“The future is bright” as the NBA attempts to grow deeper roots in Mexico

After this summer saw the first NBA champion crowned outside of the United States, another neighbor to the south gears up for its own taste of the league.

At a press conference last Wednesday for the 2019-20 Mexico City games, which will feature the 29th and 30th NBA games held in Mexico (the most anywhere outside of the United States and Canada), nearly as much of the conversation revolved around the future of the sport in Mexico as it did the games themselves.

The four teams who will participate in this year’s offering include the Detroit Pistons and Dallas Mavericks, and the San Antonio Spurs and Phoenix Suns, who will face off in a pair of games in mid-December. Former Suns and Mavericks forward Shawn Marion was present as an official NBA ambassador, and was excited about the opportunity to return to Mexico for the games, and the prospect of a pro team in the city longer-term.

“I love this culture and, whenever I can, I come to vacation to Mexico. It’s incredible to be able to leave the United States to come to play in Mexico,” said Marion. “This is my second time in Mexico City. I came here two years ago, to the games… I love the culture here.”

“To be an ambassador of the NBA, it’s pretty awesome. I travel so much, but it’s not that far from the [United] States … We’ve actually had 29 games played here, 30 this year. It’s amazing, you know, to play outside the country. We’re going to have two regular season games for the first time, four teams. It’s usually three teams and one team is the ‘home’ team, but this time it’s four teams.”

The former Suns wing downplayed the distance, noting it was closer than many NBA cities were to each other: “I think it’s possible to think about the possibility of having an NBA team in Mexico in the future, because the main issue, when thinking of international franchises, is the distance, [which] in this case is no major problem.”

The Matrix, as Marion is sometimes called, was enthusiastic about the idea of a Mexican NBA team, noting that with millions of fans and the necessary infrastructure to support an NBA franchise. He said: “I think it’s possible for [the] fans… We have millions of Mexicans who support the NBA and their gratitude has been impressive… I hope it continues to grow.”

His optimism was clear: “It’s possible [to have a franchise in Mexico City], it can happen. The future is bright.”

Much of that future is predicated by the work the league has been doing to lay the groundwork for an expansive vision of international growth, including a series of seven global academies – one of which is based in Mexico – designed to grow the pool of athletes coming into the sport worldwide. Efforts continue to bring an NBA G-League team to Mexico, and increase youth involvement in the sport through programs like the Jr NBA, with the hopes that the feedback loop generates the inertia necessary to continue to propel the sport to the forefront of global interest.

Marion has got in on the action, becoming part owner of the New Zealand Breakers, a team in Australia’s National Basketball League, as more talent in the US chooses to skip the NCAAs in favor of a real payday. “Right now, they feel like they can get better skills and a better challenge coming to play overseas, and they have a chance to make money,” the former Maverick noted.

NBA Mexico General Director Raúl Zárraga noted the strong growth of the sport since the first games in the country in 1992. He said: “We estimate that today there are at least 20 million basketball fans in Mexico who consume at least once-a-week NBA content, a figure that rose a lot, since [1992, grew from] around 14.5 million.”

Developing the sport at the grass roots, however, was as much or even more a priority for the future, according to Zárraga: “The option of the NBA G League is today the most important thing for me and what consumes most of my time and we are very focused on that, because if it came to fruition it would be something historical.”

He also noted the importance of increasing access to games online as well as in person, and said: “The fans have always been with us and we have that commitment. We must be better, and that’s also seen in digital platforms, and with it have talent development so that there are more children playing.”

While perhaps not the instant gratification many locals might be hoping for, it seems the league has a comprehensive plan in place to expand into Latin America, with a franchise for the North American markets’ biggest untapped region the long-term crown. With 120 million-plus souls and the example of half of Canada watching the NBA Finals during the last game of the 2019 NBA Finals won by the Raptors to draw on, it’s hard to argue against the wisdom of a well-prepared move south of the border for the league.

Featured photo –  Getty Images / NBAE / Double Clutch illustration – Matthew Wellington