75 Latin America and the Caribbean (LACAR): Cultural Geography II
The Geography of Sports in Mexico
“I knew that I would be going places and I just wanted to know where I was when I got there.”
- Michael Jordan, on why he was a Geography major at the University of North Carolina
Officially named United Mexican States, a name very rarely used by its inhabitants, today Mexico is a country of nearly 129 million people. Sports there are an important part of the daily life, economy and culture with Mexicans as spectators, consumers, and participants. A relatively youthful population, Mexicans (average age 29, for Americans 38) often are enthusiastic sports fans. The most popular sports in Mexico are football (soccer), boxing, baseball and basketball, in that order.
You might have guessed already that soccer, football or “futbol” is the most popular sport in most of the country. Since the majority of the world call this sport football even in English, it will be termed as football in this essay. From little villages to big cities, football is the sport with the most spectators, most covered by the media, and the most played.
Football was first introduced at the very end of the 1800s by English mining companies in the city of Pachuca, in the central region, then in Mexico City and in Orizaba, in the state of Veracruz. Organized competition remained only for the affluent in sport clubs until the early 1920s, in which Spaniard immigrant businessmen formed the first professional leagues.
There are almost 325,000 registered players and more than 8,000,000 unregistered ones playing weekly throughout the country.1 Professional leagues of different levels are regulated by the Mexican Football Federation, affiliated with the International Football Federation (FIFA). The greatest successes for Mexican soccer in international competition have been winning the FIFA-U 17 World Cup in 2005 and again in 2011 and capturing the Gold Medal at the 2012 Summer Olympics. Regions contributing the greatest number of players to the first division league and to the national teams are Jalisco State, Mexico City and Michoacan State, although a talented player could emerge from anywhere in the country.
Since the 1970s, there have been a few attempts at organized women’s soccer, but these endeavors did not last. However, a promising future started in 2017 with the Liga MX Femenil as the highest division of women’s football in Mexico. Supervised by the Mexican Football Federation, this professional league has 18 teams, each coinciding with a Liga MX (men’s) squad.
Basketball is the second most practiced sport in Mexico, although fourth in popularity behind football, boxing, and baseball. The first documented basketball activity dates from the first decade of the 20th century, at a private school in the city of Puebla. By the Olympic Games in 1936, Mexico had a strong team, winning a bronze medal in the competition.
Chihuahua is the largest Mexican state in the country and borders the United States. This state has a good overall economy based on agriculture and manufacturing. Regions within the Chihuahua state experience rough winter seasons that inhibit outdoor sports such as football or baseball. In Chihuahua and other northern states, due to ethnic heritage, on average people are taller than in other regions of the country. All of these factors have contributed to a long basketball tradition in Chihuahua. This state boasts the most success in national championships at all levels, as well as being the main contributor (alongside Mexico City) of players for national teams. In the decade of the 1980s, the broadcast of National Basketball Association (NBA) games from the United States greatly increased the interest in basketball among the youth in Mexico. The NBA currently schedules a couple pre-season and regular-season games in Mexico City every year.
Unlike organized professional football, basketball in Mexico has been plagued by mismanagement, conflicting factions, emerging and soon folding leagues, and overall lack of continuity. These have been obstacles that hindered the formation of a solid base for development of young players for a sport that is very much liked in large regions of the country.
Boxing is much practiced in Mexico, both amateur and professionally. It is also the second most watched sport, after football. Initially, in the 1930s and 1940s, large metropolitan areas like Mexico City and Guadalajara produced regional boxing figures. It was in the decade of the 1960s when Mexican fighters began to have a consistent and ever increasing international presence, especially in the lower weight categories. Fifteen Mexican boxers are already in the International Boxing Hall of Fame. Although Mexican male boxers have had relatively modest success in Olympic competition, winning twelve medals so far, most of the success have been in the professional arena within each of the several international boxing organizations.2 States with a large boxing tradition and many champions are Baja California Norte, Sinaloa, Sonora, Yucatan, Jalisco, State of Mexico and, as mentioned, Mexico City. The country has given birth to more than 200 professional world champions, second only to the number of champions from the United States.
Organized baseball is the most popular sport in regions of the Northwest as well as in southern coastal areas along the Gulf of Mexico. The geographic proximity of Major League Baseball teams near northwestern Mexico clearly is a major force behind baseball’s regional popularity there. For instance, California’s teams in San Diego and in Los Angeles have fan support in Mexico.
There are several stories about how baseball was first introduced in Mexico. Whether by American soldiers in Veracruz or American railroad workers in the northern state of Nuevo Leon, the game became known in the second half of the 19th century. It was not until 1925 when the first professional league was founded with a few teams in Mexico City and surrounding regions. The Mexican Baseball League has expanded, undergone years of great success and popularity, followed by financial struggles, splits into competing leagues and successful reorganization. The presence of American and Caribbean players on each of the Mexican teams has been a constant since the early years. Around World War II, the league attracted very good players from the Negro Leagues in the United States, where these players’ opportunities were very limited by the social system in place. Since the late 1960s, the Mexican baseball league has been a class Triple-A league in organized Minor League Baseball, one grade below Major League Baseball (MLB).3
Baseball is enormously popular in Northern states such as Sonora, Sinaloa, Chihuahua and Nuevo Leon, as well as the whole peninsula of Baja California. These are fertile grounds for the very successful winter league named La Liga Mexicana del Pacifico (Mexican Pacific League). This league is currently considered the highest quality of baseball in the country, although also in a Triple-A league class. The league attracts some major league players during the off season in the United States and its fans are passionate and quite knowledgeable about the sport. The ten current franchises are distributed within the Pacific Northwest states, in the large cities of Guadalajara, Jalisco, and Monterrey, and in the state of Nuevo Leon. Every year, the league’s champion represents Mexico in the Caribbean Series, the highest tournament for professional baseball teams in Latin America.
Did You Know?
Two countries, one team. The professional baseball team Tecolotes de los Dos Laredos (Owls of the Two Laredos) in the Northern Division of the Mexican Baseball League (Triple-A class) is the only known baseball team in the world that plays its home games split in two countries. Half of home games are played in their stadium in the city of Nuevo Laredo, in the state of Tamaulipas, Mexico, and half are played across the river in Laredo, Texas. The team has arrangements with different firms in each side of the border, therefore home uniforms, team merchandise and stadium concessions are somewhat different on each side the border.
Arguably the greatest Mexican baseball player ever, pitcher Fernando Valenzuela starred for the Los Angeles Dodgers, pitching eleven of his seventeen major league seasons there. “Fernandomania” showed his popularity in Mexico and in Los Angeles in the 1980s.
Additional and cited bibliography:
1 “Wayback Machine.” 2014. Archive.Org. 2014. https://web.archive.org/web/20140305130832/http://consulta.mx/web/images/MexicoOpina/2014/NA_FUTBOL2014.pdf.
2 Colaboradores de los proyectos Wikimedia. 2008. “Boxeo En México.” Wikipedia.Org. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. January 13, 2008. https://es.wikipedia.org/wiki/Boxeo_en_M%C3%A9xico.
3 “Liga Mexicana de Beisbol | Sitio Oficial.” 2020. MiLB.Com. 2020. https://www.milb.com/mexican.