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NFL Continues to Test International Waters – But How Far Will It Go?

31 Jan, 2020

By: Mary Helen Sprecher

Could a Super Bowl or a Pro Bowl someday be held overseas? The NFL certainly seems to be testing the international waters with two recent announcements. However, how much water it is interested in crossing (and for how big an event) seems to be the issue. And whether or not it can affect youth football in doing so is an even bigger question.

Within North America, the NFL seems to be comfortable announcing its plans for the future. Just prior to the Super Bowl in Miami, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said the 2020 and 2021 football seasons would include one game each in Mexico City. Both games will be played at Estadio Azteca.

The date and time of the 2020 game along with details for the rest of the league's international slate will be determined in conjunction with the NFL schedule release this spring, the league said in a statement.

The NFL returned to Mexico in November 2019 for a Monday Night Football game between the Kansas City Chiefs and Los Angeles Chargers after a one-year absence. A previously planned 2018 Mexico game had to be moved to Los Angeles due to then-existing safety issues with the playing surface at Estadio Azteca.

"We had a great experience this past November down in Mexico," Goodell said during a news conference. "It was just a great event and we loved being there. We look forward to being back and we are proud to be able to say we're going to be there for two more games over the next two years. Our fan base down there continues to grow and become more passionate. Our partners down there have been extraordinary, and we want to continue that. We want to build on that."

Mexico, according to Wikipedia, does embrace football; the site notes it is the fourth-most-popular sport in the country. (Soccer, however, is the runaway favorite). And with the current presidential administration’s patently anti-immigration stance, it may be some time before there could be enough cross-pollination for fans to travel North to games (and vice versa).

In late summer of this past year, Goodell had noted that the NFL could not keep pace with the demand coming from outside the U.S. borders. And that could bode well for a Super Bowl held outside the U.S. The tourism cache of the event would be a tremendous draw. Just last year, an article in PRI was headlined, "Many international fans of NFL football are 'born' on Super Bowl Sunday," referring to the tremendous excitement around the game and its ability to make converts out of those who had not previously watched.

But transporting a Super Bowl outside the borders of the U.S. has tremendous logistical ramifications. While the NFL sold out its previous games in London, it quickly became apparent that the cost of transporting not just a team, but all the equipment required for a regular-season game, would always ameliorate any profit that might have been made.

As one business outlet noted in October, “Consider what the Chicago Bears have had to spend in advance of this Sunday's game. In July, the Bears sent 15 pallets of goods by cargo ship, from water to Gatorade to ice buckets, the Chicago Tribune reported. Two more shipments via air cargo were slated to leave the Second City on Thursday, the first with uniforms, helmets and assorted game gear and the second shipment with practice gear.”

Now, add that to all the work and infrastructure of a Super Bowl, including not just the game itself but the halftime show, as well as pre-and post-game media work, not to mention team practices and related festivals and events, and you have a more accurate picture of why cities like Tampa and Minneapolis stay on the NFL’s site selection radar, instead of London. (And for the record, a Pro Bowl in another country would be even less likely.)

Perhaps if a franchise were set up there, and more infrastructure were in place, the potential for hosting an overseas Super Bowl would be a more realistic option. The NFL declined to comment on whether its London series is profitable but said its research shows more than 15 million NFL fans in the U.K., four million of which are considered “avid fans.” However, while the NFL’s gate revenue from ticket buyers at London’s Wembley Stadium has regularly exceeded $30 million in recent years, the series’ financials are unclear. A league-commissioned study found the NFL’s game in Mexico City in 2016 had a $45 million economic impact on the city, but economists were noted as generally skeptical of the accuracy of those studies.

Goodell also reaffirmed the league’s commitment to playing in London; the Jacksonville Jaguars will play two games there on back to back Sundays in 2020. But London and Mexico are far from the only destinations that could host. Goodell recently 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 – but Goodell apparently feels 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 a recent press conference.

A Canadian-centered Super Bowl could be a possibility, provided individuals have the proper documentation to travel. The lack of a language barrier is also a positive factor. Goodell also noted that at this time, the city does not have a stadium that could host NFL ball – something that would definitely need to be rectified before the league would award a franchise (or presumably, play a Super Bowl) there:

“The one thing, and I’ve said this openly over the years, you may not be aware of it, a stadium that is up to NFL standards is going to be a certain requirement. That is going to be an important element that’s going to have to be focused on. It’s not enough to just have a great city, which you have, you have to have the facility also.”

But while “If you build it, he will come” is a tagline that has worked in the movies, it is not an axiom when it comes to Goodell – nor to building a fan base, either at the pro or the youth level. And 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. The American Football Coaches Association noted on their blog, “Germany and other countries around the world, suffice to say, do not list American football among the cornerstones of their cultural heritage.”

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 strong men's sport 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.”

There are multiple platforms through which youth football can, and does, continue to travel to other countries to compete, however. The International Federation of American Football, the global governing body whose mission it is to further the sport around the world, offers championships for adult and U19 men and women in flag and contact ball, on the world and European levels. Event owner Global Football is one of several groups producing competitions that give American teams the opportunity to travel to other countries.

NFL does indeed appear to be testing the waters in search of new audiences. But whether or not it will make the leap to hosting major events outside the country seems to be unclear.

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