I’ve got two questions after the NFL’s first-ever regular-season visit to Europe on Sunday (the Giants beat the Dolphins 13-10 in London): Does anybody think American football will ever have sustained mass appeal outside the North American continent? And if not, is it really worth the NFL’s money to go to all this effort to stage the occasional overseas game?
Soccer is the one truly global team sport. Basketball probably comes in second. Volleyball is big as a participatory sport in lots of places but doesn’t have the kind of mass spectator appeal that makes a sport a big business. Then you have sports that are far from global in scope, but attract mass spectator interest (and thus generate big bucks) on multiple continents: baseball, cricket, rugby, hockey (especially if you’re generous and count the field and ice versions as one sport). And let’s not forget team handball. (Am I missing anybody?)
American football, like hurling and Aussie rules football, is a sport very much tied to its home country. Yeah, they play it in Canada and there seems to be some grassroots interest in Northern Mexico. But football has had a century now to spread beyond North America and, the International Federation of American Football notwithstanding, it hasn’t moved much beyond cult appeal. Maybe it’s the “American” in the name (the unmodified “football” has been claimed by soccer in the rest of the world); more likely it’s the complicated rules and the expense and hassle of fielding a properly equipped team.
Despite the pronounced lack of global interest, the NFL’s huge success at home has made it the world’s richest sports league. So it keeps trying to use some of those vast riches to make inroads elsewhere. The league finally gave up this summer on its 16-year effort to establish a European minor league. Now it’s planning to fund an American football academy at the University of Bath. Sorry, but I don’t see this going much of anywhere. Sure, the NFL can build up niche audiences overseas, but the scale of its financial success within the U.S. is so epic that they’ll have only the tiniest impact on its bottom line.
Some NFL owners appear to agree, and have chosen a different means of going global: Buying into the one global sport, soccer. The Glazers of the Tampa Bay Bucs now own Manchester United. Stan Kroenke of the St. Louis Rams has a big stake in London’s Arsenal. The Krafts of the New England Patriots own the local soccer team, the New England Revolution, and have shown interest in the past in Liverpool. American Football League founder Lamar Hunt was also one of the founding fathers of Major League Soccer. Maybe these guys know something that NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell doesn’t.
Update: I forgot about Randy Lerner, who owns the Cleveland Browns and Aston Villa. Plus there’s Tom Hicks, the new co-owner of Liverpool. He’s not an NFL owner, but is from Texas.