ESPN is getting a do-over.
Eleven years after the network telecast an NFL game from Mexico City , it will do so again when the Raiders “host” the Texans on Monday night.
Jay Rothman, ESPN’s vice president of production and the “Monday Night Football” producer, wants this broadcast to be a lot different.
“We were there in 2005 and I wish we could do ’05 over again, and we will not make the same omissions,” Rothman says. “We went in and did the game and got out.
“Mexico City is such an awesome city and we will make it a weekend-long spectacle.”
ESPN has lucked out that the game has plenty of significance, with the Raiders tied for the AFC West lead and best record in the conference heading in, and the Texans leading the AFC South. But this is about more than football.
It is about the first international series match there since the Cardinals beat the 49ers at Azteca Stadium in 2005. It’s about the stadium itself, one of the most famous sports venues in the world. It’s about the fans, who might not follow football as closely as they do “futbol,” but who generally embrace the American game.
And it is about Mexico.
“The X’s and O’s we do every week,” Rothman says. “I think we are silly not to take advantage and sprinkle in the history of Azteca Stadium. Culturally, look at the fans of Mexico, who share the passion they have for the NFL. The food, the flavor, and points of interest. We will do that all within the body of a three-hour show.”
Actually, ESPN isn’t so limited. It will also stage its pregame shows and other studio programming from Mexico City this weekend. Joining the broadcast team of Sean McDonough, Jon Gruden and Lisa Salters will be ESPN Deportes’ John Sutcliffe, who lives in the city.
“John is a rock star in Mexico now, he is our breakthrough guy,” Rothman says. “He will have kind of like a Jim McKay host-type role, though that is challenging within a football game.
“He will be integrated to share the great moments of Azteca, educate people on the fandom of Mexican fans and as a great people. He is our point person to share those perspectives and stories.”
Gruden has become something of a rock star in the NFL broadcasting world, and while his main job is to dissect play on the field, it will be intriguing to hear his take on not only the game, but the entire scene Monday night.
He coached the Raiders in a preseason game against the Cowboys in Mexico City in 2001.
“The stadium is what I remember the most,” he says. “The tradition, the monstrosity of it, the excitement of playing in a place you have only seen and heard about. I am anxious to get back there and rekindle the feeling.”
Azteca has undergone massive renovations, not only to attract the NFL’s return, but as home of Club America and of the Mexican national soccer team, and to keep it on the radar for major events in the world’s most popular sport. Yet it has kept much of its uniqueness, Rothman notes.
“There’s still the moat and the barbed wire, which was there in ’05,” he says. “They built these beautiful locker rooms, but they are outside the stadium (bowl).
“Players will walk to and from the field through the stands to the stadium’s outside, which is where the locker rooms are. It is 7,200 feet (in altitude), and you think especially of the heavy players wearing pads making that walk. Can’t imagine doing it with helmets and pads on. They will be sucking air bigtime.
“It will allow for unique shots and vantage points, not only from the air but the nooks and crannies of the stadium and its features, the march to the field and back up, the pageantry.”
Rothman promises his network won’t avoid covering any non-football news that becomes relevant with the NFL in town. Concern has been voiced in some circles about potential protests in Mexico City over the outcome of the U.S. presidential election.
“We wear our news hats, too, and we will get together and discuss that,” Rothman says. “If there are things outside and inside the stadium to cover, we would be criticized for ignoring them and we need to do the right thing.
“I don’t think we’d intentionally shoot specific signs (of protest), but if we see what we have seen outside the Trump Tower, we will be obligated to cover it.”
Gruden says he has no concerns about safety or security.
“I am excited to go,” he says. “I’ve got my passport and ready to roll. Last time I was there I got to see some really cool places and met some people — I have no concerns whatsoever.”
In the end, what usually is most memorable about NFL games on international stages is how entertaining the game is. In that way, the reactions are no different from games held in Miami or the Meadowlands, Seattle or San Diego.
“I got a feeling there will be a lot of Raiders fans,” Gruden says. “There were the last time I was there … and there will be a lot of Texans fans there. It will be loud, like a Raiders home game, I wouldn’t be surprised.”
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