NFL must learn from Rams vs. Chiefs blunder in Mexico City for future international games

Considering all the logistical challenges, the NFL’s International Series has gone off pretty well since its inception in 2007.

Until this week, at least.

The NFL had to move Monday’s Kansas City Chiefs-Los Angeles Rams game from Mexico City back to Los Angeles due to substandard turf issues at Estadio Azteca. An October Shakira concert, a slew of soccer games and the general problems associated with new grass that was installed last spring did the game in. The playing surface just wasn’t safe to play on.

It’s certainly an embarrassment for the league. More importantly though, it should serve as a warning shot, or at least a reminder, that as much as the NFL wants to market its game around the globe, it needs to be diligent to assure conditions elsewhere match those here in the States.

“Until very recently, we had no major concerns,” Mark Waller, NFL executive vice president of International, said in a statement. “But, the combination of a difficult rainy season and a heavy multi-event calendar of events at the stadium, have resulted in significant damage to the field that presents unnecessary risks to player safety and makes it unsuitable to host an NFL game.”

It can happen and there was no other choice. The field wasn’t up to NFL standards. The players were balking. And so, with that, a dozen years into this the International Series, there was disappointment (certainly for the 90,000 fans in Mexico City who bought tickets).

Of course in Los Angeles, Rams fans get a bonus game. So, it’s not all bad for the NFL.

“Moving the game is the right decision,” Waller said. “And one that we needed to announce now in order to allow our teams and fans to make alternate arrangements.”

Commissioner Roger Goodell and his league have a chance to learn from the Rams-Chiefs Mexico City embarrassment. (Getty)
Commissioner Roger Goodell and his league have a chance to learn from the Rams-Chiefs Mexico City embarrassment. (Getty)

The NFL has not had a problem in London, where 24 games have been staged, 21 of them at Wembley Stadium. Locker rooms are cramped and can spill out into walkways, but the games have been fine. In an effort to deal with that, the soon-to-be-finished Tottenham Hotspur Stadium was designed to include locker rooms that can accommodate large NFL rosters and dedicated areas for medical treatment. The league has two games scheduled there annually starting next year.

The NFL could only wish Estadio Azteca, originally constructed for the 1968 Olympics (although renovated four times since, including 2016) could be as plush.

The NFL wants to play games in the Mexican capital. (There’s another scheduled for 2019.) Mexico City has a metropolitan population of 22.2 million. Unlike London, there are no time zone constraints, which means the city is rich with fans of all NFL teams. The game isn’t a curiosity there, the way it especially was when the NFL first went to London.

As such, the league was pleased with the chance to give Mexican fans not just a regular-season game, but one of the marquee matchups of the season – the 9-1 Rams v. 9-1 Chiefs, in what could be a Super Bowl preview.

“It definitely adds to the excitement,” Waller told Yahoo Sports last month of exporting such a big game. “It shows fans how committed we are to the agenda. Teams are willing to give home dates for games of that caliber. Fans know that it matters.”

The NFL wants to play games in lots of places. There was a proposed 2018 season opener between the Rams and the San Francisco 49ers in China. That was cancelled before the season, with an eye toward having it played in 2019 as part of the league’s 100-year anniversary celebration. NFL commissioner Roger Goodell has been bullish on China.

Meanwhile, the league has discussed putting a game in Berlin as a way to gain a foothold in mainland Europe. It’s a matter of either expanding the International Series or taking a date out of London. Ireland, Scotland and Wales have also been cited as potential game locations. So too has a second date in Mexico or even a game in Brazil, where the NFL enjoys considerable popularity.

And then there are the London games, four of them scheduled for next year alone.

It all sounds great in a boardroom. New markets. New fans. Huge cities. Huge potential.

Not everything works though. The NFL is blessed (mostly due to U.S. taxpayers) to play its games in plush facilities. With the exception of Oakland, the Rams and the Los Angeles Chargers, each of the league’s stadiums was built primarily for the NFL. And all three teams will play in new, state-of-the-art stadiums by 2020.

That can’t be assured internationally. What in America can stand up to Shakira and soccer might not elsewhere.

That’s always been the potential pratfall of taking the show on the road. It finally blew up on the league.

Tough break for Mexico City, a late boon for L.A. And for the NFL, a lesson to be learned once the humiliation wears off.

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