The San Francisco 49ers play the Arizona Cardinals tonight in Mexico City, the first regular-season NFL game to be played outside the United States. The response could determine the league's plans for overseas expansion.

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The NFL has been playing games outside the United States for half a century, but tonight the league will take its biggest step yet toward making American football an international sport.


The NFL is eager to see the response by fans in Mexico City when the San Francisco 49ers play the Arizona Cardinals in the first regular-season game played outside the United States.


If the NFL considers the game a success, it would like to try the more difficult task of staging games overseas. And that’s where the league would encounter skepticism.


Many teams would be loath to leave their stadiums for a “home” game on this continent, let alone having to travel 3,000 to 5,000 miles over oceans to give up home-field advantage.


The league was lucky to have built-in interest for this game from the 49ers, who have a large Hispanic fan base, and the Cardinals, who were happy to get a date on ESPN they otherwise would not have gotten.


Other teams, including the Seahawks, would not have been interested.


“They didn’t need to ask us because they knew what the answer would be. Our football guys wouldn’t have been crazy about it,” Seahawks CEO Tod Leiweke said. “I think it’s one of those things where the guys who aren’t playing in it think it’s a great idea.”


The New Orleans Saints, who are still complaining about playing their home opener at Giants Stadium on Sept. 19, are a prime example of how NFL teams cherish home-field advantage. The Seahawks — 15-3 at home since 2003 — are no different.


“Qwest Field has just a great feeling about it for us right now,” Leiweke said. “It’s hard to imagine us leaving for a home game.”


Bertrand Berry, the Cardinals’ Pro Bowl defensive end, said he was a little disappointed the Cardinals gave up their home date for this game.


“There’s certain advantages to playing at your own home as opposed to being on the road. That’s the part that I’m really disappointed in,” Berry said. “But, on the other hand, this is a first. That is very exciting. We’re looking forward to that. We’re going to go out and put on a show for everybody, and hopefully it will be a product that everybody will enjoy.”


The NFL has coincided its first in-season foray out of the United States with Hispanic Heritage Month, and the league will promote Fútbol Americano to Hispanic fans both in Mexico and in the United States this weekend through television commercials, themed merchandise, banners and decals on the helmets of every team.


Since 1950, the NFL has played 55 exhibition games in nine countries, and the seven games in Mexico have drawn some of the biggest crowds. In 1994, 112,376 fans set an NFL record for attendance during an exhibition game at Mexico City’s Azteca Stadium. The game tonight at a scaled-down Azteca Stadium will host about 85,000.


The NFL estimates there are 20 million football fans in Mexico, more than any country other than the United States.


“The reason we chose to do a game in Mexico is because we have such great interest. We have a great fan base in Mexico,” said Roger Goodell, the NFL’s chief operating officer. “It’s been growing dramatically over the last several years. We have a global audience, and there is a great deal of interest in hosting a game. So we are responding to that interest, and we think it’s going to be a great opportunity for us to understand more about playing a regular-season game internationally and the impact of doing that.”


London, which has hosted nine exhibition games since 1983, is already stumping for a game to be played at the new Wembley Stadium next season, and team owners are expected to discuss the idea later this year.


“We want to reserve judgment on that until we have been through the experience once,” Goodell said. “Obviously we know there is growing interest globally in playing a regular-season game, and we have seen the reaction of some of those markets. … And I think from our standpoint, we want to see how this works, what the impact is on our business and on our fan base from a team standpoint and then base decisions on that experience.”


Tony Parrish, the 49ers’ standout safety and a former Washington Husky, went to Mexico in July as an NFL ambassador, and he said last week that he is excited to make history tonight. But he would not be so keen on traveling twice as far to Tokyo, which has hosted 14 NFL exhibitions since 1976.


“I definitely think that would be more difficult,” Parrish said. “Mexico is a fairly easy game to stage — or relatively easy compared to doing a game somewhere else like Japan.”


Goodell said the league is confident travel issues can be addressed.


“We obviously recognize the geographical challenges when you go to Japan or to someplace in the Far East,” he said. “On the other hand, teams are becoming better at dealing with those issues. The travel from an East Coast site to London is not that much more significant from an East Coast site to Seattle, quite frankly.”


Goodell said bye weeks could be scheduled to make the international travel more palatable and offset any competitive disadvantages.


“We think it’s clearly a doable project,” he said. “But one of the things we want to determine is the impact on home fans in the United States in each of these markets. Also, what kind of impact we would have in the international market and is this really going to be something that each of the international markets truly find rewarding?”


Chris Cluff: 206-464-8787 or ccluff@seattletimes.com