Once again, the NFL is thinking global.
On Monday night (8:30 p.m. ET, ESPN), the Houston Texans and Oakland Raiders meet for a game in Mexico City at Estadio Azteca. The game comes a little more than 11 years after the league had its first regular season game outside of the United States, which also took place in Mexico City: The Arizona Cardinals beat the San Francisco 49ers, 31-14. Since 2007, the NFL has had games hosted at London's Wembley Stadium on a yearly basis, expanding to two games in 2012, three games in 2014 and 2015 and then playing at Twickenham Stadium in South West London this season, a 17-10 win for the New York Giants over the L.A. Rams.
There has also been a series of Buffalo Bills games held in Toronto that ended not long after the Bills were acquired by new ownership, and a cancelled "China Bowl" that was meant to be a preseason game between the New England Patriots and Seattle Seahawks in 2007 or 2009. So while Roger Goodell's attempts to expand internationally has had both successes and failures, Monday's game in Mexico City marks an opportunity to appeal to a city of nearly nine million people, with a greater metropolitan population of more than 20 million; the 2005 game in Mexico drew over 100,000 fans.
But it also comes at a time when relations between the two countries, and U.S. relationships with many other foreign leaders, is uncertain.
Amid fears of deportation for millions of undocumented immigrants and plans to build a wall and charge Mexico for it, our friends south of the border may not have great sentiment for America's new leadership. But politics aside, it seems quite clear that Mexicans love the NFL. The game between the Texans and the Raiders sold out in 30 minutes when tickets were made available in July. Beyond this contest, it's also believed that the Pittsburgh Steelers may have more fans in Mexico City than in any other place besides Pittsburgh, thanks to the Steelers being the team to watch right about the time that the city started getting televised NFL games in the '60s and '70s.
It would seem that Mexico City would be a better international destination for NFL games, or even an NFL team, than even London, thanks to its proximity to the U.S. and close connection to Texas and California, two of the largest states in the country. The league has said that this game is a "test run" of sorts to see if it would be a good idea to go back on an annual basis.
But is Texans-Raiders a compelling enough matchup? Though the teams are leading their respective divisions at the moment, they each have flaws that could make it very difficult to make a deep playoff run. In the case of Houston, quarterback Brock Osweiler has been an absolute mess this year and the team is dead last in the league in passing yards and rushing touchdowns. They also won't be getting J.J. Watt back this season and could lose ground to the streaking Tennessee Titans.
For Oakland, it's the opposite problem: The offense is humming around young quarterback Derek Carr, but the defense is 31st in passing yards allowed and 31st in yards per carry allowed. The Raiders can outscore a lot of teams, but they need to get their act together on the other side of the ball if they want to challenge the likes of Tom Brady or, perhaps, Ben Roethlisberger in the playoffs.
Whether or not Monday Night Football provides fireworks on the field, however, the off-the-field issues will likely continue to take center stage.
It doesn't help matters that players on the Texans were advised not to leave their hotels while in Mexico and to leave anything of value in their rooms. For health reasons, they were also told to not order room service and to only drink bottled water; a concern for any foreigner traveling to Mexico perhaps, but a concern nonetheless. And the league also said that it won't announce which teams are participating in international games next season -- or where they'll be going -- until closer to when the full NFL schedule is released in April. The league used to make a big announcement well before the full schedule was announced, but it stands to reason that some of the wait this time is to find out what America even looks like after a few months of a new president, one who also happens to have taken quite a few notable public shots at a country that the NFL would love to have great relations with.
That said, if everything goes well on Monday night, you should expect many more games in Mexico City in the future, as well as London -- and perhaps Toronto, Beijing, Tokyo, Seoul, or any city with a huge population that will have them. Because no matter where you are in the world, money is money.
And Roger Goodell is always interested in making more of that.