The NFL has been slowly but surely trying to expand overseas over the last few years. Every year since 2007, they’ve had the NFL International Series, where they hold a few games at Wembley Stadium in London. The discussion of the NFL overseas doesn’t stop with these games though, there has also been a large amount of discussion about adding an NFL Franchise to London to give the game more international following. However, it has been tried before with NFL Europe losing $30 million per year before folding in 2007. Would the NFL have more success trying to go international this time around? There are reasons to think so and some reasons to think no but let’s discuss their chances.
The biggest mark against the NFL’s international brand is NFL Europe’s failure and (American) football’s failure to catch on overseas to date. That remains a black mark on the NFL’s future abroad regardless of where they go.
There’s also the fact that different sports become popular in different places. For whatever reasons, sports are regional, soccer hasn’t caught on in America despite its huge popularity in Europe and elsewhere. Rugby is a sport that seems perfect for America but only remains popular in Australia, South Africa, and certain parts of Europe. Cricket remains the most popular sport in countries like Pakistan and India while most Americans probably don’t know the rules. So, it’s not surprising that football is a largely American sport and trying to force the issue and change that might be a losing battle.
A final problem I see is connected to the regional issue, and that is fandom. One main reason NFL Europe failed is because their isn’t a huge NFL fan base there and the fans who do exist liked the NFL and were forced into a situation where they had to watch newly created teams that didn’t have any connection to the real NFL. If football is going to succeed abroad then they are going to have to galvanize whatever fandom already exists and manage to tap into new some new fans as well.
A major reason for this regionalism in sports might be due to fans desire to have players they can relate to and root for. As of November 2015 there were only 18 NFL players from Europe, none of which are huge stars. That doesn’t give fans living there the same options they have when watching soccer, where a majority of the household names are from Europe. However, this problem can only be remedied by introducing people to the game. If the NFL does that, over time more people from European countries will play the game at a young age and at higher levels.
Despite all the negatives, there are reasons to believe football can grow outside of the United States.
The NFL has the chance to build slowly to globalize their brand. Adding a team in London would provide a relatively low-risk option to test the proverbial waters. The team, whether it were the Jaguars, Chargers, or an expansion team, would be a part of an internationally known league in a way that the NFL Europe teams simply weren’t. That team would have household names from the league that easily dwarfs any football players the NFL Europe could scrounge up.
Another element that the NFL should consider is expanding, not only overseas, but also to the rest of the Americas. Why? Because there’s already a market for them there. For example Mexico City, a city with roughly the same population as New York, has the seventh most NFL fans in the world. Additionally, Toronto has almost a million NFL fans of their own and Montreal and Vancouver has as many fans as Jacksonville, New Orleans, or Buffalo. Adding teams to these cities add more of international element to the league and can help create more fans in these areas.
The expansion I’m suggesting could very well be too big a step and be the NFL biting off more than it can chew, but it doesn’t have to happen overnight. The games played in Europe since 2007 have routinely sold out Wembley stadium, which at least shows there is some kind of market for football there. Getting the NFL in Europe opens up a whole new market, which is important for the game’s growth because the American market is likely saturated. This saturation probably doesn’t matter since it’s the number one sport in the country by such a wide margin, but it does mean it will be difficult to get new fans and continue growing, which any thriving business wants.
Fortunately for the league, they do have some established fans in Europe and London specifically. London has over 400,000 fans itself, and that’s only four percent of the city’s population, meaning the sport has a ton of room to grow. That 400,000 is more fans than six U.S. cities that already have teams in the NFL, which should at least
show that adding a team there isn’t as big a risk as some would argue. The NFL is continuing their International Series in 2016, with three more games in London, and if their success continues expect them to try to expand soon.
The NFL has the incentives and the resources to move to London and try to make it work. Whether or not it works is up for debate, but the move would give them a chance to globalize their brand in a way that they haven’t since taking over the U.S. sports market. They may not be able to overtake soccer as the world’s favorite sport, but if they can establish a second football to the international stage, even that might be a win.