NBA Plays To Score And Win In Mexico

By Rodrigo Cervantes
Published: Wednesday, January 8, 2020 - 5:05am
Updated: Wednesday, January 8, 2020 - 2:28pm

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Juan de la Barrera Arena
Rodrigo Cervantes/KJZZ
Juan de la Barrera Arena, formerly the Mexico 68 Olympic Gymnasium, is currently home of Mexico City's Capitanes

MEXICO CITY — South of the border, what do the NBA, NFL and Major League Baseball have in common? The answer is they are all betting on Mexico.

Mexico has become an attractive market for American sports leagues. That includes the NBA, which wants to expand its presence and build strong alliances — and the Phoenix Suns are part of that effort.

Suns-Spurs in Mexico City
Rodrigo Cervantes/KJZZ
The Suns-Spurs match at the Mexico City Arena on December 2019.

At the Mexico City Arena, the game between the Phoenix Suns and the San Antonio Spurs is about to start. It’s Dec. 14, 2019, and the 30th NBA game to be played in Mexico.

“The fans are great here, they cheer for everybody so, that's just like being at home,” said Monty Williams, the Suns' coach.

Juan Carlos Ugalde is among the thousands of attendees and describes himself as a Suns fan until he dies. He said games in Mexico are less rigid and serious than in the U.S.

"The crowds here are more rowdy and exciting. It’s the Latino touch, I think," he said.

But Ugalde doesn’t see many differences between the games in Mexico and in the U.S., even with the costs of tickets and concessions. 

"I guess it’s a result of open markets and globalization," the Suns fan said.

Juan Carlos Ugalde
Rodrigo Cervantes/KJZZ
Juan Carlos Ugalde is a Phoenix Suns fan living in Mexico City

U.S. sports leagues view Mexico as a lucrative market. Like the NBA, the NFL and Major League Baseball hold regular-season games here.

“This is the largest market in North America. The fact that you're seeing all the leagues focused on this country and this city is indicative of all the positive indicators and the tremendous things that are happening with the Mexican economy,” NBA commissioner Adam Silver said.

The NBA is opening its first official store in Mexico, in an exclusive neighborhood in Mexico City. And the NBA is also becoming the first professional league with a major partnership here.

"Next season we'll be launching an NBA G-League team here in Mexico City, and our partner will be Capitanes, a team that already exists here in Mexico City, they will be the 29th team in the NBA G-League,” Silver said.

The G-League is the NBA's official minor league organization. And Mexico City’s Capitanes will be the first team outside of the U.S. and Canada.

Raúl Zárraga is the NBA Mexico managing director. He says the partnership with Capitanes, along with sold-out arenas, prove that the sport is booming in Mexico — and so is the revenue.

“We have seen a great progress in the number of fans that we have in Mexico. Right now we have 20 million fans, compared to 2017, this is a 25 percent growth,”  Zárraga said.

Mexico City Capitanes
Rodrigo Cervantes/KJZZ
The Mexico City Capitanes basketball team (white) playing at their home base, Juan de la Barrera Arena.

But growth also means building a stronger identity, and Zárraga says the NBA is working on distinguishing the Mexican market more from the Latino base in the U.S. 

Many teams have been working on building stronger ties with their Mexican-American and Latino fans. And now they want to bet more on the Mexican market. Such is the case with the Phoenix Suns.

“One of the things they’re trying to do is make people understand and make Mexican policy makers understand that they’re here for the long term,” explained Jaime Molera, a business consultant assessing the Suns’ outreach in Mexico. 

He said part of the efforts include meetings with public officials in Mexico to develop projects that may benefit the team, while boosting local communities and economies.

“One of the things that these kinds of trips do is show that these relationships actually make a difference, they make a difference not only for entertainment, but it makes a difference for trade and economy, for jobs and growth, it helps both countries,” Molera said.

The Suns and Spurs gave the Mexican crowd some bonus basketball, going to overtime, with San Antonio prevailing 121 to 119.

The Suns might have lost the game, but like other teams — and the NBA itself — they will keep trying to win more fans and a broader presence in Mexico.

Rodrigo Cervantes/KJZZ
Juanjolote, the Capitanes mascot, and cheerleaders during half-time entertainment.
Jaime Molera
Rodrigo Cervantes/KJZZ
Jaime Molera is a business consultant working with the Phoenix Suns.
Mexico City Capitanes fans
Rodrigo Cervantes/KJZZ
Capitanes fans bring drums and instruments to cheer and support their team.
Capitanes co-owners
Rodrigo Cervantes/KJZZ
Capitanes co-owners Patricio Garza and Gilberto Hernández, NBA commissioner Adam Silver, NBA G-League President Shareef Abdur-Rahim and NBA Mexico Director Raúl Zárraga
Monty Williams
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Monty Williams, coach for the Phoenix Suns, at a press conference in Mexico City, in January 2020.
Phoenix Suns
Rodrigo Cervantes/KJZZ
The Phoenix Suns facing the San Antonio Spurs at the Mexico City Arena in December 2019.

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