Column: As Chargers and Chiefs learned, NFL fans in Mexico City aren’t just curious onlookers

Fans cheer before Monday's NFL game between the Chargers and the Kansas City Chiefs at Aztec Stadium in Mexico City.
Fans cheer before Monday’s NFL game between the Chargers and the Kansas City Chiefs at Aztec Stadium in Mexico City.
(Rebecca Blackwell / Associated Press)

This metropolis feels awfully similar to Los Angeles, or at least parts of Los Angeles.

Traffic is brutal. There’s a Starbucks on every other block. KFC, Burger King, PF Chang’s, Hooters, they’re all here. The magazine stands on the sidewalks sell coloring books of Dora the Explorer and Paw Patrol. Many of the television programs are dubbed versions of U.S. shows.

There is one major difference: Some people here wear Chargers jerseys.

Not just at the stadium and not just on game day.


Around town. On the streets. In the taquerias.

Philip Rivers jerseys, Joey Bosa jerseys, even some Junior Seau jerseys.

Then again, NFL jerseys are everywhere, even some really obscure ones.


The night before the Chargers dropped a 24-17 decision to the Kansas City Chiefs at Aztec Stadium, while Times beat writer Jeff Miller responsibly caught up on sleep, a man near the under-repair Angel of Independence monument wore a No. 17 Patriots jersey.

I was with a couple of other reporters and we started wondering: Whose jersey was that?
A receiver?

Daniel Popper, who covers the Chargers for the Athletic, guessed the jersey was Antonio Brown’s.

Brown wore No. 17 in the one game he played with the Patriots, but that wasn’t it.


The answer turned out to be Aaron Dobson, a former second-round pick who played 24 games with the Patriots from 2013 to 2015. Who would have guessed?

American football won’t overtake soccer as the country’s most popular pastime, but the sport is definitely a part of culture here.

The NFL claims to have more than 20 million fans in Mexico, with about a third of them considered avid. The league’s games are televised.


But many of Mexico City’s fans learned to care for the game by playing it as much as they did by watching it. The sport is widely played at the youth level, with high schools and universities fielding competitive teams.

The “Clasico” of American football here is a matchup between the teams fielded by two of the oldest universities in the Mexico City, the Burros Blancos of the National Polytechnic Institute and the Pumas of the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM).

The rivalry dates back to 1936 and their 1970 games at Aztec Stadium attracted 120,000 spectators. Their latest game, in October, drew more than 40,000 fans.

The Los Angeles Chargers’ final possession against the Kansas City Chiefs resulted in a Philip Rivers interception and a red-zone failure. That couldn’t have been more appropriate.


UNAM is also affiliated with a professional soccer team called the Pumas that plays in University Olympic Stadium. The facility was an American football stadium before it was a soccer stadium.

The Chargers and Chiefs played in front of an announced crowd of 76,252 fans. These weren’t curious onlookers.

Rivers learned that when he arrived at the Chargers’ hotel in Mexico City the previous night. He heard fans call him by a translated version of his name: Felipe Rios.

“It was actually pretty touching, to be honest with you,” Rivers said. “Across borders, down here, not having a clue what to expect, I was appreciative of that and thankful.”


The fans were engaged. There were chants of, “De-fense!” There were some quirks, of course. They performed the wave. When their team was trying to stop the opponents on third down, they made noise by whistling.

Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes (15) leads his teammates onto the field before their game against the Chargers on Nov. 18 at Aztec Stadium in Mexico City.
(Marcio Jose Sanchez / Associated Press)

“The fans were amazing,” Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes said. “They were cheering the whole game. It was loud. It was a great atmosphere.”

Earlier this month, the Athletic reported that the Chargers would at least listen if the NFL approached them about moving to London. Ignore for a moment that Chargers owner Dean Spanos denied that was the case, or the logistical problems of placing a team outside of the United States. If the league wants to expand beyond its borders, it should look at Mexico before Europe. The shorter flights would be one reason. Culture would be another. The NFL is already here in spirit.