MEXICO CITY – Even as President Donald Trump hammers home his 'America First' message and a nationalist wave sweeps across the United States, two of the country’s most influential institutions are moving in the exact opposite direction: the National Basketball League and National Football League.
Mexico, Trump’s favorite punching bag other than Hillary Clinton, is the next frontier for both leagues. Over the last month, they have individually announced aggressive steps to expand their presence in Mexico, part of a long-term strategy to grow their fan base and find new sources of revenue.
“We have had our most anti-Mexican president in a century or so and yet we are seeing more of an effort to connect with Mexico,” said Matt Bowers, a professor in sports management at the University of Texas at Austin.
The NBA plans to open a minor league in Mexico City that could begin competing as early as next season. It will also open a basketball development and training academy in the city, its seventh such academy globally. The NFL says it will play a game in Mexico every year through 2021.
The investment in Mexico by both leagues is likely to be a short-term money loser, but one that has the potential to reap tremendous long-term financial benefits.
“Global expansion in sports is becoming much more prioritized because of the way social media has opened things up and allowed different fan bases to connect,” Bowers said. “Mexico is simple logistically and it is kind of low-hanging fruit for tapping into a 20 million-plus market.”
The NBA and NFL’s push southward could also deepen the cultural and economic ties between Mexico and the United States countries at a time when talk of a border wall to separate the countries dominates the political landscape. Fathali Moghaddam, an expert in political psychology at Georgetown University, predicted that the juggernaut of sports would ultimately prevail in bringing the countries closer, even if Trump succeeds in getting the wall built.
“The financial gains from internationalizing sports and dissolving borders are so enormous that nobody can stop what’s happening,” Moghaddam said. “It is driven by the bottom line but it is a form of diplomacy and a form of breaking down walls. People have more positive attitudes towards fans of the same sport or the same team.”
Still, major cultural and logistical challenges face both leagues as they try to grow their fan base in Mexico.
The NFL has a head start, Bowers said. It has quietly developed a large fan base in Mexico over the last few decades. By some estimates, Mexico City is home to the NFL’s seventh largest fan base. On game days, Mexico City bars routinely fill with football fans.
But league officials acknowledge that there is little to no chance they will open a franchise in Mexico in the near future because the country has no stadium modern enough or large enough to house an NFL team.
For the NBA, the biggest hurdle appears to be simply growing the sport’s following. The league’s championship game in June between the Golden State Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers generated hardly a ripple in Mexico City.
“Basketball is not popular because there are not a lot of courts and it’s not more promoted,” said Juan Manuel Alvarado, who was playing in a recent pickup game in Mexico City.
Like many of his fellow players at the pick-up game – most of them in their late 30s and 40s – he started watching basketball during Michael Jordan’s heyday in the mid 1990s.
Erik Solis, who runs a basketball camp for kids, said Mexican public officials invest in soccer fields and soccer programs. Basketball, he said, is an afterthought.
“If they gave the same support to basketball as they do for soccer then [Mexico] could be at the same level as the ‘grandes,’” said Solis, a devoted Boston Celtics fan. “Like Venezuela and Puerto Rico. It’s difficult to reach the level of the U.S.”
Venezuela’s men’s national team is the defending champion of the South American Basketball Championship and came in 10 th place at the 2016 summer Olympics. Puerto Rico’s national team didn’t qualify for the 2016 Olympics but came in 6 th place in the 2004 Olympics. The Mexican national team hasn’t qualified for the Olympics since 1976.
Of course, even if Mexico begins investing more in basketball, its players have a built-in disadvantage when it comes to international competition: Their height.
The average Mexican man born in 1996 is 5 feet 7 inches, while the average American man is 5 feet 10 inches, according to a 2016 study led by scientists at Imperial College London.
That height difference was top of mind for Osvaldo Angeles de la Vega, who kicked around a soccer ball with his friends on a basketball court in Mexico City.
“Basketball is cool because you can elbow, and in soccer you kick,” Angeles said. But he prefers soccer because he said it is faster-paced – and, he added, his stature makes no difference.
“You need to be tall in basketball… in other countries everybody is really tall and here we are short.”