The NFL’s Experiment in Mexico City

Pro football held a game south of the border for the first time since 2005.

Erich Schlegel / USA TODAY Sports

On Monday night, the Oakland Raiders and Houston Texans squared off at Azteca Stadium in Mexico City. The primetime match-up, which was announced back in February, marked the first time a regular-season NFL game had been played in Mexico since 2005. The return of the NFL to Mexico, according to the league, is owed to not only a recent surge in interest and the success the league has found in London, where 17 games have been played since 2007; extensive renovations to Azteca Stadium also seem to have helped. Ahead of the game, Mark Waller, who heads the NFL’s international division, expressed optimism about turning Mexico City into a regular international destination for American pro football. "My goal would be similar to the U.K., where we're able to go back at least once a year and create our piece of the Mexico City sporting calendar.”

Long before the NFL began to suffer a staggering drop in ratings, the league had already set its sights on America’s southern neighbor. This strategy makes sense. According to Nielsen, NFL viewership among Hispanic audiences has jumped by 28 percent in the past five years and Mexico City, with 20 million people in its metropolitan area, is thought to have the seventh-largest football-fan base in North America.

Tickets for the game sold out in 15 minutes and ESPN, which aired the game, has declared it an unqualified success. But the spectacle was not without its troubles. Prior to the game, Eric Wynalda, formerly of the U.S. national soccer team, dubbed Azteca Stadium “the worst place to ever play a sporting event,” citing the venue’s high altitude and the city’s fabled pollution. In the U.S., the national press seized on a story about an internal memo in which the Houston Texans organization urged its players not to leave the hotel, order room service, or eat on their own for fear of illness. Given President-elect Trump’s harsh rhetoric toward Mexico during the campaign, sports observers also anticipated that The Star-Spangled Banner would be loudly booed by the 76,000 fans in attendance before kickoff. (This did not come to pass, for the most part.)

The fear of Bronx cheers during the anthem may have overstated, but there were other complications. The mostly pro-Raider crowd shouted homophobic slurs at the Texans. And during a close game—marred by questionable officiating—Texan players, particularly quarterback Brock Osweiler, were repeatedly targeted with green lasers from a fan in the stands. "I never want to say one thing's a difference maker, but certainly having a laser zoomed in your eyeball definitely affects how you play a game," said Osweiler after the 27-20 loss. Of course, these things occasionally happen at pro football games in the United States, but as showcasing the grandeur of the NFL goes, it wasn’t encouraging.

These challenges notwithstanding, Monday’s game did demonstrate that there is a market for the NFL to expand its reach abroad, where the sport has limited presence and popularity. This is good news for a league that suddenly seems to be struggling at home. Notably, of the four major professional sports leagues, pro football is the only one in which all of the teams are based in the United States. As Nate Silver noted in a FiveThirtyEight post in 2014, the top three cities that stand to gain the most new fans in North America are Los Angeles, Mexico City, and Toronto. Los Angeles now has a football team, the Rams, which moved back to the city from St. Louis before the start of this season. Season tickets for the Rams sold out in six hours. And while expansion to Mexico or Canada may not be in the works, there are fans to be gained through continued exhibitions there.