The annual Super Bowl ritual of gathering around the television with friends, family and food is now part of many Mexican homes, restaurants and bars.
One reason is American football’s long but unknown history in Mexico.
How did American football get to Mexico?
Like the undisputed king of Mexican sport, soccer, the U.S. version was introduced by foreigners in the late 19th century. There is dispute as to exactly how. Various sources claim the first games were in 1896, organized by U.S. sailors, but another credit Veracruz native Raúl Dehesa for introducing it after spending time up north. Yet another story credits a pair of brothers who organized games at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) in Mexico City.
What is more certain is that formal games began in the 1920s among various universities and other schools. In 1929, there was an exhibition game between UNAM and the University of Mississippi and by 1935, Mexican teams were touring the U.S.
American football continued to grow, primarily as a scholastic sport for the rest of the decade.
Who plays the sport in Mexico today?
College and other scholastic play still dominates organized American football in Mexico. The vast majority of teams are non-professional and supported by various organizations such as National Student Organization of American Football (ONEFA), which has four leagues for players from 8 to 25 years of age, with the most important being the “major” or university league.
Other support is found with the Mexican Federation of American Football (FMFA), for state leagues and football variations such as touch and women’s leagues. The National Student Sports Commission for Private Institutions (Conadeip) has a division for the sport as well.
But there was no professional American football league until the establishment of the Professional American Football League (LFA) in 2016. With ten teams representing various cities, it is an effort to create a Mexican alternative to the NFL. The league has caught the attention of current and former NFL players as it “slowly starting to build a brand…” said Trevone Boykin, formerly of the Seattle Seahawks, now with the Galgos of Tijuana. The league is also actively recruiting foreign talent.
Watching the Super Bowl: A new Mexican tradition
As “gringo” as it is, American football has been a spectator sport here since U.S. games began to appear on Mexican television in the 1960s. It grew slowly for the rest of the century, but in the past two decades, the NFL’s popularity has taken off.
One reason is the fond recollections of ordinary Mexicans who played the sport at school as children and young adults. Gabriela Ortiz of Mexico City said that her cousins played and the family watched the games, leading to interest in pro games on television.
Like in the U.S., the physical nature of the game is an attraction, said NFL fan and ITESM professor Tony Alcalá. He also credits “…the salary cap [which] makes it very competitive, so you don’t have the same teams always at the top like in soccer worldwide.”
The logos and gear have been part of modern popular music for some time and the grand spectacle of the Super Bowl also adds to the celebrity allure of the sport. Football-loving Mexicans now watch the game much the way their U.S. counterparts do, with friends, family and food, either at home or in establishments promoting themselves as places to watch the game. Mexican antojitos get mixed in with the obligatory chicken wings and dips.
Mexico is now the NFL’s and Super Bowl’s second biggest market. The 2023 game between the Eagles and Chiefs was available on broadcast TV, cable and streaming services. Of the 56 million who watched the game outside of the U.S., over 23 million of them were in Mexico.
Today, it is not unusual for Mexicans to support a U.S. team. Tijuana resident Lin Robinson says the city is “… pretty much all Raiders fans,” though popular NFL teams seem to vary by region and by generation.
Mexican players in the NFL
Only recently has the NFL been working to take advantage of foreign talent, in contrast to baseball, which has been doing it for many decades. Football scouting at Mexican universities was not common until about 20 years ago. In 2017, the league established the International Player Pathway program for players from outside the U.S. and Canada.
With and without active recruitment, there have been notable Mexican players over the years Two early players are kickers Raúl Allegre and Efrén Herrera (both drafted by the Cowboys in 1983). But the Pathway program is making an impact. Recent arrivals include offensive tackle Alfred Gutiérrez Urías from Tijuana, defensive tackle Isaac Alarcón García from Tijuana and offensive lineman Héctor Zepeda from Ensenada, Baja California.
The future of American football in Mexico
Despite the long history of play and talent pools in major universities, there is still a lot of growth potential in American football in Mexico. Mexico-born players do not (yet!) dominate the NFL’s pool of foreign recruits, and the Mexican professional league is in its infancy. But in an interview with ESPN, LFA Commissioner Alejandro Jaimes said,“It is clear that this sport has extreme potential in Mexico.”
Leigh Thelmadatter arrived in Mexico over 20 years ago and fell in love with the land and the culture in particular its handcrafts and art. She is the author of Mexican Cartonería: Paper, Paste and Fiesta (Schiffer 2019). Her culture column appears regularly on Mexico News Daily.