Globalization and Sports Part IV: NFL, Nationalistic Football League

Nicholas PardiniCorrespondent IJune 3, 2008

The NFL, by a large margin, earns the most revenue and has the most popularity of any professional sports league in the United States, and holds the title as the world’s most commercially successful sports league.

However, in an increasingly global society and economy, the NFL languishes in popularity outside of North America. International players are a rarity in the league, and there has been no history of even a Canadian-based NFL franchise.

Historically, football has rarely been played internationally. High costs of equipment and football-caliber stadiums have limited its growth in the third world, and the only first-world countries that have even marginally embraced football are Germany, Japan, and the United Kingdom.

Football abroad has often been perceived as a sign of American nationalism and a barbaric culture. Critics of football often portray the game as a modern-day gladiator fight with a ball, and that it only appeals to the lowest common denominator of people and aggressive Americans.

This interpretation may be unfair, but the results of these stereotypes against football have marginalized the sport to a degree worse than American soccer.

The NFL did a series of preseason games from 1986 to 2005, known as the American bowl, across the world to showcase football globally. In 1991, NFL Europa was established as a minor league and training ground to raise Europeans on football.

Only Germany embraced football, as all of the leagues teams (except the Amsterdam Admirals) either folded or moved to Germany. Even with the German support, NFL Europe drastically failed financially—the league was primarily filled with American NFL rejects and failed to develop any homegrown players.

As a result, the NFL shutdown the league in 2007, and they continued to struggle in gaining support for the sport outside of the United States, Canada, and Mexico.

Nevertheless, the NFL has recently been raising its efforts in making American football more popular abroad.

Roger Goodell has made globalization of football one of his top priorities outside of suspending trouble-making players. On October 2, 2005, the Arizona Cardinals defeated the San Francisco 49ers in front of 103,467 fans (NFL regular-season record) in the first regular season game ever played abroad (Mexico City).

Last season, the Miami Dolphins played the New York Giants in London to kickoff an annual international series that places at least one regular-season NFL game overseas per season. This tradition will continue when the NFL returns to London for next year’s Chargers-Saints game.

The Buffalo Bills also are starting to play one preseason and one regular season game each year in Toronto. Many sources around the Buffalo Bills are speculating that they may actually move to Toronto after the 89-year-old owner Ralph Wilson passes away.

The NFL also has outreached to its Mexican fan base by creating a Spanish version of, and expanded the league's TV coverage south of the border.

Despite its previous failures, the NFL has the smoothest transition for globalization than any American sport, and has the best opportunities of doing this with full compliance from the players.

With the termination of the recent collective bargaining agreement, Roger Goodell has flirted with the possibility of adding a seventeenth game to the regular season, and alternating the home fields between AFC and NFC every other year.

However, instead of adding another home game in an unbalanced way, the NFL could instead move this game to a neutral field in a certain city abroad. Set up sixteen cities in Europe, China, Japan, Australia, and Mexico to receive an annual sporting event to build up a consistent fan base for the NFL.

Due to having at least six days between games, the travel and time zone factors are not relevant for the NFL. If these games turn out to be successful, the league could expand into the more successful cities on this circuit.

Overall, the NFL has struggled to popularize American football internationally, and the current conditions of the NFL have allowed the league the perfect opportunity to change this.