Tagliabue forsees annual foreign regular-season game

Updated: October 2, 2005, 11:26 PM ET
Associated Press

MEXICO CITY -- Even before the first snap, commissioner Paul Tagliabue declared the NFL's first regular-season game outside the United States a rousing success -- and a prelude to the sport's future.

Tagliabue believes the San Francisco 49ers' meeting with the Arizona Cardinals in Mexico City on Sunday night will be the first venture in an annual extravaganza, with at least one festive regular-season game on foreign soil every season.

The commissioner's ability to convince each NFL club to take turns giving up a home game for the cause seems to be the main obstacle to his ambitious plan to boost American football's international popularity. But Tagliabue is confident the owners will see the long-term benefits of such a plan, which could be discussed at league meetings this month.

"The key is to let them know well in advance that they're going to be giving up a home game," Tagliabue said. "The other key is to make [giving up a game] a universal obligation to be a member of the NFL."

Though the league has traveled outside the United States to play preseason games for decades, Sunday night's game in front of an excited crowd at Azteca Stadium was the first regular-season contest on foreign soil in the NFL's 86-year history.

"The emotion that I feel most is pride," Tagliabue said. "My sense is that's the way the fans here in Mexico feel. It's a moment for great pride, because a lot has been accomplished in two decades [in Mexico]."

Tagliabue reiterated his hopes to take regular-season games to Canada, Japan, China and several destinations in Western Europe in upcoming seasons, with Toronto and London likely the top candidates to get a game as early as next season.

The main difficulty is persuading all of the league's owners to give up the revenue and exposure from one of their eight home games, even if it's only once every 16 years.

To ensure one international game every year, Tagliabue said every team could commit to play outside the U.S. once every 16 years -- or every eight years, if the NFL got its preferred schedule of two foreign games every season.

Tagliabue sees the foreign regular-season contests as a vital part of the NFL's efforts to expand the reach of the United States' most popular sport. Owners might not be quite as eager to relinquish one of just eight home games every year, but Tagliabue believes such a commitment can be "institutionalized."

Tagliabue appeared at a news conference before the game with 49ers owner John York, Cardinals owner Michael Bidwill and former Cincinnati lineman Anthony Munoz, the only Pro Football Hall of Fame enshrinee of Mexican descent.

While the 49ers and Cardinals went through pregame warmups, Bidwill immediately gained favor with the local fans by holding aloft a jersey from the Mexican under-17 national soccer team, which won the world championship 3-0 against Brazil in Lima, Peru.

While soccer is still the national sport, Tagliabue knows "futbol americano" is growing in Mexico. While visiting with youth teams and community leaders during the weekend, Tagliabue saw a marked difference from the NFL's reception in 1994, when he traveled to Mexico for an exhibition game between the Dallas Cowboys and the Houston Oilers.

"The game was still something of a novelty," Tagliabue said. "There were still some quizzical looks as we entered the stadium. Today, what I see is a much deeper understanding of the game, a much greater appreciation for the game."

Copyright 2005 by The Associated Press