US Sports Set on Expanding to Latin America

Dec 6, 2021
5:18 PM

A woman sweeps the court prior in the first half of a regular-season NBA basketball game between the Phoenix Suns and the San Antonio Spurs in Mexico City, Saturday, December 14, 2019. (AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell)

The “Original Six” National Hockey League franchises were founded between 1909 and 1917, including the Montreal Canadiens and Toronto Maple Leafs. The first non-U.S. teams to enter Major League Baseball also came from Canada: the Montreal Expos in 1969 and the Toronto Blue Jays in 1977. In 1995, the National Basketball Association made history by adding the Toronto Raptors and Vancouver Grizzlies, the first foreign-based clubs in the league’s history.

As far as the National Football League goes, the closest it’s come to having a Canadian team are the Buffalo Bills.

America’s four major sports leagues carry a combined 124 clubs representing over 50 different cities, including seven in Canada.

So what about the U.S.’ other neighbor, Mexico?

Despite ongoing rumors, Mexico has yet to be represented in American sports leagues at nearly its proportional share. Even in Major League Soccer, which centers on a sport that is Mexico’s national pastime, there are three Canadian-based clubs but no Mexican ones. The MLS attempted to bring in Mexico with its failed California-based Chivas USA experiment in 2004, but the club dissolved after 10 tumultuous years.

There are other scattered examples, like the four Puerto Rican-based clubs who played across the North American Soccer League and the United States Soccer League Pro Division early last decade. In the case of River Plate Puerto Rico, Puerto Rico United, and Sevilla FC, they only played in the U.S.S.L. in 2011. There’s also the Dominican Summer League, in which all 30 Major League Baseball teams have at least one club in their organization, but the international rookie level, along with the Arizona and Florida Complex leagues, precedes the Single-, Double- and Triple-A. 

Two years ago, however, the NBA announced the addition of the Capitanes de Ciudad de México from Liga Nacional de Baloncesto Profesional in Mexico to their G League, formerly the NBA Developmental League. The Capitanes are the first-ever Latin American club associated with the NBA.

“The process started four or five years ago,” Raul Zarraga, vice president of NBA Mexico, told Latino Rebels in November. “We have more than 40 million people playing basketball in Mexico. We have more basketball courts than any other sport (including soccer fields) in Mexico. It’s the number two sport most practiced in the country. Brands are looking for this; fans are looking for this as well.”

This past July, the NBA launched their first Basketball School in Mexico at La Loma Centro Deportivo for kids between six and 18. This follows the creation of NBA Academy Latin America, founded in 2017 for school-age prospects in Mexico, the Caribbean, and South America.

Because of COVID restrictions, the Capitanes are playing their home games in Fort Worth, Texas for the 2021-22 season, but previously called Gimnasio Olímpico Juan de la Barrera in Mexico City home. As of this writing, the Capitanes are 3-6 in G League competition, with their six losses all coming in games decided by eight points or less.

“They are generating value to the market, an alternative for the basketball ecosystem that we have here in Mexico with the Junior NBA. Now, participants of the Academy can also find a way to get to the G League. It’s easier when the team is playing in the same country as they are,” Zarraga said. 

The NBA also added to their esports-focused 2K League, DUX Gaming, which will also be based in Mexico. DUX Gaming will begin competition in the 2022 2K League season, starting in the spring. Following the Gen G Tigers of Shanghai, China, who joined in 2020 and are now based in Lexington, Kentucky, DUX Gaming is the second non-NBA team to join the 2K League.

The implementation of Gen G made headway for another international club, and DUX Gaming actually reached out with the initial proposal, says 2K League President Brendan Donohue. 

“They viewed themselves as a tie to the Spanish-speaking community, which we didn’t really have,” Donohue told Latino Rebels last week. “We were trying to evolve and do that, but this pushes that so much further. For example, we’ve always had our games on across the globe, but even last season, we had (2K League player Jomar Varela Escapa) doing a Spanish-speaking Twitch stream once a week. We saw a highly engaged and appreciative audience frankly rooting for Jomar whether they were fans of his team or not. They were just fans of him and his story.”

Varela Escapa, from Puerto Rico, is one of 13 Latinos in the 2K League, including nine Puerto Rican players and four from the Dominican Republic.

“With the addition of DUX, we envision a Latin America division of the NBA 2K League in the future,” Donohue added. “That’s the goal. We’d love to have a European division, an Asia Pacific division, and then a LatAm division as well.”

Both Donohue and Zarraga highlight an NBA study revealing that 80 percent of the league’s fans in Mexico regularly play video games, led by sports games. The NBA 2K franchise has been among the most popular sports video game franchises since launching in 1999. The study also indicated that half of NBA fans in the region say they were exposed to the sport through the 2K games

The slow build-up has finally accelerated in recent years. After only holding games in London, the NFL expanded its International Series to include yearly regular-season games in Mexico beginning in 2016, which have been halted since the 2020 season due to COVID-19 restrictions. Since 1992, as part of the NBA Global Games, the league held preseason games in Puerto Rico, Mexico, the Dominican Republic, and Brazil, among other countries. On December 6, 1997, the Dallas Mavericks and Houston Rockets played the first NBA regular-season game in Latin America, competing in Palacio de los Deportes in Mexico City. Since 2014, the league has returned to Mexico City 10 times, most recently in 2019.

Former NHL player Al Montoya, the first Cuban-American player in the league, recently told Latino Rebels about Kraft Hockeyville, where the Dallas Stars and Phoenix Coyotes played in an NHL preseason game in El Paso, Texas—close enough? And since 1996, there have been numerous regular season MLB games played outside the U.S. and Canada, including 49 at Hiram Bithorn Stadium in Puerto Rico, 11 across Mexico, along with a pre-COVID preseason game in the Dominican Republic in early 2020. 

And quietly, in golf, the PGA Tour has been making headway with PGA Tour Latinoamérica, which launched in 2012 and supersedes Tour de las Américas.

The Mexico Open, first played in Vallarta in 1944, will be part of the PGA Tour’s 2022 calendar for the first time as an official FedExCup event with a winner’s purse of $7.3 million. Grupo Salinas, the tournament host for the Mexico Open, also helped bring the 2017 World Golf Championship to Mexico City.

In its history, the PGA Tour itself, not including its subsidiaries, has held 108 tournaments across six different countries in Latin America: Colombia, the Dominican Republic, Mexico, Panama, Puerto Rico, and Venezuela. Tours affiliated with the PGA have played a total of 313 tournaments across 17 countries or territories in Latin America.

The PGA Tour’s executive vice president of global business affairs, Ty Votaw, has largely dealt with the league’s international affairs throughout his tenure, which began when he joined the Tour in 2006. The launch of PGA Tour Latinoamérica has led to increased viewership in Latin American countries and an increase in golfers from Latin American regions. Part of the results stem from a focus on accessibility, Votaw told Latino Rebels last month.

We wanted to create more relevancy in our sport in South America and in Latin America,” he said. “There weren’t that many players in the official world golf rankings from Latin America compared to others in the United States, Europe, Asia, et cetera. That was one of the reasons we took over the activities of Tour de las Américas and created PGA Tour Latinoamérica, so that the events on that Tour would earn world ranking points for the players. World Ranking points were primarily the criteria one would have to achieve to be eligible for the Olympics.”

Golf, which hadn’t been an Olympic sport since 1904, returned in 2016 as part of the Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. At the time of golf’s re-inclusion in the Olympics, approximately 412 Latin American players represented 20 countries, including Mexico, the Caribbean, and South America. Pre-COVID, the number had risen to 582 players in the official world golf rankings, a 42 percent increase, Votaw says.

“We saw the region was being underserved in terms of developing players generally,” he said. “We wanted to create relevancy for the return to the Olympics. We also felt that if more players from that part of the world could matriculate to the PGA Tour, ultimately, we could become more relevant to the Latin and Hispanic audiences in the United States and make our television audience here more diverse and inclusive.”

Donohue expresses a similar sentiment regarding the ability to directly identify with fans in their backyard.

“Being a fan of a team in the United States is great, but if you actually have a team in your market that represents you, that’s something that all of us connect with,” he said. “I think this is no different. When we start hosting events and tryouts in the local market, to be able to touch and feel the product is so different when you have a flag planted of a team representing your area.”

For the NBA G League, there are no immediate plans for further expansion in Latin America. But even as the current priority remains in Mexico, Zarraga insists that nothing is off the table. 

“The response when we made the announcement (introducing the Capitanes) was amazing,” he recalled. “I saw a lot of images of the fan clubs getting together to watch the game here in Mexico. They were doing viewing parties and different kinds of interactions. Now that they’re playing in the United States, it’s a little bit difficult to generate the live bond, but we feel very confident that the simple fact that they could watch Capitanes on ESPN, that’s an amazing story for them and for us, because before, they were not available on TV.”

Although the 2K League features a significant live component, the esports entity excelled virtually during the COVID pandemic, which Donohue says unlocked new ground for the organization. Thus, regarding global expansion, there are theoretically no limits.

“If you can play 2K, whether you’re in China or in Europe or in Mexico, it’s just about how good are you at the game. That’s what separates you,” he said. “In the future, I could see us hosting an event in Mexico City and actually having all of our teams fly in! Our games might be 50 minutes long, so we can play eight games in a day and have all of our teams competing in a pretty short window of time. Our tournaments can become almost like a local festival in terms of like we can come in for five days and take over a city.”

Regarding Latin America specifically, “I think it’s going to be really fun as DUX operates and speaks more directly to a Spanish-speaking community, Donohue added. “I think we’re gonna discover new stars that we didn’t know existed. Suddenly, here’s that 15-year-old from Mexico City who can see DUX Gaming as a possibility, and is gonna dive into 2K and becoming elite at it.

“I think five years from now, our number of players from Latin America is going to increase significantly. To me, that’s one of the exciting things. And certainly there will be more fans, but I do think we’re gonna see more players start to see that as a possibility, and that’s gonna be fun to watch.”


Bryan Fonseca is an award-winning content creator and sports journalist. He is also the author of Hidalgo Heights, and the founder, host and executive producer of the Ain’t Hard To Tell Podcast and Side Hustle. Twitter: @BryanFonsecaNY