NBA in Mexico ‘makes sense for a lot of reasons’

If you’ve never heard of Gustavo Ayon, that’s OK.

Perhaps the name Eduardo Najera rings a louder bell. For the most knowledgeable of NBA aficionados, Horacio Llamas also belongs in this exercise.

That’s because he, Ayon and Najera are the only Mexicans to play in an NBA game. Ayon, a center averaging 15.6 minutes and 4.1 points per game for the Atlanta Hawks, is the only active one.

Spain has Ricky Rubio, Jose Calderon and the Gasols, to name a few. Puerto Rico has Rubio’s Timberwolves teammate J.J. Barea and Carlos Arroyo. France, Tony Parker. Germany, Dirk Nowitzki. Argentina, Manu Ginobili. The list stretches from here to the southern Texas border.

But Mexico claims only Ayon, Najera and Llamas as past and present NBA representatives. American talent evaluators have devoured the globe in search of talent the past 30 years but have yet to establish a pipeline between the States and their immediate neighbor to the south.

While Mexico has yet to infiltrate the NBA on a broad personnel spectrum, though, the NBA has done everything in its power to build and maintain a presence in Mexico.

Hence Minnesota’s Wednesday matchup with San Antonio at Mexico City Arena in a contest featuring a league-record 17 international players.

"Having regular-season games here demonstrates our commitment to this market," NBA vice president for Latin America Philippe Moggio told FOXSportsNorth.com.

The Timberwolves-Spurs game will be the league’s 21st played in Mexico — but just the second regular-season clash and first since Houston and Dallas bumped heads in 1997. Through scouting, merchandise sales, TV deals and digital marketing, the NBA’s recent mission has been to grow the game in dozens of foreign countries, but Mexico is a source of particular emphasis.

No other nation except the U.S. and Canada has played host to more NBA games than Mexico. The league dedicates a bevy of resources to promoting its brand there, Moggio said, starting with multi-tiered television contracts and a hard-hitting social media campaign.

Why Mexico? Because it’s close, ethnically intertwined and downright ardent about hoops, Moggio said.

"Mexico makes sense for a lot of reasons," Moggio said. "It is close in proximity to the U.S., you have an expanding American-Hispanic population, and the passion for basketball among this fan base here creates great potential for basketball in this market."

Aside from soccer — which reigns king in Mexico and always will — basketball is the second most-practiced sport in the country. Almost every school has a court and a team. Organized tournaments are becoming a Sunday-morning pastime for Mexicans of all ages and genders. Some native women in the state of Chiapas are even known to engage in fierce pickup games, usually wearing traditional skirts while they play.

It’s not by accident. The NBA has ensured its exposure by working agreements with seven different television carriers — most notably ESPN International — and a strong digital media push. As of June 2013, more than 3,000 Mexicans had subscribed to NBA League Pass, and the NBA’s Facebook page is liked by more than 500,000 users who list the country as their native land, according to the league.

In 2009, the NBA launched a website called éne-bé-a, a Spanish offshoot of NBA.com (a story about Ricky Rubio is featured prominently on the homepage at the moment). There’s also an NBA Mexico Twitter feed with more than 9,000 followers.

Every season, television viewership increases, according to Moggio. More LeBron and Durant jerseys and adidas caps are purchased.

And David Stern’s master plan takes deeper root in Mexico.

It’s part of the departing commissioner’s tenure-defining goal of greatly upsizing the league’s global footprint. At the start of the season, a league-record 92 players from 39 countries and territories possessed an NBA roster spot. International television, merchandise and ticket sales revenues remain negligible compared to the multibillion-dollar league’s overall worth but are reportedly growing at a rapid pace.

And Mexico plays a large role, even if it’s yet to produce talent like Spain, France and former Soviet Union countries have.

"We have huge momentum going for us," Moggio said. "This is a great time for us to be able to really reward our fan base here with an NBA regular-season game of this caliber."

Wednesday’s important Western Conference matchup at one-year-old Mexico City Arena isn’t the only basketball ticket in town. Sixteen teams currently comprise the Liga Nacional de Baloncesto Profesional.

It’s a league that’s growing in talent, according to Barea, who has several Puerto Rican teammates that play professionally in Mexico.

"Oh yeah, it’s competitive," Barea said. "Those guys can play."

Mexico basketball has become more prominent on an international scale, too. Led by Ayon, the Mexicans bested Barea’s Puerto Rico squad in the FIBA Americas Championship finale in September and clinched a spot in next year’s FIBA World Cup in Spain.

Najera, a retired 12-year journeyman who now coaches the NBA Developmental League’s Texas Legends, has made it a personal goal to get Mexican prospects more looks by NBA scouts. There’s even been talk of one day adding an expansion team in Mexico, though Moggio says that’s all it is at this point.

"It’s hard to say," Moggio said. "There are just too many elements you have to take into consideration when you explore that scenario. Our focus is to have our games we play here executed well and to, in turn, grow this market. Over time, if you continue to see the development of a market like this, it becomes easier to say it could potentially house a team."

Wednesday, what’s expected to be a near-sellout crowd will have to settle for Spanish-speakers Rubio, Barea and Ginobili in a matchup of the two most international-laden teams in the NBA.

But chances are there’s a kid or two in the stands who spends his afternoons and weekends emulating Ayon.

Mexico may never be a basketball hotbed. But it’s already a prime target market for the NBA.

And that’s why Minnesota was asked to sacrifice a home game and represent the league as part of its ever-increasing efforts at globalization.

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