The NFL schedule makers set in stone on Thursday night what the league has been planning for more than a year – and in some ways more than a decade.
As was announced during Super Bowl week, the Oakland Raiders will take on the Houston Texans at The Estadio Azteca in Mexico City on Nov. 21. Not just a regular season NFL game in Mexico, this contest sets another historical precedent as the first Monday Night regular season game played outside the United States.
“Mexico is honored to be selected by the NFL to host a regular season game,” Mexico’s Minister of Tourism, Enrique De La Madrid Cordero, told NFL.com. “Our country has been host to numerous high-profile international events including Formula One and we look forward to leveraging the popularity of the NFL in the US and international markets to showcase Mexico’s incredible tourism offering.”
But is not a first for Mexico. It was at The Estadio Azteca in October, 2005 that the Arizona Cardinals defeated the San Francisco 49ers 31-14 before an NFL regular season record crowd of 103,467, adding to the legend of the stadium, which celebrates its 50th anniversary in 2016.
That game was the launching point for the NFL’s international campaign, which now features three regular season games in London, and could be looking to expand to Germany in the near future. This year’s London games will be the 15th, 16th and 17th games played in England since the International Series began in 2007.
“The work we’re doing now is to ask, ‘How do we accelerate the agenda in Mexico, Canada and China?'” Mark Waller, NFL International Vice President, told NFL.com in March, 2015. “Those would be our next stage, and we have offices in those three countries. And then, after those, where should be our focus? I think we’ve concluded that Brazil and Germany are the next two frontier markets.”
But it all started in the stadium perhaps best known for that other brand of football, hosting memorable World Cup finals in 1970, won by Pele and Brazil, and in 1986, with the famous “Hand of God” goal by Argentina’s Diego Maradona. The Estadio Azteca was also the home of the 1968 Summer Olympic Games, forever immortalized by the controversial Black Power salute on the medal podium by American track athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos.
There is no controversy for the NFL, which has made no secret of its desire to become a truly global game. And Mexico City is an ideal location for the NFL to market itself. The Raiders-Texans game is the first of three games to be played in Mexico City over the next three seasons.
“Expanding our international series of regular-season games to Mexico marks an important step in our continued international growth,” said NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said in February, when the game was first announced. “We have a tremendous, passionate fan base in Mexico and we know the atmosphere on game day will be outstanding.”
The challenge will be making sure The Estadio Azteca is able to handle an NFL game before a six-figure crowd.
Among obstacles observed in the 2005 game was locker rooms not big enough to accommodate NFL teams, faulty technology for headset communications – which is a problem even at arenas in the United States — and having enough space for the needs of the NFL’s network television partners
“All the work we’re doing in Mexico now is to determine whether the stadium can be ready,” Waller told NFL.com last October. “We don’t have a definitive decision yet, but they’re working hard to get [the stadium] there.”
Fan support will not be an issue. The Raiders in Oakland and the Texans in Houston both enjoy enthusiastic Latino fan bases. According to Nielsen ratings, average viewership for regular-season NFL games among Hispanics has risen 28 percent in the past five years. American football is now the second-most popular televised sport in Mexico. In 2015, 20 million people tuned in to watch the Super Bowl live across four different channels.
As part of the build-up for the Week 11 matchup with the Texans, the Raiders plan to announce one of their Round 3 NFL Draft choices from Mexico City. Other teams are lining up to play in Mexico, as well.
The Pittsburgh Steelers, which have long been on the short list of NFL teams not required surrender a lucrative home game in favor of being the home team in an international contest, are willing to waive the right in order to play in one of the Mexico City games in 2017 or ’18.
“There will be a game in Mexico for the next three years, so like I said, we’ve kind of raised our hand for that one, and hopefully we’ll get selected one of these years” Steelers owner Art Rooney told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review in March. “We only have a handful of teams that don’t mind giving up a home game, and they are the ones kind of in the mix. That is definitely a challenge. It is a challenge for us. We would like to play in some of these games, but we are not anxious to give up a home game. Maybe some year, we may have to do it once.”
Image courtesy Estadio Azteca Facebook page.