NFL Continues to Play the Long Game with Global Expansion | Sports Destination Management

NFL Continues to Play the Long Game with Global Expansion

Feb 16, 2024 | By: Mary Helen Sprecher

With the Super Bowl in the rear-view and baseball season (and the Olympics) ahead, pro football is the very last thing anyone wants to think about right now. Unless, that is, you want to make travel plans for next year. The NFL recently announced that its 2024 schedule would include nine (!) international matches.

Those matches, the league noted, would include matches across London, Spain, Germany and Brazil (but not Mexico, as was previously thought).

NFL notes, “The Chicago Bears, Minnesota Vikings and Jacksonville Jaguars will each play international games in London during the 2024 regular season, while the Carolina Panthers will head to Munich, Germany. Each team's opponent, along with the dates and kickoff times will be announced when the 2024 schedule is revealed this spring.

Tottenham Hotspur Stadium, the only purpose-built NFL stadium outside of the U.S., will host games featuring both the Chicago Bears and Minnesota Vikings while the Jacksonville Jaguars will return to Wembley Stadium as part of their multi-year commitment to playing a game in the U.K, in what will be their 12th game in the capital.

Munich, Germany will again host a regular season game, with the Carolina Panthers set to play in Allianz Arena, home of FC Bayern Munich.”

The NFL announced it will play a regular season game in São Paulo, Brazil (Corinthians Arena) in 2024, making that the first ever NFL match to be played in South America. Another first will be a match in Madrid, Spainat the Santiago Bernabéu, home of LaLiga football club Real Madrid. Teams have not yet been announced; NFL notes that they will do so soon. However, it should be noted that the Miami Dolphins and Chicago Bears have international marketing rights in Spain as part of the NFL’s Global Markets Program.

"Taking our game to more fans around the world is a major priority for the league and its 32 teams, and we are delighted to be returning to London and Munich in 2024," said Peter O'Reilly, executive vice president, club business, league events and international at the NFL. "Whether tackle or flag football, international passion for the game and the NFL continues to grow, and having our teams and their world-class athletes play games and engage with fans around the world is an important part of becoming a truly global sport."

Who is missing from the NFL rotation, destination-wise? Oh, yeah, that would be Mexico. Mexico City’s Estadio Azteca, where the league would like to host play, is currently undergoing renovations in order to host play for the 2026 FIFA World Cup. (The NFL notes that it expects to resume discussions with Mexico in the future.)

NFL International PlayThe NFL notes, “All designated teams playing in the U.K. and Germany are part of the NFL's Global Markets Program which awards international marketing rights to NFL teams in countries beyond the U.S. to build fandom and realize brand and commercial opportunities. The Bears, Vikings and Jaguars have international marketing rights in the U.K., while the Panthers have those rights in Germany.”


It is no secret that the NFL’s long game includes international markets; in January 2020, Goodell said the 2020 and 2021 football seasons would include one game each in Mexico City; unfortunately, the pandemic swept that off the table. But when the time is right, Mexico will likely host; the country, according to Wikipedia, does embrace football, with the site noting it is the fourth-most-popular sport in the country. 


The NFL is undoubtedly looking at other international hosts in the meantime; however, a claim in the Daily Mail that the NFL had appointed a manager in Australia and opened an office there was refuted by the league.


“At this time we do not have plans to play a game in Australia but are firmly committed to finding more ways to serve our passionate and growing fanbase in Australia and New Zealand,” NFL COO/International Damani Leech told Ben Fischer of Sports Business Journal. And currently, the closest fans Down Under can get to the NFL, short of hopping on a plane, is by streaming games.


Goodell also once stated that he thought “Toronto could be a great city for an NFL team.” The Canadian Football League hasn’t had much success in the U.S., having teams here only a few years before returning to Canada; however, at the time, Goodell thought the NFL would have better luck in the North, according to Sports Pro Media.


“I’m from Western New York and I spent a lot of time in Canada as a young kid. I have nothing but admiration for Toronto, I think it’s a great city. It continues to evolve; it continues to grow. It certainly could be a great city for an NFL team,” Goodell said in one press conference.


And the awareness of football, or as it is known internationally, American Football, is growing globally. One reason for the increased visibility is flag football, which was seen in the World Games in Birmingham, and will be a showcase sport at the 2028 Olympics in Los Angeles.


Obstacles to Growth

The NFL is putting in the work to expand the sport. But whether or not it will make the leap to hosting regular events outside the country seems to be unclear.


While moving a franchise to another country can be a catalyst for youth play in that sport, as well as travel to and from the destination to compete, football may be a hard sell for international cities, for multiple reasons.


Part of the reason the game is slow to take an international foothold is its lack of anything but American players. Unlike, for example, ice hockey or basketball, where players from other countries are more common, pro football players are almost exclusively from the U.S., having already made a name for themselves at the American university level prior to entering the draft. Outlasting the novelty value, ticket sales abroad will depend upon having a lasting fan base, which in turn, depends on whether audiences can identify with the players.


And, at the end of the day, the game simply isn’t a household name in other countries the way it is here. Because the game is not generally taught internationally unless a player seeks it out, youth athletes with field sport skills will gravitate to soccer, field hockey (a popular sport for men in other parts of the world) or rugby, opportunities for which are abundant to schoolchildren in other countries. And with all three of those sports being in the Olympics, they receive more global attention and fall into the category of aspirational sports for children outside the U.S.


Additionally, the philosophy of the game has come as an affront to some markets. AP noted, “American football has a small following in Japan [where it is still regarded as a niche sport.] The violent tackle with intent to injure — against the rules wherever the game is played — has shocked many Japanese and raised questions about the game’s future.”


An article in Wired explained in great length some of the challenges facing the NFL’s so-called “quest for world domination.” Among the problems, noted Matt Bowers, a professor of sports management at the University of Texas at Austin, said one of the greatest challenges was establishing a level playing field. “Arguably, one of the reasons driving the NFL’s success here at home has been the competitive parity of the league,” says Bowers. “I think you can make an argument that playing in London, or even just traveling to and from London, presents a real competitive disadvantage to the teams that are doing it.”


In other words, a once-a-season game is doable, but establishing teams in other countries that would necessitate regular travelling for games back and forth across the Atlantic (and across the country, for those in the Midwest and West) would be grueling. Among the objections raised:


Time Change: From the East Coast to England, the time change is significant (five hours) but moving westward in the U.S., teams are dealing with up to an eight-hour difference, on top of a long flight. “When you have elite players who have strict nutritional needs and a team of people monitoring their sleep, food intake, and exercise, and then you throw in these travel and jet lag issues, I wonder how the NFL Players Association would react to that,” noted Bowers.


A second significant time-related problem involves scheduling; in order for the game to kick off at a good time in the U.K., U.S. viewers had to tune in starting at 9:30 a.m. (EST).


While it’s easy to say that many other athletes in professional sports suffer from jetlag because of international travel (professional tennis and Formula One are two examples), it’s a different scenario. All those athletes are on the same tours so everyone is moving at the same time and can be seen as being equally disadvantaged. If one team’s home advantage is that significant, it can be seen as an undue hardship for other teams.


The Financial Realities of an International Team: It’s unlikely that a team based in England would be a desirable landing place for American athletes. Wired notes, “How many players (or teams) would realistically want to move to London, where the cost of living (as well as the tax rate) is pretty much guaranteed to be significantly higher? Would a big-name free agent ever agree to go there without the London team doubling the next best offer?”


Adding Teams: The Wired article also noted, “If you want to truly expand the league and create new teams, you’d have to fully commit to adding at least four more to keep league equilibrium. After 32, 36 is the next number that can be divided into six divisions of six teams each.”


Establishing a new team is a tremendous effort and an enormous investment. Adding four teams, therefore, is highly unlikely. Moving an existing NFL team away from its city is a possibility but choosing the team to move is a decision fraught with problems.


There Really Isn’t a Football Culture Abroad: In the U.K., football means soccer. Rugby is popular too. But American football simply doesn’t enjoy a high profile in the international culture; children don’t play it in schoolyards or aspire to play it in college. Friday night lights aren’t a thing in England (or many other places outside of the U.S. and Canada). It’s not likely that the presence of one pro football team would generate sufficient interest to change any of that. (And the attention being paid to the dangers of concussions is enough to have parents to shooing their children into other sports).


NFL's History in International Football Isn't, Well, a Bragging Point: The World League of American Football was formed by the NFL in 1989. It played under that name (with breaks when it did not run in 1993 and 1994) until 1998 when it was rebranded as the NFL Europe League or NFL Europe, a name that lasted until 2006.


In 2007, the league officially changed its name to NFL Europa. Unfortunately, 2007 also turned out to be the last year for the league. According to the Washington Post, Goodell closed the league, stating that it was time to develop a new international strategy, and that folding NFL Europa was the "best business decision." (The league reportedly was losing about $30 million a season at the time, so he was right on that point).


But the NFL seems to be trying to overcome the logistical hurdles. According to information on the Colts website, “As part of the NFL's international expansion, no team would be required to play more than one game internationally per season unless they requested to do so; the Jaguars in 2023 became the first team to play consecutive games internationally when they hosted the Atlanta Falcons at Wembley Stadium, then played a road game against the Buffalo Bills at Tottenham a week later.

No games will be played internationally after Week 14 of a season, and teams selected to host home games internationally will be allowed to designate two scheduled home games that cannot be played internationally. Traditionally, AFC teams have hosted international games in odd-numbered years (when nine of 17 regular season games are at home), while NFC teams have hosted international games in even-numbered years.”


Plus, the options continue to open for football, thanks to technology. Because more fans around the world can partake of each other’s sports today, thanks to smartphones, live streams and social media, than they ever could back in the days of NFL Europe, more international fans are aware of the concept of American football and are able to follow it more easily than ever. And between that and the promising attention being paid to international football games right now, it may be a concept whose time has come... again.

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