It might never be easy for the Arizona Cardinals to win over the hearts and minds of American football fans in Mexico. The country is fertile ground for growing interest and participation in the sport, a gold mine for the NFL but a tough sell for the Cardinals, who have to contend with eight other teams with NFL-granted access to Mexico for marketing, fan engagement and commercialization as part of a long-term effort to build their global brands. 
The Cardinals are growing their fan base in Mexico, but teams like the Pittsburgh Steelers, Los Angeles Rams, Denver Broncos, Kansas City Chiefs, Dallas Cowboys, Las Vegas Raiders and San Francisco 49ers are more popular in the country. 
They’ve all won or played in recent Super Bowls and/or have championship traditions. That goes a long way toward fan support. 
But the NFL has been staging regular-season games in Mexico City since the Cardinals and 49ers played each other in 2005 there. The two teams return to the Mexican capital for their Monday night matchup.
The 49ers will have more fans in the seats, even though it’s a Cardinals home game. But Cardinals fans from Mexico and the U.S. will represent well, in part because of the work done by those in the team’s marketing department, including manager of international marketing Javier Rodríguez and Orlando Ávila, director of marketing and broadcast services.
Avila said the Cardinals didn’t submit a bid to play in Mexico this season simply because the state of Arizona borders the country. The Cardinals have had a presence in Mexico and among Spanish-speaking fans in the U.S. with Spanish-language broadcasts since well before they first played in Mexico. 
“I think the league started realizing that, in order to do this, you have to present your deck and your plan and really have like a five-year footprint of what you want to do. And when the league saw that there was that much interest, I think they realized, OK, these guys are already in it,” Avila said. “We’d already been doing it, we’d already been down there, you know, even before we went to the first game. We had already gone down there for camps. And it was always important to us. Because, you know, that was kind of a representation of who we were.”
In 2004, offensive lineman and Mexico native Rolando Cantú joined the Cardinals on their practice squad, and he made the team’s first trip to Mexico City the next year though he didn’t play. Cantú has since been instrumental in developing fields for youths to play the game in the country as a Cardinals and NFL ambassador who is also a broadcaster.
Just like 2005, the 2022 Cardinals have players with Mexican heritage in offensive linemen Will Hernandez and Max Garcia
That goes a long way in Mexico and among U.S.-born Latinos, knowing they have a player on the team with whom they can identify on some level.
“It’s accentuating the interaction that we have. A lot of teams will go there and they’ll just provide online support and they have great Instagram, they have a great Twitter. But for us, we really want to be boots on the ground, we really want to continue what we do with our camps,” Avila said.
There’s no denying that a significant percentage of Cardinals fans are Latinos based in Arizona. They faithfully show up to home games at State Farm Stadium every season, and a number of them will be at Estadio Azteca. 
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The NFL sells itself. Generations of fans grow up Cowboys, Raiders, 49ers and Cardinals fans, if not another team. It’s trying to keep that fan base engaged while looking to grow it in Mexico that the Cardinals aim to continue. 
The Cardinals seem to know the right buttons to push. Earlier this year, Hernandez and pass rusher Markus Golden took separate visits to Mexico City to do media interviews promoting the game in Mexico. The Cardinals’ selection of running back Keaontay Ingram in the sixth round of this year’s NFL Draft was announced by Spanish-language play-by-play announcer Luis Hernandez, in Mexico City. 
Before the Mexican national soccer team played a friendly match in June at State Farm Stadium, the Cardinals did a ceremonial jersey swap involving one of the stars of “El Tri,” goalkeeper Guillermo Ochoa. 
“We feel like we’ve done our work. We’ve done what we needed to do. … You planted the seeds and you watered it as best you could, and now you’re just kind of trying to enjoy the game, and hope that the stuff that you did will pay off,” Rodriguez said. “With Will, it’s a natural fit. With people like Markus Golden, getting him in front of the Mexican audience, the Mexican fans, the culture, and not just the tourist spots. Like the city, the people, getting him interacting with the soccer players, getting him in front of the media, interacting with them.”
 Hernandez is on injured reserve and must sit out the Mexico game. But he will still be on the trip
“I’m hoping that if he doesn’t (play), that at least he has that perspective that without him, we wouldn’t have been able to make the impact that we did,” Rodriguez said.
The spotlight is already on the Cardinals with the team currently being featured on HBO’s popular “Hard Knocks” reality TV series and Super Bowl 57 set for State Farm Stadium in less than three months. 
On Monday, they are in prime time live from Estadio Azteca in Mexico City. 
“From ’88 to 2006, you know, we were basically blacked out because we weren’t selling out (Sun Devil) stadium, so you lose a generation or two, when you lose a generation or two that could have grown up watching those teams and instead was watching the Cowboys or the Steelers or anyone else that they were putting on,” Avila said. “From the time that we got (State Farm) Stadium when we were on TV more, people now that grew up from ’06 watching us to now are going to be true fans, because that’s all they knew. So it does make you very proud to know that you have a lot of fans that are going out, they’re going to represent us. And it’s important for us to give them a good show, and I hope that we will.”
The game itself is critical for the Cardinals as they look to get back into playoff contention in the NFC and in the race for the NFC West title. It’s also huge in terms of growing a fan base in Mexico. 
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“American football is starting to find an important place in the culture of Mexico. We always see kids playing, there are a lot of flag football fields, and some decide to play American football over soccer,” said Luis Hernandez, a native of Mexico City. “This game coming up, I know for a fact that the team has worked hard this year, has invested a lot of money in trying to make this a success.
“First above all, they have to win the game against San Francisco. If you win, the people are going to love you.”
He said the team plans to return next year for the NFL draft. 
“We’ll be in Mexico forever,” he said. 
Get in touch with Jose Romero at Jose.Romero@gannett.com. Find him on Twitter at @RomeroJoseM. 

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