The ABA eyes Mexico and a pro basketball league

Many fans in Mexico have a hard time following countrymen like Gustavo Ayon, who plays for Real Madrid in the EuroLeague. KIRILL KUDRYAVTSEV/AFP/Getty Images

MEXICO CITY -- Only a few weeks after the NBA celebrated 25 years of games in Mexico, a different American pro basketball league will officially expand into the country.

The American Basketball Association announced that it will create ABA Mexico, a developmental league slated to begin play later this year, with a stated goal of capitalizing on the growing popularity of basketball within the Latin American nation.

This is far from the league's first foray into Mexico. Founded in 2000, the competition's earlier seasons featured a few teams in northern Mexico, with the Tijuana Dragons making multiple ABA playoffs and notably signing former two-time NBA All-Star Dennis Rodman to a contract in 2005. Other teams, like the Juarez Gallos, Monterrey Poison and the Hermosillo Seris made quicker exits, folding or leaving sometimes after only a season.

“We've had many ABA players play in Mexico in the past, and we've had quite a few Mexican players on our teams as well,” said Joe Newman, ABA co-founder. Issues with violence in the region in the latter part of the last decade, however, halted the wave of expansion. “[At the time] some of our players were afraid to go to Mexico, and it was difficult to get in and out,” Newman recalled.

Though headquartered in Indianapolis, the league will set up a satellite office in Mexico, where former player and current executive Roberto “Bobby” Garcia will assume duties as the nascent league's President and COO.

“[Bobby] has a terrific basketball background and a great business background. When I explained the ABA program to him, he liked the concept and was on board right away,” added Newman. Dana Tully, a former alternate in gymnastics for the 1984 U.S. Olympic team, will be ABA Mexico's Vice President.

With an inaugural season slated to kick off in just a few months, the league claims it already has a handful of teams ready to start play as early as May.

“We already have four teams lined up and over a dozen that have expressed interest,” Garcia was quoted in the official ABA press release announcing the creation of the new league. “Our goal is to have as many as 32 teams in Mexico, and we have quite a few additional initiatives, including kicking off ABA Mexico with a major tournament featuring Mexican and [American] teams around Cinco de Mayo in May,” he continued.

Newman stated that the league will look to build in certain parts of the country at first, allowing teams already sharing a geographical proximity to develop rivalries and facilitate travel among themselves, as well as with potentially visiting teams from the United States. “We primarily use ground transportation for our teams, and Mexico's a big country. It wouldn't be viable to have teams travel to say, Mexico City from the north,” he said. It is likely that the first wave of teams will shy away from bigger markets within Mexico, though the league plans to return to Monterrey, and eventually attack other large population centers regardless of location.

Currently, there are no Mexican-born players in the NBA. Recent exports, such as Gustavo Ayon and Jorge Gutierrez, now ply their trades in European leagues, which are scarcely covered and difficult to watch in Mexico. Though the country's basketball program has made strides at the national team level and already has a domestic professional league -- the Liga Nacional de Basquetbol Profesional (LNBP) -- opportunities to develop and project talent to the United States have generally been scarce.

The ABA believes it can eventually assist the current situation by having their Mexican teams and players elevated domestically as well as internationally at higher levels of competition. “I can tell you that some of [the ABA's] teams could beat D-League teams, no question,” said Newman.

In a country where an estimated 40 million people practice basketball at an amateur level, a new league with ties to the United States could motivate future talents to try their hand at the pro game, something Newman hopes will make the league viable not just at a sporting level, but commercially as well. “We want the Mexicans to gain popularity and make money by building up their own stars”.