MEXICO CITY – Expansion to Mexico still is a generation away despite the success of the NFL's first regular-season game staged outside of the United States, commissioner Paul Tagliabue (search) said Monday.
Tagliabue said the Arizona Cardinals' 31-14 victory over the 49ers in Mexico's capital lent credibility to his league south of the border. A record 103,467 fans packed cavernous Azteca Stadium (search) on Sunday night, the largest regular-season crowd in NFL history.
But Tagliabue said the size of the crowd wasn't the key factor.
"I think this game lets the fans here in Mexico, the athletes here in Mexico and businesses and everybody else know that we're for real," he said during a question and answer period before the American chamber of commerce in Mexico City. "It was an element of legitimacy."
He said the key to the future will be scheduling additional regular-season games in Mexico, and developing players in this country who can make it to the NFL and cultivate a strong fan base back home.
"We will get there — here and in other parts of the world — more quickly than most people appreciate because the athletes are out there," Tagliabue said, adding that Rolando Cantu, a Mexico-born guard on Arizona's practice squad, will likely make an NFL roster in the future.
Tagliabue said before kickoff Sunday that things already had gone so well in Mexico City (search) that he believed the game would be the first in an annual tradition on foreign soil. Toronto and London are top candidates for next season.
He reiterated that expansion of the 32-team league within the United States was unlikely anywhere but Los Angeles, and said there was no time frame for a Mexican franchise.
"I think it will happen, probably in our lifetime, but I'm hoping to live a long time," he said, adding that players who might be concerned about living and working in Mexico City could be a potential hurdle to expansion here.
The league generates just under $6 billion in revenue, with 1 percent of that coming from overseas sources such as NFL Europe. The approximately 1,800 players make $3.6 billion.
Tagliabue admitted that while the NFL had successfully become an international league, it could not compete with soccer's global appeal.
"Are we ever going to catch soccer?" he asked with a smile. "Not for 100 years."
He also acknowledged that soccer is the undisputed king of Mexican sports, as evidenced Sunday night when the loudest cheer came when the scoreboard flashed Mexico's under-17 national team's 3-0 victory over Brazil to capture the world championship in Lima, Peru.
Tagliabue said the roar from the crowd had to leave U.S. television viewers scratching their heads and wondering if the Mexicans in the stands understood what was happening on the field because "it came at a time when the Arizona quarterback threw one of the least artistic passes in the history of the National Football League."