The NBA's connection to Mexico and Mexico City

Earl Watson's Suns -- and guard Devin Booker -- will play both the Mavericks and Spurs in Mexico City. Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

MEXICO CITY -- In 2013, an electrical problem filled the Arena Ciudad de México with smoke just hours prior to the first NBA regular-season game hosted by Mexico in more than 16 years.

Locals feared the league might not consider returning to the city in the future.

As it turns out, the NBA's commitment to growing the game in Mexico and bringing its product to the country has never been stronger. As evidence, the league will play two games in Mexico City this week.

In 2015, an NBA fact sheet stated 13 million people follow the game within the country immediately to the south of the United States. Through the end of 2016, an updated document boasted a digital community of more than 1.2 million fans and followers across social media platforms alone.

Following its initial push, the NBA has subsequently set the tone in working with Mexico City government officials to celebrate successful events -- this week, the city will host its third and fourth regular-season games since 2014 -- a format now duplicated by other major sports leagues such as the NFL, MLB and Formula One.

According to NBA officials, the expectation for the league is raising the ceiling in Mexico, culminating with more events and games coming to the country. "There are more than 40 million people playing basketball in this country," said Raul Zarraga, the NBA's managing director in Mexico since 2008.

"We've confirmed that about 12.5 million people consume the NBA's content and entertainment in different formats," he said.

Despite no NBA franchise currently having a Mexican-born player on its roster, recent exports like Jorge Gutierrez and Gustavo Ayon had a positive effect on the game's popularity in the country. In order to keep their numbers growing, however, more players need to be on the way.

"Grassroots investment is always critical when attempting to further penetrate foreign markets," said David Carter, the executive director of USC's Sports Business Institute. "It's important to connect with youth not only in an effort to develop talent, but even more so to increase exposure and build fan avidity."

The league is adamant about a push toward a new wave of players to sustain interest. "We have to continue working with a base of young players to identify and promote their talent across pro basketball," Zarraga said. "There's talent in Mexico. We're still searching for the best model to find these players and project them to the NBA."

"Extending the league's brand globally is a priority for the NBA because when it does so, it results in important incremental revenue from media, sponsorship and merchandising sources -- all of which contribute to increased franchise values." David Carter, executive director of USC's Sports Business Institute

By bringing big events to the city and country, the NBA has blazed a trail in Mexico, allowing it to follow through on a decade-long global plan to grow the league and expand on burgeoning markets.

"Extending the league's brand globally is a priority for the NBA because when it does so, it results in important incremental revenue from media, sponsorship and merchandising sources -- all of which contribute to increased franchise values," Carter said.

Both the NBA and NFL could stake a claim to their respective sport being the second-most followed, behind soccer. Despite this, Carter notes lower operation costs to organizers and lower ticket prices for fans. Both help the NBA coexist with other sports and thrive in Mexico.

As to why the NBA is so focused on Mexico instead of say, Argentina or Brazil, where the league also is popular and where local circuits have managed to produce players the likes of Manu Ginobili, Luis Scola and Nene Hilario, among others, the reasoning is simple: logistics. To this point, the league office in Mexico is consistently involved with efforts to keep the game at the forefront on a year-round basis.

"We have a close relationship with the government and the Mexican Institute of Sports. We plan activities all year that culminate with the [regular-season] games," Zarraga said.

In 2016, the league held a Jr. NBA event where 1,500 children participated across three Mexican states. Gutierrez held a clinic at the event. Later that year, more than 60,000 people attended the NBA3X event in Mexico City, where 164 amateur teams battled it out in a 3-on-3 tournament.

Indeed, the league has secured multiple partnerships with big companies to expand its footprint in Mexico. ESPN broadcasts five weekly games, and Televisa provides more than a dozen events on over-the-air television, including All-Star Weekend. Even those options haven't been enough for nearly 5,000 subscribers of the NBA's League Pass game delivery system. In 2013, just months before the league was scheduled to return to the country after a long hiatus, an online store was launched that today delivers to 95 percent of the zip codes in Mexico.

The league's individual franchises also have gotten into the act, recognizing a need to grow their fan bases beyond traditional borders.

"Our teams have asked the league office for an opportunity to play abroad," said Arnon de Mello, the NBA's vice president in Latin America. "We're very happy to see that. This year, we're excited to bring three teams that are relevant and have proximity to the Mexican market: Dallas, San Antonio and Phoenix."

The Mavericks and Suns play on Thursday. The Suns will play the Spurs on Saturday.

More teams and games are surely on the way. As the NBA touts its growth, it will test its popularity in the coming years. As Zarraga notes, the league might even consider bringing games to other venues, such as Monterrey, a northern city that has long had an appetite for American pro sports due to its proximity to the border.

At the moment, the league is happy with its progress. "We're on the right path with regular-season games in Mexico," de Mello said.