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The State of the NBA in Mexico City: Is Expansion the Next Step?

After another game in the Mexican capital, the narrative isn’t going away. Let’s explore the dynamics behind the possible move toward an NBA franchise south of the border.

The 31st NBA Mexico City Game took place this past week as the Heat bested the Spurs at the Arena Ciudad de México, reinforcing the Association’s growing legacy there amid ever-persistent conversations about potential expansion. Although Commissioner Adam Silver has said several times that the league is years away from growing its membership, he notably kept the door open for the Mexican capital.

“There’s no doubt we will be looking seriously at Mexico City over time,” Silver said. Of course, logistical concerns are a legitimate concern, but the commissioner mentioned that the city is “doing all the things necessary to demonstrate to the league that ultimately we may be positioned to house an NBA team here.”

Mexico City has a population of roughly 22 million, which would be the largest in the NBA by more than double (New York City checks in at about 8.9 million). The arena in the nation’s capital was built in 2012 with a capacity of 22,300 seats and there is already a G League team there, the Capitanes de Ciudad de México, so expansion certainly isn’t out of question — but how realistic is it in, say, the next decade when other large markets like Las Vegas and Seattle are generally considered next in line for a franchise when the time comes?

Beyond just the idea of expansion, however, the NBA is proud of the roots it’s laying down in Mexico City as the game continues to grow rapidly south of the border. Let’s explore how and why.

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The NBA on the Record

As NBA Mexico Managing Director Raul Zarraga exclusively said in a statement to Boardroom:

“Basketball and the NBA’s growth in Mexico are a reflection of our efforts to grow the game and expand the league’s presence throughout the country over the past three decades. Earlier this month, we hosted the 31st NBA game in Mexico, which is more than any other country outside of the United States and Canada. The game also coincided with the 30th anniversary of the first-ever NBA game held in Mexico in 1992, and it’s incredible to see how much both the game and the popularity of the NBA in Mexico have grown since then. Today, there are nearly 30 million NBA fans in Mexico, and basketball is the second-most played sport among Mexican sports fans. And even with everything we’re doing, we believe we’re just scratching the surface of the enormous potential for basketball and the NBA in Mexico.

“We have a three-pronged strategy to grow basketball and the NBA in Mexico and globally. The first is grassroots basketball development – we are very focused on creating more opportunities for boys and girls to play the game through programs like the Jr. NBA, NBA Basketball School, Basketball Without Borders and NBA Academy Latin America. Second, we are focused on bringing the NBA experience to fans in Mexico through interactive fan events, authentic merchandise, and live games. In addition to the Mexico City Game, the G League’s Capitanes are playing at least 24 home games at Arena CDMX this season. Third, we are making NBA games more accessible and delivering localized content to Mexican fans on the devices and platforms they use most. Through these efforts, we’re reaching fans and aspiring players across the country, expanding Mexico’s basketball ecosystem, and connecting fans with their favorite teams and players in new and creative ways.”

Growth & Opportunity

  • Average viewership of NBA games is up 70% this season.
  • Mexico ranks No. 4 globally in sales on the NBA’s website.
  • NBA League Pass subscriptions are up 20%; Mexico is a top-five League Pass market outside the US
  • The NBA has nearly 30 million fans in Mexico.

Though there aren’t any public numbers regarding revenue from past NBA Mexico City games, NBA Deputy Commissioner Mark Tatum said it plainly: “The numbers start with a B. That’s how big the business is internationally — but we think we’re just scratching the surface.”

As for the on-court product, players are developing through the NBA Academy Latin America, which launched in 2017. Since then, 24 players have committed or attended NCAA Division I schools in the US, including Indiana Pacers rookie standout Bennedict Mathurin. To date, there have been four Mexican-born NBA players in league history — Gustavo Ayón, Jorge Gutierrez, Horacio Llamas, and Eduardo Najera — while Lakers wing Juan Toscano-Anderson became the first Mexican-American NBA champion in June of 2022 as a member of the Golden State Warriors.

NBA Mexico City Games: The Story So Far

The NBA has played 117 international games in its 76-year history, and Mexico has hosted the most (30). The first game was back on Oct. 27, 1992 between the Dallas Mavericks and Houston Rockets. Since then, they’ve hosted 18 preseason games and 12 regular season games.

Memorable NBA Games in Mexico City
  • Dec. 1997, Mavericks-Rockets: It was the first regular season game ever played there, highlighted by 19-point, 17-rebound performance from Charles Barkley.
  • Jan. 2017, Spurs-Suns: It was a battle of two superstars in Kawhi Leonard, then with the Spurs, and 21-year-old Devin Booker. Book (39 points) won the battle over Kawhi (38 points) as the Suns squeaked away with a two-point win.
  • Dec. 2019, Mavericks-Pistons: It was only Luka Dončić’s second year in the NBA, and boy, did he ever put on a show. He dropped 41 points, 12 rebounds, and 11 assists en route to an 11-point win.

G League Expansion

The Association has already gotten its feet wet in regard to expansion via the G League. The Mexico City Capitanes were developed in 2019, but had to wait until 2021 to play due to travel restrictions. Now, they’re underway, and three of their players (Gary Clark, Alfonzo McKinnie, Matt Mooney) were called up to the NBA in that first year.

Tatum acknowledged that this G League expansion was part of the first step in potentially getting an NBA team there one day.

“One of the biggest challenges around international expansion has always been the travel issues, the facility issues,” he said in November. “But there is a world-class facility in Mexico City in Arena CDMX, which is where we’ve been playing our games and our global games in Mexico. And that’s actually the home of the G League team, the Capitanes, so that’s not an issue, and the travel is not an issue. It’s a pretty short flight for several of our teams, particularly our Texas teams, our Florida teams, our New Orleans team.”

Nothing is imminent and the future of expansion is super uncertain, but at the very least, Mexico City has given the NBA 22 million reasons to consider setting up shop there — and that number only stands to get bigger.

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About The Author
Anthony Puccio
Anthony Puccio
Anthony Puccio is a former Staff Writer at Boardroom. Puccio has 10 years of experience in journalism and content creation, previously working for SB Nation, The Associated Press, New York Daily News, SNY, and Front Office Sports. In 2016, he received New York University's CCTOP scholarship and earned a bachelor's degree in Communications from St. John's University. He can be spotted a mile away thanks to his plaid suits and thick New York accent. Don't believe us? Check his Twitter @APooch.