While the NBA Boston Celtics and Sacramento Kings prepare to face-off in Mexico City, small villages in southern Mexico hold basketball tournaments at festivals, offering prizes that range from a few hundred to several thousand dollars to the winning team. But will the two fan bases ever meet?
As the NBA pushes to expand its fan base around the world, holding its fourth regular-season basketball game in Mexico tonight, the United States’ neighbor to the south shows both the opportunities and the missed chances that the league faces.
Over the last two decades the NBA has scheduled 19 preseason games in Mexico, and tonight's showdown at the Mexico City Arena between the Boston Celtics and Sacramento Kings shows that the country is one of the league’s top priorities.
“I definitely think that Mexico can be an important market. It’s a priority for the NBA. It’s one of the markets where we see the most opportunity,” Raul Zarraga, the NBA’s Country Director in Mexico, told Fox News Latino.
Zarraga isn’t alone in that assessment.
“We’re thrilled to have an NBA game here in Mexico City. I like getting the chance to play here,” said Celtics’ Head Coach Brad Stevens at a practice this week.
Celtics guard Avery Bradley, who played college basketball at the University of Texas, added, “It’s a great opportunity. Not just for our team but for the NBA.”
Zarraga says that he thinks Mexico is an important market for any company looking to increase its consumer base. But despite many positive trends, Mexico’s economy in many ways is defined by the enormous gulf that separates the wealthy class from working class families in rural towns.
According to one recent study, the wealthiest 10 percent of the population – topped by telecom magnate Carlos Slim – controls 64 percent of the country’s wealth. And while the mega-rich who buy courtside seats for the Celtics-Kings game represent an important market for many luxury brands, companies that want to do big business in Mexico have to find ways to connect with a wider segment of the population.
A tradition of hoops
In the early evening in the town of San Miguel in an isolated mountainous corner of the state of Oaxaca, a crowd of men wearing cowboy hats and baseball caps watches a semifinal in the town’s annual basketball tournament.
On the court, a gritty team of wide-shouldered players from the town of Matatlán – who eliminated their quarterfinal opponents with a combination of tough defense, strong rebounding and deft inside play – play a team of underdogs from the town of Teotitlán who are wearing mismatched uniforms.
A skinny middle-aged man, the point guard for Teotitlán, emerges as the game’s star. He explodes up the court on fast breaks, zigzags between defenders, adroitly handles the ball, hits long-range shots and sinks free throws.
His style is reminiscent of the way Isaiah Thomas, the undersize Celtics guard, plays. A comparison that few people in the crowd are likely to make.
Leo Hernandez, a 31-year-old pickup basketball player from the town of San Baltazar, leaned forward in his front row seat, smiling and clapping. “They’re good. Short, but fast,” he said.
Hernandez, like most of his friends, is an avid basketball fan. In the small towns of southern Mexico, there’s a long hoops tradition that stretches back to the Depression-era government of President Lázaro Cárdenas.
Mexico banned the Catholic Church for much of the early part of the 20th century, and Cárdenas built basketball courts as a way for residents form a new set of secular traditions.
As a result, at festivals throughout the year small villages in Oaxaca and its southern neighbor, Chiapas, organize basketball tournaments, offering prizes that range from a few hundred to several thousand dollars to the winning team.
Even in the smallest hamlets in southern Mexico, you can find cement basketball courts with glass or wooden backboards and sturdy new rims and nets. For fans like Hernandez, the tournaments are the best place to watch hoops.
“There’s a high level of play. The young men from here are really good,” he told FNL.
Hernandez, who mixes agave paste at a mezcal factory for a living, explained that since returning from a stint working in California he watches fewer NBA games than he used to.
“[In Mexico] you need cable. During the playoffs they’ll show some of the highlights [on broadcast TV], but in California I would watch the whole game,” he said.
Hernandez plays pickup basketball on a court by the church in his San Baltazar, which has a population of just over 3,000. His town doesn’t have a newspaper stand but it does have a small Internet café with a few old PC computers.
Hernandez, like six out of ten Mexicans, does not have a bank account and can’t easily pay to watch a game online.
“The money [I earn] doesn’t go far. It’s just enough to eat,” he said. He speaks Spanish slowly, in short simple sentences and prefers to communicate in Zapotec, the indigenous language spoken in this part of Oaxaca.
Although he avidly follows the calendar of local tournaments, he had no idea that the Celtics and Kings were playing a regular-season game in Mexico City.
Go global, but think local
In places like Mexico, for the NBA to maximize its reach, it has to do more than go global.
The NBA has created a way to allow customers to pay to stream games online paying cash, an accommodation that helps it connect with the wide segment of the population that works in the cash economy, like the vast majority of people in Chiapas and Oaxaca.
Streaming games, though, isn’t likely to be a durable strategy. Although Mexico has the highest rate of smart-phone use in Latin America, around half of the people don’t have access to the Internet.
“For the last five years we’ve been showing the Finals games and sometimes the playoffs in Cineoplis [movie theater chain] in Mexico City,” Zarraga told FNL.
For now, however, the NBA doesn’t plan to go national with that movie theatre strategy.
“We don’t have a plan right now to distribute in theatres in any [other] states. At the national level we offer a service that’s accessible but there are limits to what we can do,” Zarraga admitted. “The overall majority is still watching TV to see our games.”
Hernandez embodies many of the obstacles that the NBA is working to overcome.
Like many of his basketball friends, he wears branded jerseys and basketball shoes when he plays pick-up games, attesting to the potential market that exists outside Mexico’s big cities.
But Hernandez, who doesn’t have a computer or a smart phone, has found a way to watch portions of NBA games.
Standing at the mescal factory high in the mountains, he pointed down the dirt road and said, “There’s a pizza restaurant down there [in town]. They have cable and sometimes put the games on. You can eat and watch.”