The recent news about the construction of a new stadium in Monterrey, a venture that has a small possibility of hosting the first international Super Bowl, seemed like a daydream for many. But that’s not the case for plenty of Mexican NFL fans. According to Mexican NFL representative Francisco Olive, the country has more than 28.3 million NFL followers, and 9.9 million of them are self-reported hardcore fans.
But how did Mexico come to hold the biggest NFL fan base outside of the United States?
In addition to the geographical proximity and a close economic and cultural relationship, sports and film have built a bridge of understanding between Mexico and the United States. American games like baseball, basketball, and football form a fundamental part of Mexico’s regular sports TV programming.
It’s not a coincidence that Mexico was chosen as the first country to host a regular NFL game outside of the United States. Proving organizers right, the October 2, 2005 game, when the Arizona Cardinals defeated the San Francisco 49ers 31-14 at Azteca Stadium, broke the league’s attendance record, thanks to the 103,467 rabid fans who filled up the arena. That record broke four years later when the Dallas Cowboys, the team with the most Mexican fans, lost to the New York Giants with a crowd of 105,121 in Arlington, Texas.
Some attribute this affinity for football to the popularity of college sports during the 1940s. The first sport developed at UNAM, Mexico’s national university, was football. Since then, the sport attracted thousands of university students. In fact, the Olympic University Stadium was inaugurated with a football game in 1952.
Viva la Juventud, a movie by director Fernando Cortes, serves as a historical record of the popularity of college football and the rivalry between UNAM’s Pumas and the Burros of the Instituto Politécnico Nacional.
Public and private universities have been fundamental to the promotion of the sport in the northern and central regions of Mexico, but it was television that took football to every corner of the country. Channels started broadcasting football games using Mexico’s open air TV signal in the 1960s, a parallel to network television in the United States. At the time, the NFL had just created the Dallas Cowboys. Along with the Pittsburgh Steelers, the Cowboys are Mexican fans’ favorite.
At least three weekly games were broadcast on Televisa and public network Canal 13, the latter of which began broadcasting NFL games in the 60s, including Monday Night Football. At the beginning of the new millennium, Monday Night Football was taken off the free open air signal in Mexico City, the place with the most fans in the country.
After being taken off air for a few years due to unsuccessful negotiations between the NFL and the two Mexican TV stations, football came back to Mexican homes in 2009. During the regular season and the playoffs, at least three games were broadcast per week. Cable networks have also taken a prominent role. Along with the free channels, these networks offer Mexicans access to seven games a week and all of the playoffs.
Each generation of fans has a certain quirk: the old guard refers to the team names in Spanish, just like they do with the playing positions, while the younger one uses English to refer to the teams, a clear mark that they approached the sport through the cable TV channels Fox Sports and ESPN.
Despite the millions of fans and the amount of money the sport generates in the country (the NFL has 18 commercial partners in Mexico), and the fact that many bars, restaurants, and stores are benefitting from the sport’s popularity, Mexico’s consumer conditions and infrastructure are not ideal for the NFL to see the country as a venue for a regular season game in the next few years, as it’s happened in London since 2007.
Nonetheless, football is and will continue to be part of the Mexican sports diet. There’s no doubt that millions will be watching the Broncos and Panthers face off in Super Bowl 50 this Sunday.