The last time the NFL ventured into Mexico was in 2005, when the Arizona Cardinals beat the San Francisco 49ers in Estadio Azteca. Top-level American football is returning to the same venue in Mexico City on Monday night, when the Houston Texans and Oakland Raiders will face off in a contest that has been sold out since July.
Just don't assume the 11-year gap is related to a lack of interest. In reality, Mexico is the top international hotbed for American football, with the largest NFL fan base of any country outside the United States. There are more fans of the league in Mexico City than in most actual NFL markets.
But the sport's popularity in Mexico goes well beyond NFL fandom. From youth leagues that are overtaking soccer in popularity in some parts of the country to a new pro league, American football is a major player south of the border. With that in mind, here's a closer look at where the sport stands on every level in Mexico and how fans there consume the game.
Youth leagues have sprouted across Mexico, especially in the northern half of the country, where football has firmly planted itself as the second-most popular sport behind soccer. In the northeastern city of Monterrey, the youth leagues total about 2,000 participants, estimated Alex Olivas, the commissioner of CONADEIP, one of the country's two major college football leagues.
"It's actually the No. 1 student sport in whole Mexico," Olivas said.
And youth football is taken very seriously. Some fields are covered with FieldTurf, the synthetic grass some college and NFL teams use. There are also Pop Warner programs in Mexico.
There is a youth league in Monterrey that actually uses a $300,000 replay system, and an overturned call played a key role in one championship game for 8-year-olds. Yes, replay is used for 8-year-olds. The initial call that a player was down was challenged, and the replay review determined the ball had been fumbled and lost.
According to Jorge Orobio, commissioner of the Mexican Federation of American Football, the communal nature of the sport has helped it grow. Families invest money into equipment, travel to games and are generally involved in their child's football career.
"It's like a culture or a lifestyle," said Hugo Lira, coach of the Tech Puebla college team. "That's why it spread all over the country."
Lira, who played as a wide receiver in NFL Europe and took part in Carolina Panthers training camp in 2005, added that he thinks "it'd probably be bigger than it is now" if local games were on TV.
Orobio said another way the game could get even bigger would be if the NFL got involved at the grassroots level. "As a promotion, the NFL makes a great deal, makes a great platform, but no actual development here in Mexico," he said. "Promoting football here in Mexico has been great, but not actually developing it."
Major college football in Mexico is sanctioned by two organizations: ONEFA, which has been around since 1978, and CONADEIP, a private-school offshoot which was founded in 2010.
Most college football games average 2,000 to 3,000 fans, with some of the bigger games drawing crowds of 15,000 to 20,000. Olivas says he has seen crowds reach 40,000, depending on what's at stake and the matchup.
The Monterrey Institute of Technology might be considered Mexico's version of the Alabama Crimson Tide. Or, perhaps, Alabama is the Monterrey Tech of the United States. The Borregos Salvajes (Wild Rams) have won 21 national championships, including the 2015 CONADEIP title.
The quality of college football in Mexico has been compared to the Division III level of the NCAA. Monterrey Tech has taken on teams throughout Texas, including a victory in a 2009 scrimmage against Blinn College -- a team that happened to have Cam Newton at quarterback.
It has been difficult for players from Mexico to break into major college football north of the border. University of Colorado kicker Diego Gonzalez was thought to be the only Mexican native at the FBS level in the U.S. heading into the 2016 season. Gonzalez enrolled at Monterrey Tech as a college freshman before transferring to Colorado, and he became the Buffaloes' regular place-kicker in 2015. He had some tough luck this year, suffering a season-ending torn Achilles tendon in Colorado's third game.
Pro football is just getting off the ground in Mexico. The Liga de Futbol Americano Profesional, based in Mexico City, concluded its first season in April, and reports said attendance exceeded 5,000 fans per game for the inaugural four-team campaign. The Mayas, Raptors, Eagles and Condors each played six regular-season games, and the Mayas claimed the championship by defeating the Raptors 29-13 in the first Mexico Bowl (Tazon Mexico). The league recently announced plans to expand to six teams and venture beyond Mexico City for the 2017 season, which begins in February.
Perhaps the LFA can someday play a role in developing NFL-caliber talent. There have been only two Mexican-born players on 53-man NFL rosters since 2001, according to ESPN Stats & Information. Both were offensive linemen: Rolando Cantu, who played one game for the Arizona Cardinals in 2005 (becoming the first player to play college football in Mexico on his way to the NFL), and Victor Leyva, who played 10 games for the Cincinnati Bengals in 2002. Others have taken part in training camp, been on practice squads and played in NFL Europe.
Historically, the Mexico natives who have made the largest impact in the NFL have been kickers, notably Efren Herrera, Rafael Septien, Raul Allegre and members of the Zendejas family: Tony, Max and Luis.
NFL weekends in Mexico look at lot like NFL weekends in the United States. Fans are consumed by the games from Thursday night through Monday night. Jerseys are worn. Allegiances are upheld. Fantasy rosters are checked. Smack is talked.
"NFL football here in Mexico is pretty, pretty big," Olivas said. "We have a lot of Cowboys fans, Steelers fans. I'm a Raiders fan. There used to be a lot bigger Raider fan base here."
Bars dedicated to individual team fan bases are strewn throughout Mexico City. Olivas estimated that NFL fans with cable TV can watch as many as nine games a week. According to NFL.com, nine different networks, including ESPN and Fox Sports Latin America, broadcast NFL games in Mexico.
For followers to further develop their fandom for their favorite teams, there's an NFL store in a mall in Monterrey, outfitted with jerseys, apparel and other merchandise.
It's just a coincidence, but Mexico's Constitution Day national holiday is observed the first Monday in February, often the day after the Super Bowl. That allows revelers to cut loose during the big game without having to worry about work the next day. "It's a big-time party," Olivas said of Super Bowl Sunday in Mexico.
Large house parties, with plenty of beer and carne asada, are common, and beer companies sponsor gatherings that draw hundreds of fans. Olivas said the game is televised on four different channels, widening the scope of who can watch it. As in the U.S., streets are barren in many cities and towns, especially in the northern half of the country. "That stops a lot of what you do on Sundays," he said of the Super Bowl. "Your day is all about football."