeout pizza, tacos and sushi, and coolers filled with beer and soda, to watch the Indianapolis Colts battle the New Orleans Saints for the NFL title.

"This year is going to be my 20th Super Bowl in a row," Meza, 28, said proudly.

Nothing unusual about that. Last year's Super Bowl telecast drew a record 98.7 million viewers in the United States. But Meza won't be watching in the U.S. His stepfather's apartment is in a middle-class neighborhood in downtown Mexico City, where futbol is more commonly played with a round ball.

In recent years, however, the city has also become home to a loyal, passionate -- and rapidly growing -- NFL fan base. T-shirts, sweaters and replica jerseys bearing the emblems of the Dallas Cowboys, Pittsburgh Steelers and Miami Dolphins -- the country's most popular teams -- have become commonplace all over Mexico, where the NFL Network is now available on basic cable and 40 movie theaters in 10 cities show Monday night games live on the big screen.

What Mexico lacks, however, is a franchise. And Meza, a film distributor for Paramount Pictures, says that's a mistake.

"Here in Mexico there are a lot of fans of the NFL," said Meza, a die-hard backer of the Jacksonville Jaguars. "I think an NFL franchise here in Mexico would be a great idea."

Futbol Americanohas a long history in Mexico, dating to 1896 and the first official game in Veracruz. Mining businesses soon helped to popularize the game, organizing competitions between company teams. By the early part of the 20th century a professional championship had been played, and the National Student Organization of American Football -- the Mexican version of the NCAA -- was established to regulate the sport in schools.

The NFL's popularity in Mexico is more recent, dating to the 1970s, when broadcasting giant Televisa began airing games in Mexico. Most of those early contests featured the Cowboys and Steelers, which explains those teams' continuing popularity. But the telecasts coincided with a huge increase in Mexican immigration to the U.S., with a Pew Research Center finding that 11% of the people born in Mexico now live on the northern side of the border. That's led to an unprecedented wave of cultural sharing that has popularized many U.S. staples, from Taco Bell to tackle football, in Mexico.

Although the league claims more than 16.5 million fans in Mexico -- the largest concentration outside the U.S. and Canada -- that doesn't necessarily move the country to the top of a growing list of nations hoping to lure the NFL for even a game, let alone a franchise.

"We've started to make real progress there in terms of sponsorship, broadcast, etc.," said Chris Parsons, the NFL's vice president for international business. "But we're still a little ways off of having everything aligned and ready to go for games to go back into the Mexico market. We feel confident that we could do very well with a game in Mexico. We just want to make sure we do it at the right time with the right partners, the right support and the right sort of scale of fans that are avid in the marketplace that we can build off."

The league has international offices in five countries on three continents and has staged regular-season games before sellout crowds in London's Wembley Stadium in each of the last three years, and will be back for a fourth in October. It has also played 14 exhibition games in Japan and nearly staged a 2007 preseason matchup between the Seahawks and Patriots in China, where more than 7 million people watch the NFL on television.

Six games have been staged in Mexico City between 1994 and 2005, drawing an average crowd of 100,392. A 2005 game between the Arizona Cardinals and San Francisco 49ers drew 103,467 fans into Estadio Azteca, at the time a record for a regular-season game. The NFL record for any game was also set at Azteca when a 1994 preseason game between the Houston Oilers and Dallas drew 112,376.

"Obviously, the fan base is already in place," said Rolando Cantu, the first Mexican-born offensive lineman in NFL history and now an executive with the Arizona Cardinals, one of two teams that broadcast their games on radio in Mexico.

"People are hungry for American football down there, especially on a professional level."

Placing a team in either Monterrey or Mexico City -- Mexico's largest football hotbeds and the most likely sites for a franchise -- would do little to complicate travel since nearly half the NFL's teams are closer to both cities than they are to Buffalo, N.Y.

"It will be a perfect fit," said Cantu, who said his team has season-ticket holders in Mexico and regularly welcomes fans who travel to Phoenix from the northern Mexican state of Sonora.

"The challenge that we've got in Mexico is lining everything up to make sure that everyone is supporting the initiative in the same way that we get that partner support" in the United Kingdom, Parsons said.

"We have no shortage of people and stadia and everything else, countries, wanting to host an NFL game and even have a team. But the business of what we do, we have to be absolutely sure that as we make those kinds of commitments that we're seeing the business side of that playing back to us. And we're very mindful of that."

And the NFL isn't alone. Other U.S.-based sports leagues have already targeted Mexican fans.

* In October the NBA, which also has an office in Mexico, moved an exhibition game between the Philadelphia 76ers and Phoenix Suns to Monterrey, making it the 18th game the league has played in Mexico. The league, which has one Mexican-born player in the Nets' Eduardo Najera, also began broadcasting games in Spanish on NBA TV for the first time this season.

* NASCAR, which moved four Nationwide Cup Series races to Mexico City from 2005-08, now sponsors the 14-race NASCAR Corona Series at tracks around the country and has broadened its appeal through broadcast deals with Speed Latin America and Televisa, Mexico's largest network.

* Baseball, meanwhile, has long talked of placing franchises in Monterrey or Mexico City, two cities it has visited frequently. The San Diego Padres twice played regular-season series in Monterrey and the first two World Baseball Classics included preliminary-round games in Mexico City.

* Even the LPGA, forced by declining sponsorship to shorten its season, will still stage three tournaments in Mexico this year.

"Mexico is an important market for the NFL," said Darin Perry, the L.A.-based director of brand and sponsorship marketing with the Marketing Arm, a leading international consulting agency. "The world, as we know it, is getting smaller. The boundaries of all kinds are disappearing. And as that happens, whether you're a corporate brand or a sports league, there's a push to reach new growth opportunities.

"Tapping into that new world market is just a natural progression."

kevin.baxter@latimes.com

Times staff writer Cecilia Sanchez contributed to this report.

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