¡Viva México! Will the NBA Ever Expand South of the Border Full Time?

Robert Kleeman@@RobertKleemanSenior Analyst IOctober 15, 2010

Gary Neal caught Bobby Simmons' bullet pass and fired up the shot of his young NBA career. More than 18,000 fans raised their arms with his.

The crowd roared as Neal's last-second triple afforded the San Antonio Spurs a 100-99 lead. Chris Kaman could not follow up his tip-in on the previous possession with another heroic heave. This exciting Tuesday tilt—enthralling by preseason standards—took place,  the 19th game in Mexico City. No other non-NBA city has hosted more early October games.

The noise after Manu Ginobili sank a pair of first-quarter free throws was impressive, even on my mediocre TV speakers. He was the main attraction, and it showed. Tiago Splitter, San Antonio's heralded Brazilian rookie, did not play, thanks to an injury he suffered on the third day of training camp.

The Spurs' rally from an 18-point deficit to force a rapid-fire finish made the question I have been asking for years tougher to answer. Will David Stern ever install a full-time franchise in Mexico as he did north of the border twice in 1995?

If Toronto and Vancouver landed pro squads, why didn't Texas and California's southern neighbor do the same? The Vancouver Grizzlies relocated to Memphis, but the Toronto Raptors have remained a strong market, even if Canadians will never view basketball on the same level as hockey.

The Raps set league attendance records for three straight years starting in 2001, when Vince Carter threw it down 41 times a year at the Air Canada Centre. Canada's lone NBA franchise still drew some sell out crowds last year despite boasting one of the softest, most defenseless teams in sports history. The Downy Dinos—my affectionate name for the ductile squad—should have worn soiled diapers every time they faced physicality.

Somehow, the Raptors still managed to win 40 games. The point here: the team stunk and fans often still packed the arena. Toronto has not won a playoff series in its abbreviated history and boasts less postseason wins in the last decade than the Spurs and L.A. Lakers do titles.

Hockey will always reign in Canada. Not even an unexpected NBA championship could change that. The ACC crowds, though, produce ear-splitting noise during high-profile hoops matches.

In Mexico, soccer and the NFL rule the sports landscape. ESPN shows a bias toward American football and futbol. The NBA's Latin American and Spanish-speaking stars—Pau Gasol, Luis Scola, Ginobili, and others—hog most of the basketball highlights. Can Mexicans in one of the country's major cities make room for 41 home dates of hardwood hardihood?


Violence Complicates Equation

Crime statistics released in early August revealed that Washington D.C. boasted a murder rate four times that of Mexico City, according to USA Today. Reports that reflect modest murder rates do nothing to assuage concerns about the bloodshed that has gripped the border towns.

A grenade exploded outside the police headquarters in Monterrey earlier this week, causing damage to the facility and injuring two officers. The war between two drug cartels—the Gulf and Los Zetas—has claimed 500 lives in the country's wealthiest city, according to CBS news.

Narcos hijack buses at major intersections a few times per week, and some have planted bombs near or at municipal buildings, night clubs, and commercial centers. Even San Pedro, the upscale area of the city that resembles Houston's Rice Village, has been besieged by drug-related terrorism. The Jonas Brothers cancelled a show in Monterrey, citing security concerns.

11 sitting mayors have been assassinated in Mexico this year. The decapitated head of the lead Mexican investigator in the much-publicized Hartley case was found in a box this week. Tiffany Hartley said her husband was shot in the head while they were riding jet skis on Falcon Lake. Anyone not familiar with this story should consider reading newspapers, or at least viewing the headlines, more often.

As the violence escalates, the despair and frustration does, too. These pirates intimidate and kill innocent residents and tourists without pause. Kidnapping remains a chief worry.

It makes sense, then, that Stern would hesitate to set up shop for good in such a depressed, horror-filled nation. Would the NBA put too many employees and its athletes at risk if it created a Mexico-based franchise?

Worse, Monterrey, the new center of the butchery, is the lone major city equipped with an NBA-ready arena. El Palacio de los Deportes, where the Spurs and Clippers squared off Tuesday night, makes Sacramento's Arco Arena look like a state-of-the-art facility.

Arena Monterrey's interior reminds one of the AT&T Center in San Antonio and FedEx Forum in Memphis, among others, while the outside recalls the Palace at Auburn Hills. The venue boasts high-priced suites and comfy lower-level seats. In essence, there is nothing this 17,599-capacity arena lacks on the NBA front that would make it an unacceptable host for a team.

If violence was not such a distress, pro basketball in Mexico's most affluent city would become a hot ticket and a money maker. Monterrey features many businesses and establishments popular in the U.S.—an H.E.B. grocery store, Chili's, a Bennigans, and of course, Starbucks Coffee.


Why Mexico Matters

Immigration is a controversial issue, and mere mention of the subject sets off some inner rage tickers. Please try not to turn the comment section below into a political battleground. The migration from Mexico across the border has slowed, but it remains a vital component of the Texas economy.

State law requires that all school districts educate every child here. Many immigrants perform cheap labor or take on jobs others born here might refuse to do. These new residents reap benefits from state agencies, they increase roadway traffic, and many purchase homes or apartments.

The U.S. sends more money to Mexico each year than any other country, even if international relations with Middle Eastern, European and Asian nations fetch all the headlines. No other land Stern has tapped to host preseason matches means more to the U.S.’s largest state than Mexico.

I may boast an English degree, not an economics one, but even I know the border action affects what happens in Washington, D.C. and even Wyoming. The U.S. government sends so much money south of the Rio Grande each year, but not enough of that capital goes toward building sustainable businesses there.

The Mexican government and law enforcement agencies are infested with corruption, but that does not mean an American-based corporation could not succeed there. The NBA is a company. Why not plant another branch in a major city there? It is doubtful that the installation of a pro sports team in any U.S. city has ever curtailed violent crime on its own. Mexico seems different.

What if the NBA’s prestigious brand called the shell-shocked country home? Stern could surely muster the security needed to keep the arena, its occupants and the organization absent from harm.

Those who want Mexicans to stay put should consider this: given what you just read about the country here or what you could find with a simple Internet search, why should they? What motivation do they have?

An NBA franchise cannot stop drug-related violence, but it does create jobs and new revenue streams. That financial reward spreads to the host city, too.

Patrick Rische, hired by the Austin Sports Commission to discern the economic percussion of football at UT-Austin, surmised that all of the home games generate about $99 million for the city. UT, of course, ranks as one of the wealthiest collegiate athletics establishments in the world and enrolls at least 48,000 students each year.

The profits or economic impact might not reach those levels in Mexico, but they would be notable and have a positive imprint.

Stern has teased the far-in-the-future idea of European or Chinese divisions. The suggestion remains light years away from becoming a mandate. The Raptors and New Jersey Nets, though, will play a regular-season game in London. The 2010 preseason slate included stops in Beijing, London, Mexico City, Madrid, Paris and Milan.

Why even talk about basketball job creation in China, even if that hoops-crazed populous merits attention? We need to create better job opportunities in Mexico. Ignoring the welfare and stability of Latin American countries spells trouble for the U.S. Ignoring the one enveloped by chaos whose violence has spilled over into Texas qualifies as bird-brained.

Just imagine the singing crowds.


Noche Latina Cada Noche

The NBA already celebrates its Latin American fan base throughout March with the “Noche Latina” promotion. Why not give Spanish-speaking fans in the other country that borders the U.S. a full-time franchise? If Canadians can get and support one, why can’t Mexicans? There are many capable English speakers in Monterrey and others who would know enough to survive at a two-and-a-half-hour basketball tilt. The language barrier is no excuse.

If many European outfits can conduct some basketball business in English, a Mexican-based team can do the same. Players already flash passports and pass through customs en route to the Air Canada Centre. Would they scoff at doing so once or twice more per season? Is the flight from Chicago to, say, Monterrey, worse than one from Houston to Toronto?

Basketball participation in Mexico ranks as non-existent compared to China, but exposure matters in this discussion. Yao Ming's No. 1 selection and the first ever China Games featuring the Houston Rockets helped the sport's popularity leave the runway like a runaway jet.

More people would care about the orange round ball in Mexico if residents there could call a team in the world's finest hoops league their own. A few preseason games will not change the country's sports culture.


Calling Out All Sports Channels

When did networks decide it was chic or acceptable to call live games from a broadcast studio? Bob Neal and Steve Smith providing the soundtrack to the Spurs-Clippers Mexico City foray from NBATV's Atlanta digs was the latest egregious, disgraceful example. Bile approaches my throat each time this happens. Does it not make you want to throw up your dinner?

ESPN's crew of Mark Kestecher and Fran Fraschilla (Kevin Connors also did some play-by-play) delivered most of their 2010 FIBA World Championship calls from a studio. Team USA boss Jerry Colangelo shamed and insulted the four-letter network into sending the broadcast duo to Istanbul for the final rounds.

Jerry, you are my hero. Note to all TV execs and broadcasters: don't tell me how great the damn atmosphere is unless you are in the arena. Neal said several times during Tuesday's telecast that more than 20,000 "were expected " at Palacio de los Deportes. The game did not sell out as Neal said it did. The reporters there said attendance was closer to 18,000.

Oops, guys.


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