In shadow of NBA, 'Capitanes' court Mexico City's elusive hoops fans

MEXICO CITY -- Modern songs blast from the speakers, and cheerleaders perform elaborate dances at midcourt during timeouts. A video screen fills pauses in the action by showing spectators dancing or the ever-popular kiss cam. Merchandise stands sell sleekly designed team gear. Team ambassadors launch prizes and T-shirts into the stands, and millennial celebrities in flat-brimmed caps enjoy the game -- and being seen -- from their courtside seats.

A night at a typical NBA game? Far from it.

Midway through the contest, the home team's hype woman grabs a mic to lead the crowd in a chant of "Va-mos Ca-pi-tan-es" to the familiar cadence of "We Will Rock You." It doesn't quite catch on in the aging, half-filled arena, and the chant quietly dies out.

This is basketball in the Liga Nacional de Baloncesto Profesional (LNBP), Mexico's 11-team professional league.

As the Brooklyn Nets, Oklahoma City Thunder and Miami Heat prepare for two games this week at the state-of-the-art Mexico City Arena, on the other side of town another pro team is fighting to win the hearts and minds of the city's basketball fans. The expansion Capitanes de Ciudad Mexico -- the Mexico City Captains -- are trying to succeed where team after team before them failed. And they are using the NBA as their guide.

"Growing up, I was a huge Lakers fan," Moises Cosio, one of the Capitanes' founders and owners, said in English (others quoted in this story were interviewed in Spanish). "I studied what Dr. [Jerry] Buss did for Los Angeles during the Magic Johnson, Showtime Lakers era. It was about basketball, but it was also about something much greater than basketball -- the spectacle."

NO CITY IN MEXICO comes close in size, population or importance to the nation's capital. It's the center of government, economy, and the arts -- Los Angeles, New York, and Washington D.C. rolled into one. Yet even with a population exceeding 20 million from which to draw fans, five Mexico City-based teams have folded since the LNBP debuted in 2000.

"I've been a huge basketball fan as long as I can remember," Cosio, a 33-year-old film producer, said before a November home game against the San Luis Potosi Santos (Saints). "Lately though, I've just been watching the NBA because we didn't have anything in Mexico City. And so this is something that I think all of us fans here wanted, to be able to cheer for a team from our own city."

The Capitanes' home court is the Juan de la Barrera Olympic Gymnasium, a building steeped in history but one that shows its age, from the uncomfortable plastic seats to the gray concrete walkways. The Capitanes have been averaging around 2,600 fans in the 5,300-seat arena that hosted the volleyball competition at the 1968 Olympics. Excluding courtside seats, which are by personal invitation only, tickets run from 99 to 199 pesos (around $5 to $10).

It's a far cry from the spectacle happening this week on the north side of town, where NBA fans will pack the 22,300-seat Mexico City Arena, which opened in 2012 and cost nearly $300 million to build. Tickets for this week's games range from $22 to $430, quite expensive in a country where the minimum wage was recently raised to 88.36 pesos (around $4.70) per day.

Cosio and his partners, Rodrigo Trujillo and Patricio Garza, recognize that while the Capitanes can't compete with the NBA, they can learn from it.

"The Capitanes are working in a very professional manner, and they've put together quite an impressive team," LNBP commissioner Alonso Izaguirre said.

So far, Mexico City's first attempt to establish an LNBP team has been its most successful, with the Ola Roja -- Red Wave -- lasting seven seasons from the league's inaugural year until 2006. Since then, four other franchises have come and gone, and the city has yet to field a championship team.

Izaguirre blamed the instability of the previous Mexico City teams primarily on planning and budget, two areas where the Capitanes are exceeding expectations, he said.

"Definitely for us it was really important that the LNBP returned to Mexico City. Obviously it's Mexico's main city," Izaguirre said. "The people are responding to the great team that the Capitanes put together. There was a lot of thirst, a hunger to see the league back in Mexico City. Now the fans are anxious for a championship."

WHEN CAPITANES GUARD Chris Geyne found out that a team was returning to his hometown, he was excited about the impact it could have.

"We play a lot of basketball here," Geyne said. "There's a lot of local leagues all around Mexico City, but there wasn't anything professional to aspire too. So having one [a pro team], it'll give basketball in the city a local boom again; it was a bit lost."

Geyne wears his pride in Mexico City on his sleeves, literally. The coordinates of the city's Miguel Hidalgo borough, where his father was born, are tattooed on his right forearm; the coordinates of his mother's birthplace, the borough of Cuauhtemoc, are on his left.

Geyne played for Mexico City's most recent team, the Gansos Salvajes (Savage Geese), who lasted three seasons before folding in 2015. They were sponsored by a local university and had one of the lowest budgets in the league at the time. The Capitanes, meanwhile, are privately owned by wealthy investors. Geyne said everything about his current team is "more professional."

Reaching the average Mexican basketball fan has become the focal point of the team's marketing strategy, from the logo, which is based on the city's iconic Monument to the Revolution, to streaming all games online for free.

Adriana Barron, the team's press representative, explained that the Capitanes want to represent the typical Chilango -- a local term for a Mexico City resident.

"We're focused a lot on, 'What's the identity of the city? What is a Chilango?' " she said. "We want to show that the Capitanes aren't just a sports team; they represent as a Chilango themselves. The Capitanes were born in Mexico City, too."

Though Geyne is the only player on the roster from Mexico City, the organization expresses pride in having a league-high eight players born in Mexico, including five members of the national team.

"It's a beautiful thing to be able to have spent so much time defending the flag of our country," said Capitanes forward and national team member Hector Hernandez. "It's beautiful to have your country behind you, supporting you."

He is now feeling that same love from Capitanes backers.

"The fans of Mexico City haven't had good basketball in a long time," Hernandez said. "Now they're here supporting us, and every time they come to a game, we'll be here representing them."

DESPITE THE PAST failures, it's clear that a potential audience exists. Though soccer is by far Mexico's favorite sport -- Mexico City alone has three clubs with bitter rivalries -- basketball is growing, and courts can be seen in small towns in local parks, plazas and schools around the country. It's already ahead of American football in popularity, according to a 2016 Nielsen study that found 17 percent of sports fans in Mexico followed basketball, and 12 percent followed American football.

The NBA has taken note and for the second year in a row will play two regular-season Global Games in Mexico City, with the Nets facing the Thunder on Thursday and the Heat on Saturday. The league also came to terms with Mexican media conglomerate Televisa last year to finally make games available on basic cable. NBA commissioner Adam Silver has even mentioned possible expansion to Mexico City.

Just as the NBA boosts its exposure by holding outreach events around the city ahead of its games, the Capitanes recently conducted an open practice at their home arena as a way to connect with fans. Afterward, Hernandez launched small plastic Capitanes-branded basketballs into the crowd while fans jumped up and down, shouting at him to throw one in their direction. Players also sat down to sign autographs and pose for photos as fans lined up around the gym.

Daniela Gomez, 22, attended the event with her sister and parents, taking selfies with players and getting her Capitanes T-shirt signed.

"We like them all, but especially Hector Hernandez," she said. "We like how they represent our city."

Juan Monroe came with his wife and two young sons, a 4-year-old and 1-year-old. He has followed the LNBP for years and admitted to being crushed when other teams failed, especially the Ola Roja. He's hoping the Capitanes can outlast their predecessors.

"When I saw the roster they were going to have, the amount of national team members, I was really excited," Monroe said. "Now that I have the fortune to be a father, I want my family to be able to share the experience of being a fan, growing up as a fan of this team."

The Capitanes' owners want that, too.

"Many teams in the history of the league have disappeared, so since the beginning we were very serious about this," Cosio said. "Me and the other partners of the team, we completely agreed to give everything we had so that the team won't disappear. That's our commitment to the city."