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NFL teams find fans on other side of the border

Buffalo Bills executives started looking east a decade ago, conscious that the small market couldn't sustain an NFL franchise unless they expanded the fan base to Rochester.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Buffalo Bills executives started looking east a decade ago, conscious that the small market couldn't sustain an NFL franchise unless they expanded the fan base to Rochester.

That helped, but it wasn't enough.

"We dried up that market," owner Ralph Wilson said. "We turned over every stone."

So the Bills shifted their gaze north, crossing not just city lines but international borders. Wilson believes that the franchise's increased success at attracting Canadian fans is critical to its continued viability.

For NFL teams near Canada and Mexico, the proximity to another country offers unique opportunities to augment not only game attendance, but merchandise sales, broadcasting revenues and corporate sponsorships.

Bills ticket sales in Canada are up 18 percent this season, Wilson said, boosted by the greater parity between the American and Canadian dollars.

About 100 miles away, the Toronto metropolitan area has a population of 4.68 million — compared with 1.15 million in the Buffalo area.

The potential impact for the Bills comes not just from the size of the city but the economic makeup: Toronto boasts many affluent consumers willing and able to buy tickets, Wilson said.

"It's no secret that western New York is declining in population and businesses," he said.

For clubs close to Mexico, marketing across the border goes hand in hand with appealing to burgeoning Hispanic communities in their own cities.

"They get almost a double benefit," said Mark Waller, the NFL's senior vice president of marketing and sales. "They grow the fan base in the local market. At the same time, they build a second fan base in the international market."

So many people travel back and forth between the U.S. and Mexico and have family and friends in both places that when a resident of either country starts rooting for an NFL team, it can resonate across the border.

Consider how someone in Mexico may become a Cowboys fan.

"If there are family and relatives living in Dallas, then obviously there is a connection," Waller said. "They start communicating, visiting, coming back wearing Dallas Cowboys shirts and talking about them."

That fluidity is evident in San Diego. Jim Steeg, the Chargers' executive vice president and chief operating officer, said measuring the number of Mexican season ticket-holders is difficult because many own homes in both countries. Steeg estimated that 10 percent of the crowd at a typical Chargers game is bilingual.

The ability to reach the Hispanic community makes clubs more attractive to corporations seeking to connect with that growing market. Coors emphasized that desire when the company and the Chargers redid their sponsorship agreement two years ago, Steeg said.

Before the Houston Texans played their first game in 2002, the franchise formed a Hispanic advisory board, team president Jamey Rootes said.

"It's impossible to ignore the buying power of that group," Rootes said. "It's large, and it's young, and it's getting bigger every day."

As a 6-year-old franchise seeking its first winning season, Houston faces obstacles in building popularity in Mexico despite its proximity. Longtime success, more than geography, has dictated which franchises have the most fans there.

Of the two top teams in Mexico, one would be expected based on location, but the other wouldn't. The Cowboys and the Pittsburgh Steelers enjoy the largest followings, said Geraldina Gonzalez-Soberanes, NFL Mexico's senior manager for sponsorships and public relations. The passion for the clubs is often passed from one generation to the next.

"Teams that get seen on TV, that's one way of fans connecting with you, and those are the ones performing the best on the field," Rootes said.

Five games a week air live in Mexico. Fans can purchase a satellite package that allows them to see the rest.

Steeg would like to see the NFL eventually regionalize its TV coverage in Mexico as it does in the U.S. That would allow Chargers fans in Tijuana and other parts of Baja California to catch all the team's contests in Spanish. They are able to listen to games on the radio in Spanish.

The Chargers enjoy the added benefit of a prominent Spanish-speaking player. Third-year defensive end Luis Castillo, who is of Dominican descent, has his own weekly show on Spanish radio.

The Cowboys' 15 Spanish radio markets include Mexico City. Little things can make a big difference in capturing the Hispanic audience, said Victor Villalba, Dallas' manager for Spanish language properties and radio announcer. Villalba could use English football terms like quarterback and touchdown in his broadcasts, but he chooses to go with the Spanish translations, "mariscal de campo" and "anotacion."

It's all about creating a feeling of inclusion for Spanish-speaking listeners, Villalba said, "making sure they know there is also room for them."

To engage fans, there's nothing like attending a game, Waller said. Canada and Mexico are prime candidates to host future contests now that the NFL is committed to playing some regular season games in other countries.

Some Canadian and Mexican fans already have the opportunity to attend contests. A significant number of residents of Monterrey, Mexico, travel to Cowboys games, Gonzalez-Soberanes said.

The Seattle Seahawks have about 1,000 season ticket-holders from Canada, said chief operating officer John Rizzardini. It's about a 2 1/2-hour drive from Vancouver to Seattle, and the club utilizes a company that promotes it north of the border.

For their Canada Day game against the New Orleans Saints on Oct. 14, the Seahawks expect about 5,000 Canadian fans. Rizzardini said sports talk radio hosts in Vancouver tell him Seattle is the NFL team that callers most want to talk about.

Canada has its own football league, of course, but the NFL's Waller said that as the CFL's popularity grows, so does the appeal of the American game.

"These are football fans," he said. "So as those people become interested in the CFL, they are also, we are seeing, becoming interested in the NFL."

Of Mexico's population of about 105 million, almost 20 million people are familiar with the NFL, Gonzalez-Soberanes said. There are 3-4 million core fans, who tend to be educated men aged 18-34, many of whom have traveled to the U.S.

Research shows that football is the second most-watched sport in Mexico behind soccer, Gonzalez-Soberanes said. The NFL doesn't expect to overtake soccer in popularity, but it doesn't have to.

"From a marketer's perspective," she said, "we can live together."