The NBA goes south to nurture a Mexican fan base

San Antonio Spurs Kawhi Leonard dribbles the ball past the middle of the court in Mexico City as Phoenix Suns P.J. Tucker follows. Rebecca Blackwell/AP Photo

MEXICO CITY -- Fans in Mexico can circle Dec. 7 as yet another date on a packed sports calendar. That's when the NBA’s reigning MVP, Russell Westbrook, and his Oklahoma City Thunder will make the trip down south to face the Brooklyn Nets at the Mexico City Arena. That's just two-and-a-half weeks after the NFL’s reigning Super Bowl MVP, New England Patriots QB Tom Brady, faces the Oakland Raiders at the Estadio Azteca.

In the last 12 months, Mexico has hosted an NFL Monday night game, two UFC mixed martial arts events, an F1 Mexico Grand Prix, a WWE Live event, two regular-season NBA games, a PGA World Golf Championship tournament, a group stage in the World Baseball Classic and a NCAA basketball holiday tournament.

The upcoming NBA games feature the Brooklyn Nets "hosting" the OKC Thunder on Dec. 7 and the Miami Heat on Dec. 9. It will cap the league’s quarter-century celebration of the NBA's first visit to Mexico. In 1992, the Houston Rockets edged the Dallas Mavericks 104-102 in a preseason matchup, with Hakeem Olajuwon scoring the go-ahead bucket with two seconds remaining. Since then, there have been 19 NBA preseason games and five regular-season games in Mexico.

“We are focused on bringing more regular-season games,” said Raul Zarraga, NBA Mexico’s vice president and managing director. “The opportunities for growth here are gigantic, and we want to offer more content and access to fans.”

Mexico is one of three countries, outside of the United States and Canada, to have hosted NBA regular-season games. Twelve NBA regular-season games have been played in Japan and seven in London. As part of the latest iteration of the league’s Global Games initiative, the league added two 2017-18 games in Mexico City and one in London, in addition to preseason games for the first time in China.

The popularity of basketball as a second sport to soccer is documented in a 2017 study by Nielsen that shows 17 percent of Mexican sports fans follow the sport, while 12 percent follow American football.

The NFL has been consistently available to consumers in Mexico via free TV channels for decades, but the NBA recently returned to over-the-air broadcasting in Mexico in June 2016 when it struck a deal with media giant Televisa. On cable, games are shown on ESPN and NBA TV, plus a streaming option.

“Being able to watch games is obviously important,” says Zarraga. “We want to keep games on cable, on free TV and digital platforms via League Pass.”

The increased exposure of the league on both traditional and new media (on Facebook, the NBA boasts over 1.3 million followers on its official Mexican page) has meant significant growth within the market, but Zarraga says the league is working hard to maintain interest by exporting players. “There’s a lot to do in that regard,” said Zarraga. “The problem lies in professionalization of the game in Mexico. Athletes need to know they can live off of their work.”

Projecting players from Mexico to the United States has been difficult. After Horacio Llamas became the first Mexican to play in the NBA in 1997 with the Phoenix Suns, only three countrymen have followed in his footsteps. Eduardo Najera, who became the first Mexican to be drafted when the Houston Rockets selected him out of the University of Oklahoma, played 12 seasons (from 2000-01 to 2011-12) with five teams. Gustavo Ayon played three seasons with four teams from 2011-12 to 2013-14, while Jorge Gutierrez most recently played with the Charlotte Hornets in 2016.

“I don’t know if we have anybody who can [play in the NBA] in the short term, or even the midterm, but we need to get someone there. We need idols to represent us,” said Llamas.

Currently, the league is focusing on finding and projecting future talents.

“With Jr. NBA, our youth academy project and seeking opportunities with [the G-League], we’re closer now, that I can tell you,” said Zarraga.

“Every kid that plays has the dream to one day be in the NBA. With these initiatives, their hopes will burn brighter,” said Llamas. “That turns the dream into a stated goal.”

Beyond building around a future hypothetical star, the league’s approach will continue to draw on what has worked so far.

“To maintain our presence, we want to create more content, host more games, events and outreach programs for youth,” said Zarraga. “We’re trying to give back to the fans that have given us so much.”

Those outreach programs include holding a clinic with Gutierrez for children of the native Triqui culture, linking the league to an inspiring story that captivated the attention of many sports fans in Mexico.

“The NBA has done impeccable work when it comes to social responsibility,” said Eric Olavarrieta, a Mexican image consultant who specializes in aiding sports brands.

Stories such as those help the NBA’s quest to grow and set the league apart from other North American leagues in what is quickly becoming a crowded landscape of sporting events in Mexico, according to Olavarrieta. “They are in a very good position to keep attracting new fans and create excitement when they return,” he said.

Though no plans have been announced yet for NBA games in 2018 and beyond, Zarraga is confident the league will become a constant presence in the future.

“Mexico is one of the four most important [international] markets for the NBA, and we’ve grown accordingly. We’re focused on [the December] games, but there’s a plan for more after those.”

Read a Spanish-language version of this story here.