NFL pulls Rams-Chiefs clash from Estadio Azteca

American football league the NFL has moved to switch its scheduled Monday Night Football game between the Los Angeles Rams and Kansas City Chiefs from the Estadio Azteca to the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum after ruling that the pitch at the Mexico City venue presents “unnecessary risks” to player safety.

With just six days remaining until the fixture, the NFL announced its decision on Tuesday evening after consulting with the Players’ Association (NFLPA) and holding a meeting and field inspection involving club field experts as well as local and independent outside experts.

Concerns have intensified in recent days over the condition of the Azteca pitch. The stadium hosted a Telehit music concert on November 7 and at the weekend the venue also staged a Liga MX football match between Cruz Azul and Lobos BUAP. Aerial photos showing substantial damage to the pitch have subsequently circulated and the NFL has now said the playing field does not meet league standards for playability and consistency and will not meet those standards by next Monday.

“We have worked extensively with our partners at Estadio Azteca for months in preparation for this game,” said NFL executive vice-president of international Mark Waller. “Until very recently, we had no major concerns. But, 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.

“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.”

All NFL teams that forgo a home game to play internationally are required to keep their home stadium available as a contingency, with the Rams’ temporary home of the Coliseum now set to step in. The NFL’s decision will create significant implications for the league and its stakeholders, as well as fans travelling to Mexico for what had been a highly anticipated game.

Both the Rams and the Chiefs currently have a 9-1 record, and Monday’s game will herald just the fifth meeting since 1970 between teams with one or fewer losses in Week 11 of the season or later. The Azteca’s playing surface was changed from natural grass to a hybrid composition in May, and stadium officials have had issues with the pitch for several months.

“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,” a statement from Estadio Azteca read.

Raúl Barrios, former director of operations for the Azteca, blamed a lack of experience of local conditions on the part of those that installed the surface for the problems that the stadium’s new pitch has encountered. Speaking to Mexican newspaper El Universal, Barrios denied that the new hybrid surface was to blame instead pointing to “how that work was executed, it was not done properly”.

Barrios explained that the floor underneath the pitch has not been changed in 52 years, when international norms state this work should be done every decade. He stated this has created an “accumulation of compacted subsoil”. Barrios added that “working on something that you do not know, something that you do not have the experience to work on, caused this layer to become a totally impermeable layer”, which prevents proper drainage of the pitch.

The Rams have moved swiftly to announce a new ticketing plan for Monday’s game, with the NFL adding that details on ticket reimbursement procedures will be announced in the days ahead. Rams Season Ticket Members can purchase their current seats until Thursday at 5pm PT. Starting today (Wednesday) at 10am PT, Season Ticket Members will have a three-hour presale before the general public to purchase up to four additional seats.

In addition, the Rams will provide thousands of complimentary tickets to first responders and people who have been impacted by the recent tragedies in Southern California. Wildfires have hit several areas near the Rams’ training complex in Thousand Oaks over the past week, while 12 people were killed in a mass shooting in Thousand Oaks on November 7. The Rams added that due to the quick turnaround, tickets for Monday’s game will be mobile only.

Estadio Azteca staged the first regular-season game ever held outside the US in 2005 when the Arizona Cardinals beat San Francisco 49ers. The stadium has hosted regular season games for the past two years.

While the NFL currently holds a contract with the Azteca for an annual regular season game through to 2021, NFL Mexico director general Arturo Olivé last week said the league is closely following other stadium developments in the country.

Image: Estadio Azteca