It is 2 a.m. at an airport in California, and the terminal is all but empty. The pull-down gates are keeping bleary-eyed passengers from getting at any Toblerones or magazines. The members of the cleaning crew are the only ones still working.
Just beyond the gates, however, the din is building. At baggage claim, a crowd awaits not for luggage but for the late arrivals. They are waiting for one of the most popular sports teams in the United States but one that doesn’t call the U.S. home. They are waiting for las Chivas de Guadalajara.
“We get in at two, sometimes three in the morning,” said Isaac Brizuela, a winger who has played with the team and joined it on trips for friendly matches to the United States since 2015. “There are still more than 300-400 Chivahermanos waiting for you, signing, they’ve got their flags and drums.
“This speaks to the greatness of the club, the passion they feel having the team close to them, knowing they’re in their city or maybe a lot of fans who aren’t able to visit Chivas here in Mexico they want to give it all in those games, try to support us as players in the friendly matches. Personally, it’s surprised me, and it surprises me every time we go.”
Fans of other American sports teams might miss them, but they doubtlessly see signs of the enormous fan base Chivas—and their eternal rival América—boast in the United States.
The decals on cars, the jerseys in the weekend league or even a meet-up of supporters to watch a match. In fact, the club says it has five million fans in the United States alone, enough to make it more popular than plenty of NHL teams or a smaller NFL team like the Jacksonville Jaguars.
Chivas takes great pride in being the most Mexican of clubs, only fielding players eligible for the Mexican national team. So how did it end up with so many fans in the United States? For many, it’s that ‘Mexican-ness’ that serves as a connection to a home they grew up loving but may not have ever lived in.
That’s the case for lifelong Brooklyn resident Alvaro “Varo” Vaquero. “My dad was a Chivas fan, so I took it from there,” he said. “I remember as a little kid watching the games.”
He recalls the 1998 Invierno final in which Chivas fell 2-0 to Necaxa in the second leg of the final with a pair of second-half goals. But while some of his youth soccer teammates chatted about the game, few of his classmates shared his anguish.
When the Internet and social media began to grow, Vaquero, who now is one of the hosts of Chivas del Norte, an English-language podcast chronicling the team’s ups and downs, finally found a community.
“Even if you don’t know the people you’re talking to, you’re still talking Chivas and it’s fun to get different people’s perspectives and opinions on the team,” he said. “Then you even start talking about older games, games you watched as a kid or a teenager, it’s just a lot of fun discovering that whole new world.”
While Vaquero and others have largely had to create their own content to consume, the club is slowly looking to reach out to largely young U.S.-based fans in the language they speak.
The club launched English-language social media accounts this summer and began to offer a few pieces of digital content in English as well.
Chivas has not always succeeded in connecting with the American market. In 2005, an outpost of the Guadalajara club kicked off in Los Angeles, failing to catch traction in a market where the LA Galaxy were already operating. Chivas USA folded in 2014 and roundly is viewed as a failure in the U.S.
“We’ve made several efforts, some that were very successful, others that ended, others that didn’t work. That includes the era of Chivas USA period in the MLS that today is part of the story,” said Olimpia Cabral Rodríguez, the club’s Commercial Director and Director of Marketing. “Now we’re working on this project of globalization and internationalizing the brand.”
That shift for Chivas, to both be the most Mexican club and also one growing abroad, comes under the leadership of Amaury Vergara, the 32-year-old who now owns and operates the club after the death of his father Jorge Vergara last year.
While Jorge was regarded as a visionary, Amaury has brought fresh eyes to the table. He was put in charge of Chivas TV at the club, with the streaming service also offering fans an option to watch the games in English.
Chivas TV was a mixed bag, with fans often struggling with the technology but is regarded as an ambitious attempt in a league in which television deals are negotiated between the individual teams and the media companies rather than league-wide like U.S. sports leagues and most leagues around the world.
Chivas eventually settled into a more traditional partnership in Mexico and this summer announced a U.S. rights partnership with NBC Telemundo, which is utilizing its top talent to broadcast the matches.
That’s an easy decision when the ratings regularly put Chivas’ contests among the most-watched soccer matches of the weekend, outpacing the domestic league, the Premier League and La Liga matches featuring clubs like Barcelona or Real Madrid.
Knowing such a big community of fans in the United States are living and dying with the club only amps up the pressure Chivas players already feel. As one of the two most popular clubs in the country, there is a constant media microscope, something current players Alexis Vega and Uriel Antuna found out last month when an Instagram story of the two drinking during a birthday celebration went viral for their lack of caution during the coronavirus pandemic and lack of focus before a match.
“Look, being a professional soccer player always brings some pressure with it, but, that said, playing with a club like Chivas adds even more pressure because you have more demands, you’re in the media eye more for the whole country and even abroad, so you have those demands and the pressure on top of it,” said Oswaldo Sanchez, a legendary goalkeeper who played at both Chivas and América.
Sanchez also remembers those airport arrivals in the United States and Mexico, plus the training sessions full of fans simply hoping to get a glimpse of their heroes. “I’ve got a lot of memories like that. Before training, especially when school is out in Mexico, at the training complex, the stands fill up,” he said.
Brizuela has seen the same, through the ups and downs. While Chivas continue to be one of the most popular sports teams in North America, the club has added just two league titles and two cups to its trophy cabinet since 2000.
“When I got to Chivas, maybe in the national team, teammates told me, Chivas is the biggest, all the people are always on top of you, the media outlets, the fans. I didn’t believe them all that much,” Brizuela said.
That changed when he went to his first training session and soon after experienced his first airport arrival. Still, it’s something Brizuela has come to thrive on.
“Honestly, I really have fallen in love with it,” he said. “And, yes, I feel a big responsibility but one that at the same time is beautiful because I like having this feeling of, perhaps, not being nervous but a bit anxious to know that you’re being watched by a lot of people, that a lot of people want this opportunity and that speaks to the greatness the club.”
This is part one in a three-part series examining the legacy of Chivas and its future as a world-renowned soccer club.
This article was originally published on Oct. 14, 2020.