LOS ANGELES (AP) — The NFL moved the Los Angeles Rams’ Monday night showdown with the Kansas City Chiefs from Mexico City to Los Angeles on Tuesday due to the poor condition of the field at Azteca Stadium.
The league announced the extraordinary decision six days before one of the most-anticipated regular-season games of the year.
In a news release, the league said it determined that the recently re-sodded field at Mexico City’s historic stadium “does not meet NFL standards for playability and consistency, and will not meet those standards by next Monday.”
The Rams (9-1) will host the Chiefs (9-1) at the Coliseum instead. The much-anticipated game is just the fifth meeting since 1970 between teams with one or fewer losses in Week 11 or later.
The decision creates a morass of logistical concerns for the teams and fans traveling to Mexico, and it disappoints thousands of Mexican fans eager to see a marquee matchup in North America’s most populous city. But the league consulted with the players’ association and local officials before deciding it couldn’t risk the players’ health on a damaged field.
“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,” said Mark Waller, the NFL’s executive vice president of international. “As a result, we have determined that moving the game is the right decision, and one that we needed to announce now in order to allow our teams and fans to make alternate arrangements.”
Azteca officials changed the playing surface from natural grass to a hybrid in May, but the turf hasn’t been ideal for several months. Concern about the field grew in recent days when aerial photos of the stadium showed serious damage to the grass, particularly on the end of the stadium recently used for a major concert.
This is Estadio Azteca field right now. Where we will soon see an NFL game. Should it be played in that condition?
— Club Fantasy (@ClubFantasyFFL) November 10, 2018
Cruz Azul, the Liga MX soccer club that shares the stadium with Club America, played a tournament game on the field last Saturday in noticeably poor conditions. Coach Pedro Caixinha expressed concern, and the NFL continued working with groundskeepers to improve the field.
“The long and unusual rain season, as well as the calendar of events with third parties in Estadio Azteca, might be a factor for the grass to be far from optimal conditions,” Azteca Stadium authorities said in a press release.
The Rams are required to keep the Coliseum available as a backup in case of a problem with international games. They immediately announced plans for ticket sales starting Wednesday, with season ticket holders allowed to buy their own seats and up to four more.
The Rams also will give away thousands of seats to first responders and people affected by recent tragedies in Southern California. Deadly wildfires have ravaged several areas near the Rams’ training complex in Thousand Oaks for the past week, and 12 people were killed in a mass shooting in Thousand Oaks last Wednesday night.
The move also creates big logistical obstacles for “Monday Night Football” broadcaster ESPN, which will have to shift its operations back to the West Coast.
“We have been in communication with the NFL and we understand the league’s decision,” the network said in a statement. “We are already in the process of adjusting our plans and will be ready to present this much-anticipated matchup on Monday Night Football from Los Angeles. We also remain committed to identifying future opportunities with the league to engage its already strong fan base in Mexico.”
Azteca hosted the first regular-season game ever held outside the U.S. in 2005 when Arizona beat San Francisco. The stadium has hosted several NFL exhibitions, and the Oakland Raiders, Houston Texans and New England Patriots all played regular-season games there over the past two years.
The Rams played in England in each of the previous two seasons, and they are expected to have another international game next season, as required of teams playing in a temporary home stadium.
Both the Rams and the Chiefs were due to play in Mexico for the first time next week. Kansas City has played just one regular-season game outside the U.S., going to London in 2015.
The Rams are in the third of four seasons at the Coliseum before their new multi-billion-dollar stadium complex in Inglewood opens in 2020. The venerable Coliseum hasn’t hosted a “Monday Night Football” game since October 1985, and the Rams haven’t hosted a game there on a Monday night since 1979, before they moved to Anaheim and then St. Louis.
The Rams traveled to Colorado Springs, Colorado, on Monday to spend their week of practice in high altitudes to prepare for Mexico City’s conditions — and they plan to stay put anyway.
Several players and coaches are still displaced from their homes near their training complex in Thousand Oaks by evacuations due to fire danger, and the Rams already transported the families and friends of many players and employees to Colorado Springs. The Rams currently plan to fly home on the weekend.