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Mexico City can get NBA franchise

2017-12-12 11:59:56

After hosting two games last week, Mexico City is looking more and more like a viable NBA franchise destination. Erik Spoelstra, Justise Winslow, Dion Waiters, and Mexican fans consider the possibility of basketball south of the border.

The exuberant response was no surprise. Thursday’s contest was the first of two regular-season games held at the Arena Ciudad de México in Mexico City; on Saturday night, Brooklyn was paired up with the Miami Heat. In this country, Najera, the second Mexican-born player to play in the NBA and now a scout for the Dallas Mavericks, is a sports deity. And according to anyone you ask, it is a place where the religion of basketball is catching on.

Mexico City is a 21 million–person megalopolis, and just a two-hour flight from San Antonio. And, not coincidentally, the NBA is making eyes at El Monstruo as a potential gold mine. Basketball is already the second-most-popular sport in the country (behind soccer, obviously) and the league has labored to provide better access for fans like Normando. In June 2016, the NBA inked a deal to broadcast monthly live games on media monolith Televisa Deportes, which supplements cable coverage on ESPN and NBA TV, as well as international League Pass subscriptions. According to metrics supplied by the NBA, last week’s game had a potential reach of 31 million households in Mexico.

The NBA Global Games initiative has now hosted four regular-season games in Mexico City during this calendar year — in January, the Suns played the Mavericks and Spurs — but that’s only one part of a muscular south-of-the-border marketing push. The league is opening a training facility for elite Latin American and Caribbean players here this winter and is looking at adding a G League developmental team as early as next season; NBA commissioner Adam Silver is openly musing about the viability of airdropping an expansion team into the city sometime down the road.

Perhaps hampered by the altitude — at more than 7,000 feet above sea level, Mexico City is over 2,000 feet higher than Denver — both teams started out flinging up bricks. The restless crowd erupted in “MVP” chants whenever Russell Westbrook touched the ball. The first enormous roar of the night came when Carmelo Anthony’s dunk attempt was stonewalled at the rim by Nets rookie center Jarrett Allen. Later, Anthony caused a ripple of snickers when he barked, “Fuck outta here, I got it!” on a rebound and promptly passed the ball to a Net who was standing 5 feet away. (After shooting 5-for-20 from the floor, 0-for-4 from deep, and 1-for-4 from the line in the Thunder’s five-point loss, Anthony would call his recent slump “probably the roughest [stretch] that I’ve ever had throughout my career.”)

The NBA’s piqued interest in Mexico City comes at a moment when the city has become a hot destination among the trendoid cognoscenti. It is stunningly affordable, closer to both New York City and Los Angeles than those cities are to each other, and offers a comfortable mix of bourgeoisie homogeneity and exoticism. One can visit contemporary galleries showing Mexican artists, drink Oaxacan mezcal siphoned from plastic barrels, explore open-air markets devoted to witchcraft, and drink Americanos brewed by baristas who name-drop Blue Bottle’s Williamsburg outpost.

Along with London and Tokyo, Mexico City is one of only three international locations (excluding Canada) where the NBA has played regular-season games. All told, there have now been seven games in Mexico City that counted in the standings. The first came in 1997. The next attempt, a 2013 matchup between Minnesota and San Antonio, was postponed after a generator malfunction choked the arena with billowing black smoke.

Whether or not expansion is ultimately in the cards, the NBA is content to play the long game in Mexico City. With basketball’s popularity surging, the league has the opportunity to build a foundation that could last for generations. To find the next Najera, they just need more people playing the game.

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