In its ever-expanding effort to make American football a global sport, the National Football League plans to host no fewer than four games in Germany through 2025 (two in 2023 alone). What’s more, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell has floated the idea of basing a team in London. And recently, a report emerged that the NFL was in talks to bring games to Camp Nou in Barcelona, Spain — the largest stadium in Europe, capable of holding nearly 100,000 fans.
And why not? As American Football International, a site that covers American football outside of America, proclaimed: “The NFL International Series came roaring back with one of its best schedules in years [in 2022]. If the NFL wants to strengthen its appeal and fandom further in outside markets, it should seek to do similar to last season by sending out close competitors and teams set to have winning records. It’s the best of the NFL product that will seal its place in new markets.”
The Seattle Seahawks and Tampa Bay Buccaneers played the first NFL game in Germany in November at Allianz Arena — home to FC Bayern Munich — in front of more than 69,000 spectators. According to the league, the game was the NFL Network’s most-watched international game on record in the United States with more than 5.8 million viewers, and German broadcaster ProSieben saw a record-breaking 2.7 million viewers, making it the most-watched NFL regular season or playoff game ever in Germany (behind only the past three Super Bowls). What’s more, Fanatics — the NFL’s exclusive event retail operator for Europe — reported game-day merchandise sales at Allianz Arena as the highest-ever for an NFL game outside of the United States.
Even more critical to long-term and widespread acceptance of the American game overseas is the fact the NFL Flag Football program and its inaugural nationwide tournament helped connect with young fans and athletes during game week, with five German cities, 12 schools and more than 300 athletes participating. The team from Frankfurt won the tournament and will travel to the 2023 Pro Bowl Games in Las Vegas to participate in the NFL Flag Championships.
More than 30 regular-season games — including five in 2022 — have been played outside of the United States since 2005, when the Arizona Cardinals and the San Francisco 49ers kicked off at Estadio Azteca in Mexico City, Mexico. Nearly 103,500 fans comprised the largest crowd to attend a regular-season game in NFL history, and that game became the impetus for the NFL International Series beginning in 2007. From 2007 to 2012, London’s Wembley Stadium hosted one regular-season NFL game each season. That venue welcomed two games in 2013 and three in 2014 and 2015.
The International Series eventually expanded to Estadio Azteca, as well as London’s Twickenham Stadium and Tottenham Hotspur Stadium, although no international games were played during the COVID-plagued 2020 season. Another five international games likely will be on tap for the 2023 season — three in London and two in Germany.
As NBC Sports reported in December, Estadio Azteca — which has hosted four regular-season games — will be undergoing renovations in 2023 related to hosting games for the 2026 World Cup but might be back in rotation for the 2024 NFL season.
“Growing the league and the game internationally is a major strategic priority for the NFL,” the league’s UK General Manager Henry Hodgson told ESPN in October. “We know that having live games in markets and using the power of sport and the culture of our game provides a powerful platform to connect with our avid fans and attract new fans. ... We have played games in London since 2007 and the interest and demand for tickets is stronger than ever.”
So strong that the NFL could field a team overseas?
“There’s no question that London could support, not just one franchise, I think two franchises. I really believe that,” Goodell told reporters, via NFL UK, prior to the New York Giants’ 27-20 win over the Green Bay Packers at Tottenham Hotspur Stadium in October. “That’s from a fan perspective, from a commercial standpoint, from a media standpoint. I think [London] has proven that.
Goodell added that he’d like to have four teams on the continent — enough to create a division. “That’s part of what we’re doing,” Goodell said. “We’re trying to sort of see, could you have multiple locations in Europe where you could have an NFL franchise, because it would be easier as a division.”
CBSSports.com outlined how that might work:
If you had an entire division in Europe, that means each team would get to stay in Europe for 11 or 12 of its 17 games. Depending on the schedule rotation, each team would get eight or nine home games, plus they’d also get three road games against their inter-European divisional rivals. Each European team would still have to play five games in the United States, but that could be solved by giving each team one two-game and one three-game road trip so they only have to fly overseas twice.
Putting four teams in Europe would also be a more practical solution for teams based in the United States. For instance, if the AFC East is scheduled to play the European division, then the Patriots could fly over and play the games in back-to-back weeks so they only have to make one trip. (Under the current scheduling formula, when a division is matched up against another division, each team gets two home games and two away games against the opposing division.)