In Mexico, it's: 'How about them... Patriots'

MEXICO CITY – On game days, the Asabar Sport Bar, a stone's throw from the city's Centro Histórico, resembles a raucous establishment in Boston decked out with an assortment of New England Patriots gear.

Consider the fans in attendance wearing the ubiquitous Tom Brady, Rob Gronkowski or vintage Drew Bledsoe jerseys mingling with those wearing their own proper names stitched -- a "Gutierrez" and a "Rodo" dotting the crowd. In unison, all cheer a first down or gasp in excitement upon the completion of a big play. "Let’s go, Patriots!" gives way to ¡Vamos Patriotas!

Come this Sunday, the watch party moves to Estadio Azteca, where the Patriots will take on the Oakland Raiders in the second regular-season NFL game played in Mexico in the past two seasons, and the third in history.

“It’s one thing to watch the games as a family, even say, travel to New England and watch them play there," 39-year-old Gildardo Velasquillo said. "To have them here in Mexico is beyond words. It feels like we’re moving our watch parties onto the field itself.”

Velasquillo, a lecturer at the Universidad Tecnológica de México and a Patriots fan since 1993, founded Pats Army México, a 3,244-strong fan club that extends to nearby Puebla, out to Guadalajara on the Pacific, north to Chihuahua and into the Yucatán on the Caribbean coast. The club organized last year and is listed on the Patriots’ official fan club website.

He said about 90 percent of the 400 or so who attend the Mexico City watch parties will be at the game in Azteca. “No one wants to miss it,” Velasquillo said.

Tickets won't come cheap, ranging from $728 Mexican pesos (about $38) for nosebleeds to $8,400 pesos ($438) for the 50-yard line seats. The game sold out in two hours, according to NFL Mexico.

Mexico’s rabid NFL fandom has long been associated with the Dallas Cowboys and the Pittsburgh Steelers. Of late though, the Patriots have been a rising force, exceeding in numbers other established fandoms, namely the Denver Broncos, San Francisco 49ers and the wildly popular "home" team for Sunday's game, the Raiders. According to NFL Mexico, New England is the third-most-followed team in Mexico, claiming slightly over 7 percent of the league’s total Mexican fans, following the Cowboys at 14 percent and the Steelers at 12 percent.

Another local Patriots fan club thrives in attracting fans via its social media accounts. Patriots Mexico claims over 75,000 followers on Facebook and Twitter and was started by Ivan Mendoza, from the state of Michoacán.

A storied quarterback divisional rivalry --and a vintage team logo-- sparked Mendoza's devotion to the Patriots.

“It was in 1995 or 1996, I think. It was a Dolphins-Patriots game, and I loved watching Drew Bledsoe go up against Dan Marino,” said Mendoza, a 31 year-old pharmaceutical rep who says one of his proudest moments was securing the Twitter handle “@belichicks.”

He said he has also seen the Patriots live, travelling to Qualcomm Stadium (now known as SDCCU Stadium) in 2014 to watch New England take on the San Diego Chargers. (Pats won that one 23-14.)

“It’s funny to think I chose the team when I was younger because of Bledsoe and the fact I really liked the team’s old logo,” Mendoza said. “That has turned into a really strong love for the team. Just to be able to go to the stadium with so many of my friends, so many Mexican Patriots fans who have supported the team as long as I have is a spectacular experience to me.”

Fandom for the team in Mexico has not gone unnoticed by the NFL.

“We expect this to be a great event because of the massive amount of Patriots and Raiders fans in [Mexico],” said Arturo Olive, the Director General of NFL Mexico. “The Patriots fans here are supremely excited to see their team. Tickets are sold out and have been for a long time.”

In a news conference designed to kick off the week of events in Mexico City culminating with the Nov. 19 game, Olive was bullish on the country getting more games in the future and emulating the blueprint employed in London, where a record four games were played this season.

“We want to deliver three great events so that this event becomes permanent,” Olive said. “London had several years in their initial deal with just one game before the NFL expanded further. They hosted four this year, and we hope that in the future we can get multiple games in our country as well.”

Though support for the league and excitement for the Mexico City contests has been widespread, Olive acknowledged certain behaviors need to be tempered in order for Mexico to follow the London plan.

“We have to deal with things such as the homophobic soccer chant. We want to revert last year’s image, so I want to make an invitation on behalf of NFL Mexico asking fans to not chant [that] so as to present a better image for our country,” Olive said.

Patriots wide receivers Danny Amendola and Julian Edelman visited Mexico City on an NFL-organized trip designed to promote the game globally earlier this year, savoring local cuisine and sightseeing the ancient Teotihuacan ruins, an hour outside of Mexico’s capital. This week the players appeared at a fan event to sign autographs and take pictures and fulfilled a childhood dream, donning lucha libre attire.

The Patriots were last in Mexico for a 1998 preseason game at Estadio Azteca, beating the Cowboys 21-3. A total of 106,424 fans attended the 1998 contest, in a game remembered locally for featuring Mexican-born wideout Marco Martos catching two passes for the Cowboys.

The crowd figure is also notable for being the second-highest turnout for any NFL game -- preseason, regular season or postseason -- in the league’s history, ranking behind the 112,376 who packed into the Estadio Azteca to watch the Cowboys and Oilers battle in an exhibition on Aug. 15, 1994.

A renovated Azteca Stadium last year welcomed 76,743 for the Monday Night Football game between the Raiders and Houston Texans. A similar crowd is expected for Sunday's sold out contest.

While Cowboys and Steelers fans have a longer tradition of popularity in Mexico, the Patriots' recent success has fueled a younger generation of fans.

“We know there’s a lot of Raiders fans in Mexico, but there’s a lot of people who love the Patriots too,” said David Dominguez, a 25-year-old veterinarian who works at the Mexico City Chapultepec zoo. “The crowd at the game, I expect, is going to slant towards my Patriots.” Like Velasquillo, he’s a founding member of Pats Army Mexico and memorabilia collector.

In his southern Mexico City residence, Dominguez houses a collection of apparel, posters and other Patriots-branded gear, though he cherishes his pictures with current and former players the most.

“I’ve met [defensive end] Trey Flowers, Julian Edelman and others,” he said. “It’s really a privilege, for a fan from Mexico City to be able to meet these guys is amazing. I actually captioned my photo with [Flowers] saying it looked like I was enamored with him.”