Why Mexico is ready to put on a huge show for the NFL

Enrique Garay is a legend. Imagine Chris Berman, but taller, with perfectly coiffed hair.

For 10 years, Garay has been the face of football coverage for TV Azteca in Mexico, and for 20 years before that he covered the sport nationally. His distinctive, enthusiastic style has gained him legions of fans.

"It’s almost impossible to think of football in Mexico without thinking of Garay," Mario Colyer of Azteca Noreste said.

On Wednesday, the NFL announced it would step into the burgeoning market in Mexico. A regular-season game will be held at Azteca Stadium between the Raiders and Texans on Nov. 21, the first regular-season game in Mexico since 2005. Football is now the second-most popular sport in Mexico, at least by TV viewership, and last year, Garay said, 20 million people tuned in to watch the Super Bowl live across four different channels. With no exclusive rights in Mexico, it was shown on ESPN and Fox Deportes on cable and Televisa and TV Azteca on terrestrial TV. Garay’s TV Azteca got the highest rating.

"He knows how to connect with the audience," Colyer said. "It could be a boring game, and he has the knowledge and the excitement that Mexicans want."

Raised in Mexico City, Garay remembers the exact moment he became an NFL fan. "I was watching the Vikings against Oakland in Super Bowl XI. Sammy White caught a quick slant and Jack Tatum hit him and took his helmet off. That’s the first NFL moment I have in my life. Since then, I love it."

Growing up, every Monday he’d search through the local newspaper for the box scores but rarely found anything. When he was 17, he wrote a letter to El Heraldo de Mexico asking the paper why it didn’t cover the NFL. He received a letter back saying it didn’t have anyone, but if he came in it’d let him be the NFL special reporter.

FLINDER AT THE SUPER BOWL

A few years later, in 1985, he was assigned his first Super Bowl, at Stanford Stadium between the 49ers and Dolphins. "They put me up at the very top of the stadium, it was my first game, and I got there hours early," he said. "We have a solid college league in Mexico, and my brother played. But when I saw Ronnie Lott backpedaling before the game, the way he moved, I just was amazed at how fast he was."

The following year, he attended Super Bowl XX at the Superdome in New Orleans, but when he arrived at the stadium, he was assigned to a room with no view of the game, just a TV. "I was thinking, we came all the way to watch the Super Bowl, we want to watch the Super Bowl," he said. "So me and a colleague, we went outside and bought a hot dog and went to watch the game from the stands. Then FBI came up to us and said, ‘This isn’t your place.’"

Since the 1960s, football has been televised in Mexico. The Cowboys’ president and general manager at the time, Tex Schramm, wanted to move into the Mexican market and gave Cowboys games to local TV for no fee. Soon, nearly every Sunday the Cowboys were shown nationally and Dallas became the most popular team in the country. By the ’70s, the Steelers gained popularity because of their success, and even today the Steelers fan club in Mexico is the largest outside of Pittsburgh. "You have some people like me who have grown up and only watch football," ESPN reporter and Mexican native Carlos Nava-Oikion said. "I’ve never watched a soccer game in my life."

NFL SUPER BOWL CENTRAL

In 2005, Garay began calling games for TV Azteca. His infectious personality caught on, but he was immediately aware how closely he’d be scrutinized by Mexico’s rabid football fan base. A lifelong Patriots fan ("I don’t know why, but the first time I saw Steve Grogan playing, I just loved the Pats."), he can rattle of the names of every offensive lineman on the 1985 Pats team. "You can’t mess up with Mexican fans. They know their stuff. If you say Peyton Manning played at this place, people will come up to me on the street and say, ‘No, no, you know Peyton played at Tennessee.’"

Garay remembers a time when there were no more than two or three journalists from Mexico covering a Super Bowl. This year, there are more than 100 members of the Mexican media. The audience has grown exponentially, too. Sunday’s game is projected to be the most-watched Super Bowl in Mexico’s history, and this February a professional league (LFA) is scheduled to begin play with six teams in three cities. Then, of course, there’s the showcase game in Mexico this November.

For Garay, it’s been a long time coming. "We’ve been waiting to show the NFL to see how passionate we are and how important football is to us," he said. "It’s going to be a huge show." 

Flinder Boyd is a former European professional basketball player turned writer. On Twitter he can be found @FlinderBoyd. He’s in the Bay Area all week for a series of articles on the events around Super Bowl 50.