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Football — the American kind — is all the rage in Mexico

Football — the American kind — is all the rage in Mexico
Oakland Raiders players warm up before their 2016 against the Houston Texans at Mexico City's Azteca Stadium. The Raiders play there again this year, against the New England Patriots. (Miguel Tovar / LatinContent)

The quarterback spied an open player in the end zone and hurled the ball downfield. Touchdown.

Or, as they shout here in Mexico: Gooooooooal!

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At this stadium on the northern edge of Mexico City and others like it across the country, the National Football League is waging a war on soccer.

Every weekend, thousands of young people converge on soccer fields converted to gridirons to play in a flag football league sponsored by the NFL. The aim is to create more football fans in Mexico — one of the league’s fastest growing international markets — and to start them young.

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For a long time, the most popular kind of pigskin in Mexico was chicharon, pieces of deep-fried pork rind. But American football is rapidly growing in popularity thanks to the aggressive push by the NFL.

The league has struck new deals with top Mexican brands and has joined with cable providers to give viewers access to nine games each weekend. Retired and current NFL players fly down to host football clinics, and the Miami Dolphins cheerleading squad holds tryouts in Mexico City that have included photo shoots at the famed Aztec ruins of Teotihuacan.

On Sunday, the league will bring an actual game to Mexico for the second consecutive year when the Oakland Raiders and the New England Patriots face off at Mexico City’s famous Azteca Stadium, which seats 87,000. Tickets for the event sold out in minutes.

A Houston Texans fan waves a Mexican flag during the 2016 game between the Texans and the Oakland Raiders at Azteca Stadium in Mexico City.
A Houston Texans fan waves a Mexican flag during the 2016 game between the Texans and the Oakland Raiders at Azteca Stadium in Mexico City. (Hector Vivas / LatinContent)

The league’s expansion into Mexico has fueled questions about whether it would ever move a team there, but NFL executives say many stadiums are too antiquated.

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American football has been played in Mexico for a century but didn’t really take hold until the 1970s, when television stations here started broadcasting NFL games. Over the last decade, the number of NFL fans in Mexico has more than doubled to 20.6 million, based on polling, said Arturo Olive, who manages the NFL’s operations in Mexico.

That means more people tuning in to games and buying official league merchandise, and more profits from licensing and sponsorship deals. The NFL, whose revenue last year was reported to be a record $14 billion, declined to say how much it makes from Mexico.

And while that other football — soccer — is still the king here, the American version is proliferating, with more and more teams at the high school and college levels and NFL jerseys an increasingly visible fashion statement.

Statistician Nate Silver estimates the number of NFL fans in Mexico City at 1.5 million, more than in Detroit and Las Vegas combined, and more than three times the fan base in London, where the NFL holds several games each year. On any given Sunday, bars around Mexico City screen the weekend’s hottest games.

People pose for a picture inside a giant helmet, at an exhibition of footballs and helmets painted by Mexican artists, on Paseo de la Reforma in Mexico City.
People pose for a picture inside a giant helmet, at an exhibition of footballs and helmets painted by Mexican artists, on Paseo de la Reforma in Mexico City. (Rebecca Blackwell / Associated Press)

“You’re in Steelers country,” reads a large banner at Malfama, a bar in the upscale Condesa neighborhood that is packed with fans each Sunday.

On a recent afternoon, Sergio Carrasgo led several dozen black-and-yellow-clad fans in shouts of “defense!” as the Steelers beat the Cincinnati Bengals 29-14.

Carrasgo, 50, has never been to Pittsburgh, but is head of the Mexico City chapter of the Steelers fan club.

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“I have Steelers everything,” he said. “All the way down to the boxers.”

A banker by day, he started watching football at age 11 back in the 1970s, when the Steelers were racking up Super Bowl wins. He said he prefers football to soccer because of its focus on strategy. “I like the discipline and the teamwork,” he said. “It’s just different.”

League executives attribute the NFL’s growth in Mexico in part to a fascination with the American lifestyle.

The NFL is an “aspirational” brand outside the U.S., said Mark Waller, the NFL’s executive vice president of international.

“We’d be a premium imported beer,” he said. “We’d be a high-end tequila.”

While the average Mexican fan may not have as much extra cash to spend on gear as fans in England or Canada, two other target markets for the NFL, Waller still thinks Mexico is a smart bet.

“We take really long-term views,” he said. “You have to have a belief that it’s is an economy that is going to grow over time. It’s a good investment.”

Matt Bowers, a professor of sports management at the University of Texas at Austin, said the league has other incentives for expanding to places like Mexico.

As concerns grow over the impact of the sport on players’ health, fewer American children are playing football. During the 2016 NFL season, viewership dropped for the first time in years, and much of the media coverage recently has focused on players’ protests against racial inequality, not the game.

“If you’re looking at what’s happening in the NFL right now, the international market becomes more attractive,” Bowers said. “Maybe they’ve reached capacity in the American market.”

The league’s ground game in Mexico is impressive. Less than 1% of NFL players are Latino. But more than 70,000 young Mexicans play flag football in the NFL’s youth league, Tochito, which was created in 2000. The league also partners with schools, donating footballs and equipment that can turn a soccer pitch into a football field. More than 2.9 million Mexican children play football at least a couple of times in their gym classes each year, the league says.

At the flag football game on the north side of Mexico City, banners showed pictures of Patriots quarterback Tom Brady in action and kids posed next to enormous, inflated NFL logos.

It was a hot Sunday afternoon, and coach Angel Octavio Gutierrez Perez was yelling at his team, the Ducks.

“You need to guard that girl!” he screamed.

Gutierrez, now 37, started playing football 20 years ago. The game changed his way of thinking, he said. “It made me more responsible.”

“It makes me happy that in a country like Mexico that is 100% soccer, now there are more options,” he said.

From the stands, Marlene Solis, 37, was cheering for the opposing team, the Black Bulls.

She and a friend beat on giant drums and sang fight songs more typically heard at soccer games.

Until her two children were invited to join the free NFL-sponsored league, she had never watched an American football game. Solis is from a poor stretch of Mexico state where few have the means for soccer cleats, much less football pads and helmets.

Now she regularly catches NFL games with her sons. One loves the Raiders, who also played in last year’s game in Mexico City. The other likes the Patriots, and Solis is a die-hard Green Bay Packers fan.

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No matter, Solis said, before sharing a sentiment that would make football executives in the U.S. smile.

The NFL, she said, “is a family.”

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