The National Football League is once again trying to broaden the league’s reach and appeal as well as establishing more merchandising opportunities beyond the United States borders with an eye on setting up shop in London, England.
This week’s London game isn’t a stellar match up between the winless Pittsburgh Steelers and Minnesota Vikings. However, league owners and officials know that the business has to grow globally or continue to fall behind Major League Baseball, the National Basketball Association, the National Hockey League, and other major sports on the world stage.
The NFL is the most popular sport in the United States—franchise values have never been higher and television money pours into the business. College football is also flush with money and high school football is still a major force in communities. The Super Bowl is the most watched television show in the United States.
But internationally, American football hardly matters.
Soccer, or fútbol to many, is the biggest sport in the world. The international reach of Manchester United (which is owned by the Glazier family who also include the Tampa Bay Buccaneers NFL franchise as part of its business portfolio) or Real Madrid in soccer is far flung.
There is no NFL team that can match ManU or Real Madrid in global name recognition. Lionel Messi, an Argentina striker playing for FC Barcelona, is far better known than New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady. Internationally, Messi did a commercial for a Turkish airplane carrier with Kobe Bryant, the Los Angeles Lakers basketball star.
Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning is probably one of the biggest commercial pitchman in the United States, but he is nowhere near a Lionel Messi or the Brazilian footballer Neymar in being a global salesman. Neymar was the most marketable sports figure in the world in 2012 and remains on top this year, according to SportsPro magazine.
Neymar, Messi, professional golfer Rory McIlroy, track and field sprinter Usain Bolt and soccer’s Cristiano Ronaldo are the world’s top five marketable athletes, SportsPro reports. McIlroy has appeal in the United States, Bolt is well known, as well, Neymar, Messi and Ronaldo are certainly recognizable in the growing soccer market in the United States.
The National Football League has a great number of problems in establishing a foothold globally. American football isn’t very popular around the world and is not played very much globally.
A website, www.europlayers.com, seems to have a following among some American football players looking just to play somewhere. There are three “combines” scheduled in Europe in October and November in France, Belgium and Poland where Americans can try out for European teams. The website also listed the two dozen or so countries globally where American football-style games are played, including Russia and China.
But American football has a long way to go to catch up to Major League Baseball which is popular in North America, Caribbean, Pacific Rim, including Japan and South Korea, and is growing in China, India and Taiwan. Australia has a professional baseball league and The Netherlands is angling for a Major League regular season series in a new stadium near Amsterdam. Major League Baseball thinks India and Ghana are two potential growth spots.
The National Basketball Association is extremely popular in China and will be deploying teams around the world for the pre-season. There will be a regular season game in Mexico City and once again the Brooklyn Nets will play a regular season game in London. NBA teams will also be playing games in Istanbul, Turkey; Bilbao, Spain; Manchester, England; Manila, Philippines; Taipei, Taiwan; Rio de Janeiro, Brazil; and Beijing and Shanghai, China. The NBA would like to create a niche in India.
The National Hockey League is skipping Europe this fall because the league will shut down in February, so that players can compete for their home countries in the Sochi Olympics. That is the sporting world’s biggest international stage and the NHL wants the exposure.
The NFL would like to get football into the Olympics but the league couldn’t get a game played in Beijing in 2007. The league has abandoned any plans to market the product in China and is concentrating solely on England.
Soccer teams are coming to America and soccer in past years has garnered the same or better TV ratings than Major League Baseball in the United States on a Saturday afternoon.
The NFL needs to do a lot of work to become a global force and much of that work is beyond the league’s control. The league doesn’t have the local infrastructure in terms of a funnel system to get players ready for the top of the profession in most countries. American football on the high school and college level is played on a big time level just in the United States and in British Columbia. There seems to be no training grounds elsewhere for youth 6-15 that are organized in the same way as the United States.
The NFL’s tailgating party and event culture have not translated to London, as of yet. Even league officials admit that American football would have to triple the existing London area fan base to be viable in the city.
The NFL also is a betting sport and betting is legal in England. Given the way the NFL (and other American sports leagues) has fought to keep sports gambling out of Delaware and New Jersey, would the league pick a fight with the well-established English sports betting business? In England, even a soccer league is sponsored by a betting house.
The Steelers-Vikings game is one of two NFL games scheduled in London. Jacksonville will “host” the San Francisco 49ers in last October. Jacksonville will be playing an annual game in London for four seasons, this year, next year, 2015 and 2016.
This has led to speculation that the NFL might give Jacksonville owner Shad Khan the go ahead to move the financially “struggling” Jaguars to London. Khan has a long term contract in Jacksonville that would need to be broken and that might be difficult to do if Khan is making money in Jacksonville, despite the lack of corporate and fan support in filling up the stadium to capacity.
Khan also purchased Fulham in Barclays Premier League, adding fuel to the fire that Khan might be interested in moving his NFL franchise to London. Khan has exclusive NFL marketing rights in England to push his product.
The NFL has fallen far behind the other North American sports leagues on the global stage. The NFL will have one game in Toronto as part of a deal signed by Buffalo Bills owner Ralph Wilson with Toronto businessmen in an effort to broaden the Buffalo Bills brand name in both western New York State and in the Niagara frontier. The games have been greeted with some indifference in Toronto.
Sunday’s Steelers-Vikings game will not be any real indicator of whether the NFL in London can be viable, but football needs to move beyond the United States to keep up with the other sports.
It’s desire to spread internationally comes at a time when the football industry is under siege in the United States because of long-term health problems suffered by former players. That issue will follow the NFL or college football to other countries, too, if football establishes a foothold. It begs the question, if football does establish a players development system, will parents in those countries allow their children to play football and become football fans?
Evan Weiner, the United States Sports Academy’s 2010 Ronald Reagan Media Award winner, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. He has written several e-books on sports, including, “The Business and Politics of Sports, Second Edition,” which is available at www.bickley.com and Amazon.com.