Although it’s played in stadiums no bigger than your local community field, you can tell the Mexican Liga de Futbol Americano is a small league with big dreams. From its organized television production and carefully tailored gameday atmosphere to its crisp uniforms and New Era hat deal, the LFA clearly aspires to be a player in the North American football market.
As one of the owners of the flagship Mexicas of Mexico City, Juan José Aguirre knows that their recent partnership with the Canadian Football League is key to making those dreams a reality.
The two allied leagues have begun the process of positioning the LFA as a farm system for developing talent and that’s alright by Aguirre. Speaking at halftime of his club’s matchup with the Toluca Osos last Saturday, he explained further:
“We think that we could be that middle step just between the CFL and the many college programs, both in Mexico and in Canada. We’ve been trying to get a real professional league going in Mexico for the last 20 or 30 years, but its never been really professional. Even now it’s a bit semi-pro. With the alliance with the CFL, what we are seeing is the Canadian players come and they have a professional attitude, and not just the attitude but the dedication and the discipline, and they are transmitting that to the Mexican players, so they know what a real professional is.”
The cultural and linguistic barriers posed by a true North American feeder system don’t phase Aguirre either.
“We have to learn the systems in English already. I think once they understand the concepts, the Xs and Os are the Xs and Os if you are in China, so I think that helps.
If you’ve been on one, two, three or four teams, its always that same camaraderie. That same brotherhood. And it just helps. If you’re on my team, it doesn’t matter if you are Canadian, Chinese, Mexican or from the US, you are on my team. You’ve seen it. The Canadian players have really meshed into the teams, they’ve had great teamwork and great integration with the Mexican players.”
The Mexicas have already been directly affected by the alliance, with their star receiver Guillermo “Billy” Villalobos sticking around for a second season with the Ottawa Redblacks. You can see that impact on game day, with #84 Villalobos jerseys and Redblacks’ t-shirts spattered throughout the crowd.
Aguirre admits to feeling a sense of pride:
“It’s really big actually. It’s one of our homegrown players, from the time he was little all the way to the CFL, and we think he is one of our main assets in the CFL where, probably next year, we hope to see him a lot more on the field.”
“It’s going to grow. People here in Mexico, three years ago they didn’t know anything about Canadian football or the Canadian league, or they thought that the Canadian league was the same rules as in the NFL. Last year, everyone started taking notice. They started liking the fast pace and they are into the CFL now. With someone like Billy, who was a star in this league, the leading receiver the last two years and the MVP of the championship two years ago, I think he could be really one of those stars that people will follow in the CFL.”
Growing the alliance between Canada and Mexico does pose some unique challenges, however.
“I think maybe the biggest obstacle would be the difference in rules. Although I love Canadian football, I think it’s very fast paced and the field is really good. But I think if we can get into a middle point with the rules, I think that we could have a true global developmental league, or developmental system.”
Those developmental aspirations go beyond just the CFL for Aguirre, who imagines a true global farm system extending up to the NFL.
“With the NFL ideas of growing the sport worldwide, I think this is just what they need. They need this system, a farm system, in the rest of the countries where it’s not just if you go to study in college in the US, you might have a chance someday to take that next step. You’ll have lots of little farm systems, with all these pro leagues, not just teaching players football but also having them develop professionally, to help the attitude develop, to help the discipline.”
As for the LFA, it has its own challenges to face as it grows going forward.
“Although we have lots of these fields at a club level, we have very few big professional facilities where players at a professional level can go train, go to the gym, go eat. We are a bit spread out.” Says Aguirre. “With a huge city like this, the time that you take to go to the gym, to the field, you are losing 2 to 3 hours a day just on moving from one place to another. I think that’s a big challenge.”
Like most growing football leagues, money is also a significant hurdle for the LFA.
“To really have those funds where the players can be truly professional, 24/7 just dedicated to sport. Right now, we have most players still having some part-time jobs.” Aguirre admits. “A lot of players have to choose certain times if they go to practice tonight or if they are going to stay late at the office.”
At the end of the day, however, growing fan identification with the younger generation is the league’s top concern.
“You ask most of the kids, most of the children here, they know what college team they want to go to. They’ll say ‘oh yeah, Pumas of UNAM’, ‘Aztecas de UDLAP’ or ‘Borregos de Tec’. They have the college teams very well identified.” Noted Aguirre. “The pro league, this is our fifth year, so we have to really grow that feeling of belonging and of fan. Where the little children, and the other generations, really say ‘Yeah, I’m a Mexicas fan. When I grow up, I’ll play college at Tec and then I’ll go and play professionally with the Mexicas.’”
Ultimately, things are looking up for the relatively new Mexican league and Aguirre sees a very bright future.
“Once we get those three factors together, I think that we are going to have a huge open field for growing the sport here.”