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Nov 1, 2013

Brazil berth turns into El Tri's gamble

When Mexico takes the pitch at Azteca Wednesday night vs. New Zealand, there's the do-or-die, last-chance tension of World Cup qualifying, but there is also an estimated $600 million at stake.

Marshall: El Tri consistent

That's because major players like Univision and adidas have invested so heavily in what they believed would be a sure bet, but turned into a huge gamble.

On the line Wednesday is the country's qualification into the World Cup, with just as much on the bottom line.

After winning just two of its last 10 qualifying matches, Mexico was lucky to even get this far. But two stoppage time goals by the U.S. against Panama last month gave them new life and the opportunity to face off against the All Whites on Wednesday in Mexico City and in New Zealand on Nov. 20 with the winner of the two matches earning a berth in Brazil 2014.

There's TV Azteca, which paid $100 million for the TV rights to broadcast the 2010 and 2014 World Cups in Mexico. There's Univision, which paid $325 million for the Spanish language rights to broadcast the same games in the United States. And there are sponsors like Coca-Cola, Banamex, Movistar and adidas, who pay roughly $300 million a four-year sponsor package sold by Mexico's national soccer federation.

"I would say that the atmosphere between all the stakeholders and sponsors, it’s about doubts, it’s about uncertainty and it’s about questions," said Rogelio Roa, who heads up DreaMatch Solutions, a sports marketing firm in Mexico. "No one would have suspected that, at this point, Mexico wouldn't have a spot in the World Cup."

Roa estimates the sum total of investment at stake for Mexico is $600 million, a conservative number compared to some economists in Mexico.

The sponsor with the most on the line is unquestionably adidas, which sold 1.2 million El Tri jerseys in 2010, more than any of its other teams including the eventual champion, Spain.

"Mexico is our prize possession," said Ernesto Bruce, head of soccer for adidas North America.

Last World Cup, adidas said it sold as many Mexico jerseys in the U.S. as its competitor Nike sold U.S. jerseys. That's one of the reasons why the brand launched the Mexico team kit last month, to showcase the 2014 outfit during qualifying rounds. That also means that adidas has already reached a point of no return with Mexico should they not qualify.

"We are full production," said Bruce, adding that he's confident Mexico will eventually prevail. "We have been preparing for this a long time."

Officials with Coca-Cola in Mexico, which has sponsored the Mexican team for 40 years, told ESPN.com that its plans to activate their sponsorship would be the same "in spite of the results of each country." But one could safely assume that the marketing wouldn't be nearly as effective if El Tri weren't playing in the World Cup.

"The least affected party would be the football federation because they've already gotten paid," said Hussein Forzan, general director of business for the Mexico-based ad agency Marketing Deportivo. "Television is the most exposed, followed by the sponsors who have been involved by this World Cup cycle."

Mexicans, who make up roughly 65 percent of the estimated 53 million Hispanics living in the U.S., are strongly relied upon by Univision. Why? Three of the four most watched games on its network last World Cup featured Mexico. If Mexico's absence leads to lower than expected ratings, Univision would have to give money back to advertisers, a standard practice in the business.

Back in Mexico, all the side businesses that rely on the World Cup buzz, could take a hit.

"If Mexico is not there, it’s going to affect it because we all go to the restaurant to watch the national team, we all buy the special edition of the jersey, the soft drinks, we enter contests, or we travel, or we consume," said Forzan, noting that overall ancillary spending could be down as much as 40 percent.

The tension is palpable. Mexico has brought in Miguel Herrera, its fourth coach in six weeks, to energize El Tri, whose last absence from the World Cup came in 1990 when the team was disqualified by FIFA for using players over the age limit in a junior qualifying tournament.

One of the greatest home field advantages in sports in Estadio Azteca is also fading. Prior to this year, Mexico had only lost once in a World Cup qualifier in the stadium that was built in 1961. In September, the team lost again, in a 2-0 shutout at the hands of Honduras.

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