The NBA’s Mexico City Game Was Built On Grassroots Growth

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Raul Zarraga is clear about what he wants for basketball fans in Mexico, down to the divvying up of time: three hours a week, at least, of their attention dedicated to the NBA.

At first glance, it may sound severe or formally prescriptive, but Zarraga, NBA Mexico’s Vice President and Managing Director, is determined to get those hours to fans in whatever ways speak most strongly to them.

“If it is short form content, if it is the full game, if it is back of the house, if it is something different related with fashion,” Zarraga stresses over the phone. “We need to be adapting our offer to whatever the fans are looking for and the time that they have during the day to dedicate to the NBA, given all the other things they have in front of them.”

He’s also, at that very moment, surrounded by them — it’s halftime at the Mexico City Capitanes and Austin Spurs game, the prelude to the weekend’s main event between the Miami and San Antonio — and Zarraga has stolen a few minutes away from the high energy of the floor to discuss the growth of the game in Mexico.

“I mean, the energy, it’s amazing. I would say it’s an amazing vibe and energy and a glow with everything we’re seeing here. And I’m talking about the fans,” Zarraga answers instantly, when asked to answer a fairly ethereal question about what the energy is like at the Capitanes game, and around the city going into the weekend.

He mentions a fan he hadn’t seen since the last Mexico City game, in 2019, who staked out the media hotel lobby to get a sighting of Spurs alumni, the Iceman George Gervin. Zarraga did him one better, taking the fan’s trading card and getting him an autograph.

“And now I have to give it back,” Zarraga chuckles. “Those are the kinds of things that make me really happy. And that’s what I love about the NBA, because you find this kind of energy and the positivity of the people, any place you go.”

Zarraga says many of the fans have turned the weekend into a “double header” event, starting with the Capitanes game and carrying the excitement and energy over to the Heat-Spurs matchup — the 31st game in Mexico on the NBA’s 30th anniversary of the league’s first game in the country, in 1992.

While the NBA’s numbers when it comes to growth in Mexico have certainly added up over the years, the 30 million people in the country who count themselves as fans of the game (Source – YouGov, 2022) have largely been the result of grassroots efforts led by passionate people like Zarraga and his team. There are three pillars to the game’s growth: play, engagement, and education. Zarraga believes the number one reason why people become fans of the NBA in the first place is because they started to play basketball. In a country where soccer has long been the dominant sport, it makes sense. Anyone can take a soccer ball out and dribble it around, though the same is still possible with basketball, the game’s full mechanics are different, and even a quick game of pickup requires some semblance of a court or a hoop.

On NBA Mexico’s education efforts, Zarraga mentions the Coaching Academy, a Jr NBA initiative that allows free access to thorough and detailed lesson and game plans for educators, coaches, or people looking to become either.

“You can be a physical educator, or maybe you don’t know anything, and you want to start from scratch,” Zarraga says of the program which has seen 35,000 people subscribe to it and has a goal of reaching one hundred thousand physical educators.

The best of the program are given an opportunity to be brought into the NBA’s Latin America Academy, based in La Loma, and offered an in-person clinic alongside elite level coaches and talent. The Academy itself sits as the high-end culmination of these grassroots coaching efforts, with a developing Basketball Schools project aiming to get the game into more Mexican cities as a rung toward it on the education ladder. Zarraga knows he and the NBA can’t individually reach the country’s 40-million girls and boys, but the coaches they train can, so they want them to be the best.

It isn’t just basketball coaches and players that Zarraga would like to see developed in Mexico, he mentions referees and anyone who wants to work alongside the game.

“We need to discover the talent, but also we need to keep promoting and motivating them in any of its forms,” he stresses. “When you start a career like this and you decide that your life will depend on how good you are, and [consider] the opportunities that you could get outside, it’s not easy here in Mexico to really find an opportunity. So for that, you need to be the best. And that’s exactly what we are trying to build in different ways.”

The growth of basketball in Mexico isn’t only through the NBA. Zarraga mentions the importance of local leagues as well as having talented people around it, like Kaleb Canales, who left the NBA in 2021 after 13 years as a successful assistant coach to join the Mexican National team as associate head coach.

In terms of engagement — it also comes through entertainment. The arrival of the G League in Mexico City with the Capitanes has given local fans, already ranked top five outside the U.S. for League Pass subscriptions, an immediate and exciting team to root for.

Beyond the metrics that Zarraga and his team use to track growth of their collective education programs, and the TV and other ratings that track the uptick in viewership and engagement, the most undeniable proof of concept comes in the reception of the return of the NBA’s Mexico City game — Arena CDMX sold out in four days.

Excitement on the team side is high too. This will be the Spurs 8th game in Mexico, and earlier in the week the team’s trainers led a coaching clinic for 150 local physical educators and teachers. The Iceman himself helped lead a Jr. NBA youth clinic for 70 kids from schools across the city. But beyond all the numbers, as Zarraga sees it, the game strikes away, at least for a night, fans barriers to basketball, “putting in their hands, their ears, and then in their eyes, the real experience that they’re looking for with the NBA.”


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