MEXICO -- The NFL is widely regarded as the most successful professional sports league in the United States. According to the "NFL 2008 Record & Fact Book," Super Bowls occupy the top 10 spots on the list of the most-watched programs of all time, with last February's XLII edition taking the No. 1 spot with more than 148 million viewers worldwide.
And the NFL is huge south of the border, as well.
With an estimated 20 million NFL fans countrywide, including an estimated 5 million die-hard fans, Mexico has the most NFL fans outside of the United States.
Not surprisingly, Mexico's affair with American football -- as opposed to just football, or soccer -- started more than 100 years ago. Although it's hard to determine a specific point in time as the birth date of this sport in Mexico, the sport's historians seem to agree that the first American football matches were played in the eastern state of Veracruz, and most probably involved Mexican students who learned the game while studying in the United States and played against each other or against American sailors.
In any case, the seed of American football was soon rooted deeply in Mexico, especially at the college level, where the sport experienced a golden era during the 1940s and '50s. During the 1955 NFL draft -- the same draft that saw the NFL arrivals of Alan Ameche and Johnny Unitas -- a back named Alex Esquivel from Mexico City College (now Universidad de las Américas) was drafted in the 24th round by the Baltimore Colts.
Then, in the late 1960s and early '70s, Imevisión (now TV Azteca) and Televisa started broadcasting NFL games on national television on a regular basis. Since that time -- which happens to be the beginning of the modern NFL with the advent of the Super Bowl era and the NFL-AFL merger -- NFL games have been consistently available in Mexico through open and premium TV (cable, satellite, etc.) channels, radio and now the Internet.
It's no coincidence that the most popular teams in Mexico happen to be the franchises that enjoyed the most success in the '70s. According to Geraldine González, senior manager for sponsorships and public relations for NFL Mexico: "The top two teams by far are always the Dallas Cowboys and the Pittsburgh Steelers, with them alternating the top spot from time to time." Carolina Huerta, a sales clerk at 1st and 10 -- a retail store that specializes in NFL merchandise -- also says that the Cowboys and Steelers are the top two sellers, "with the Steelers being the No. 1."
In Mexico, where nonofficial products are big business, too, on the streets and in the underground market, it's the Cowboys who seem to dominate the rankings of popularity among NFL teams.
González also said Green Bay, New England, Denver, Oakland, San Francisco, San Diego, Miami and the New York Giants round out the top 10 teams in popularity in Mexico, but "in no particular order."
Thanks to the 40-year presence in Mexico, the league and its teams have developed a sui generis allegiance that often passes from generation to generation, and within which distance is irrelevant. Such is the case of Hortensia Martínez, 34, a lifelong Miami Dolphins fan who lives in Ciudad Cuauhtemoc, Chihuahua. According to Martínez, who follows an average of three or four games a week, she got hooked on the NFL "at the age of 9, watching the games with my father and brother." Martínez, who has been playing in fantasy football leagues since 2003 and owns four different Dolphins jerseys and three Raiders jerseys, says she wishes she "knew more football fans here. I live in a baseball town."
Like Martínez, many Mexican NFL fans start out at a very young age. Alejandro Bátiz, 38, has been a hard-core New York Jets fan since around 1982. However, he says he started out rooting for the Houston Oilers. "My first NFL memories are the Astrodome, the Oilers' theme song, and watching Earl Campbell run," says Bátiz, who lives in Guadalajara, Jalisco, and tries to attend at least one Jets game per season.
Ricardo Rodríguez became an NFL fan after he started playing American football in middle school, something he did all the way through his last year of college. Because of his experience as a defensive player, Rodríguez, now 40 and living in Ciudad Obregón, Sonora, says the most interesting thing for him watching NFL games is "trying to anticipate the plays that the offense will run. I've always been a big fan of the strategy involved." For Rodríguez, who is a San Diego Chargers fan and follows five to seven NFL games a week, there's also tradition. "For the last 10 years or so, I always host a Super Bowl party in my house with my friends," he said.
What about team loyalty?
Erik Ponce of Tijuana, a die-hard Buffalo Bills fan since the early '90s, was asked if he would consider switching teams if Mexico ever got to host an NFL franchise in the future. The 25-year-old said, "Hmmm … maybe as a second team. It's hard to go against a 15-year-old tradition."
Perhaps one of the best ways to measure the true popularity of the NFL in Mexico is by attendance. Four of the seven NFL games with the highest registered attendance in league history were celebrated in Mexico City's Azteca Stadium, with three of the top four games being exhibition "American Bowl" games. Those games were the Cowboys vs. Oilers in 1994 (112,376, No. 1 overall); Cowboys vs. Patriots in 1998 (106,424 , No. 2 overall); and Broncos vs. Dolphins of 1997 (104,629, No. 4 overall). The regular-season matchup between the San Francisco 49ers and Arizona Cardinals in 2005 -- the first regular-season game played outside the United States -- was witnessed by 103,467 people at the stadium, coming in at No. 7 overall.
But even some people inside the league haven't been able to fathom the impact or future of the NFL, and its franchises, in Mexico.
"When we were in Mexico City, the people cheered like crazy but they clearly didn't know when to cheer," 49ers general manager Scot McCloughan previously told ESPN's Jeffri Chadiha, referring to the team's experience in Mexico in 2005. "We had people going nuts when [49ers kicker] Joe Nedney was kicking 60-yard field goals in pregame [warm-ups] because they thought he had scored. Our players loved the energy, but you could tell the fans didn't know what they were watching."
Mexico has been playing the sport for more than a century. Here, fans break attendance records like Peyton Manning breaks passing records. The 49ers have been one of the fan base's darlings, thanks largely to Joe Montana, Jerry Rice and Bill Walsh. Here, people bought tickets for a game that featured two of the most futile franchises in recent memory, and in some cases fans traveled from remote parts of the country just to see the game.
The NFL has indeed recognized the impact of the league and the loyalty of its fans south of the border. NFL Mexico, the league's official representative in this country, will be celebrating its 10th anniversary on Oct. 15 as part of the league's efforts to solidify its presence abroad. Besides Mexico, other countries targeted with the league's NFL international initiative include Canada, Germany, China, Japan and the United Kingdom.
So what does NFL Mexico do?
"NFL Mexico's main objective is to make American football the second most popular sport in the country, and keep it there," said González. "It is important for people to understand that the NFL is in Mexico for the long run, and not just passing by."
There's no denying that soccer is the king of sports in Mexico, and you might not want to hold your breath until that changes. But there is plenty of room for American football to keep growing.
Among the activities that NFL Mexico organizes throughout the year, there's the kickoff celebration, the Tochito tournament (flag football), testing dates (for possible NFL prospects) and junior player development clinics (for players ages 12 to 15).
NFL Mexico also organizes special visits by players, former players and even cheerleader squads as guests for special events. Among those who have visited Mexico lately: the Chargers' Luis Castillo, the Chiefs' Tony Gonzalez and Hall of Famers Franco Harris, Lynn Swan and Marcus Allen.
In addition, one of the most innovative initiatives is the "MNF Special" in movie theaters, which is in its third season, and takes place only in Mexico. Through this program, ESPNdeportes' "Monday Night Football" Spanish-language broadcast is projected in several movie theaters in Mexico City and its metropolitan area. This year, Monterrey and Tijuana have been added to the roster. It's probably the only time in your life that you get to be loud inside the movies without being shushed.
Another initiative that deserves mention is the Super Bowl party. In past years, NFL Mexico has celebrated the Super Bowl with a huge party for its sponsors and partners. Normally, the celebration was for 2,000 or so. But this year, NFL Mexico decided to expand the festivities for the fans, giving them the opportunity to experience the closest thing to a tailgate party. For Super Bowl XLII, 5,500 people attended the party at the Hipódromo de las Américas (Mexico City's premier horse track). González said NFL Mexico is aiming to have 10,000 fans present for this season's Super Bowl.
Even software developer EA Sports has recognized the opportunities for the NFL in Mexico. On Sept. 16, EA Sports will introduce its famed Madden 09 video game in a Spanish-language edition, highlighted by a cover of the Chicago Bears' Roberto Garza (Brett Favre is on the English-language version) and featuring the ESPNdeportes MNF duo of play-by-play man Álvaro Martín and analyst Raul Allegre as the in-game broadcasters. Allegre is the Mexican place-kicker who was part of Bill Parcells' champion Giants team from the 1986 season.
So what's next for the NFL in Mexico?
For starters, NFL Mexico is committed to maintaining a strong presence for all 32 franchises in the country, and not just the fan-base favorites. González said the NFL is committed to the development of talent in Mexico. There are currently five Mexican players, developed through Mexico's collegiate football league ONEFA, on NFL teams' practice squads. They are: Salomón Solano (Ravens), Mauricio López (Raiders), Eduardo Castañeda (Cardinals), Manuel Padilla (Broncos) and Ramiro Pruneda (49ers).
But from a fan's perspective, it's the lobbying that NFL Mexico does which could be considered its most important task. Rumors have circulated for a while that the NFL might consider someday placing a franchise in Mexico. González said the prospect of that is enticing, but "extremely complex and difficult."
"There are so many things that must be considered," González said, "including the fact that there are certain markets within the U.S. that the league would consider before crossing borders. It's really too hard to think about that in the short or medium term. It's almost like a tossing a coin in the air."
What about another regular-season game in the future?
"That is much more likely," said González. "We're working very hard to get a 2009 game in Mexico, but there are a lot of things that must be sorted out, including the teams that would be willing to accept. A lot of things come into play here, from concessions to parking fares that the team will not collect in its own stadium, to the issues with season-ticket holders, to the trip itself. Perhaps 2010 would be a more realistic possibility."
For hard-core NFL fans like Bátiz, Rodríguez and Ponce -- all of whom attended the 49ers vs. Cardinals game three years ago -- the long wait will be worth it.
Rafael Zamorano covers the NFL for ESPNdeportes.com.