After hosting a record-setting five games beyond US borders, Boardroom examines the NFL’s next steps as it seeks to expand its international reach.
The 2022 slate of NFL international games came to a close this week with a Monday Night Football clash between the 49ers and Cardinals in Mexico City. During this season, the league held three games in London and one each in Mexico City and Munich. The move to host more games overseas is a cornerstone of the expanding strategy to grow the game of football globally.
The shield’s international efforts expanded this year, including a first-ever regular season kick-off in Germany. The Nov. 13 match-up between the Seattle Seahawks and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers saw nearly 70,000 people walk into Allianz Arena, home to Bavarian soccer giants Bayern Munich. It was a success on television, with 5.8 million viewers tuning in on NFL Network, making it the cable channel’s most-watched international game ever.
As of now, the NFL is the only US-based professional men’s league without a franchise in another country; the NBA, MLB, NHL, and MLS each have at least one member in Canada. However, the league has its eyes on extending its international presence in other ways, and the agenda is anything but modest.
As the league concludes its fifth and final international game of the season, Boardroom breaks down what might be next as the league seeks to expand its global reach.
Examining the NFL’s International Footprint
Since launching the International Series in 2007, the NFL has steadily expanded the league’s footprint across the globe.
The lack of an international home team has not stopped the most valuable sports league in the world from trying to market to fans beyond the borders of the US. The NFL announced its first International Home Marketing Areas in December 2021 and expanded them in May of this year. The current package of partnerships that grants teams “access to international territories for marketing, fan engagement, and commercialization” now spans 10 countries and includes 20 teams:
- Australia: Los Angeles Rams, Philadelphia Eagles
- Brazil: Miami Dolphins
- Canada: Minnesota Vikings, Seattle Seahawks
- China: Los Angeles Rams
- Germany: Carolina Panthers, Kansas City Chiefs, New England Patriots, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
- Ghana: Philadelphia Eagles
- Mexico: Arizona Cardinals, Dallas Cowboys, Denver Broncos, Houston Texans, Kansas City Chiefs, Las Vegas Raiders, Los Angeles Rams, Pittsburgh Steelers, San Francisco 49ers
- New Zealand: Los Angeles Rams, Philadelphia Eagles
- Spain: Chicago Bears, Miami Dolphins
- United Kingdom: Chicago Bears, Jacksonville Jaguars, Miami Dolphins, Minnesota Vikings, New York Jets, San Francisco 49ers
When growth goals and marketing momentum are realized through international games, the NFL doubles down. Taking Germany as an example, the league has already committed to hosting three more games inside the country at minumum through the 2025 season. Munich will host its second, while Frankfurt will host two.
Both London and Mexico City had hosted NFL games long before Germany’s debut, and the games have been so successful that there has been thought of having a team relocate to either city. The logistics of having a team in London serve as an obviously daunting obstacle; as for Mexico, reestablishing the league’s presence in Los Angeles and eyeing potential expansion to Las Vegas have take precedence so far.
That may not be the case forever.
“Everyone that comes over here realizes that it is not a negative from a competitive standpoint… we feel like the games have had a real impact on our international popularity,” NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said in an interview on NFL Network.
All told, when the league does travel, it brings a “little Super Bowl” to the host cities, as NFL Germany GM Dr. Alex Steinforth told Boardroom.
“We’re just trying to create an experience that really differentiates the NFL from any other sports [and] other leagues,” Steinforth said. “It is not just focused on the game but all of the days leading up to it we invest a lot of time, money, and attention on the experience.”
NFL Africa & Beyond
Each of the markets assigned to individual teams could conceivably host a competitive game one day. Whether those games can happen is likely dependent upon those teams’ successes in marketing themselves in those areas.
Interest alone will not dictate the decision, however. A country must demonstrate sufficient infrastructure in order to be considered seriously. Compared to countries like Spain, France, or Canada, all of which have an expansive network of sporting venues and media entities, there is far more groundwork still to be laid in order to host a game in a nation like Ghana.
Brett Gosper, the NFL’s Head of UK and Europe, told the Associate Press that both Spain and France are “very much on our radar.” As he continued, “they are two very healthy media markets, healthy sports markets, some strong indicators from our streaming platform as well as from our consumer sales. When you mine the data a little bit, they certainly are two markets with high potential.”
As for Africa, Osi Umenyiora, one of NFL Africa‘s leading voices and a two-time Super Bowl champion, says there is work to do before the league hosts a game on the continent.
“First of all, there has to be a state-of-the-art stadium, and I’m not sure that we have one capable of hosting a game right now,” Umenyiora told Boardroom in a phone interview. But despite the fact that the program is in its earliest days, the former Giants and Falcons pass-rusher is confident the NFL will eventually host a game in Africa.
“I think it is going to happen it is just a matter of when. We are probably 10 to 15 years away, but if you look at the amount of players of African descent in the NFL and the population density of Africa, everything is pointing to Africa being the next frontier,” he said.
Flag Football’s Role
Outside of the annual series of international games, the NFL is betting on the growth of flag football to grow the game globally. The league is vying for the sport to be approved for competition in the 2028 Olympics, which would constitute a crucial milestone.
Earlier this year, 16 of the world’s best flag football teams competed at the World Games in Birmingham, Alabama.
“Flag is one of the fastest growing sports globally and the World Games will no doubt accelerate that growth as the Flag championships inspire that football is for all,” Troy Vincent, NFL Executive Vice President of Football Operations, said in July. Notably, in addition to his position at the league office, Vincent also serves as co-chair of the Vision28 Group, which aims to bring the sport to the 2028 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles.
The theme of expanding the broader sport through flag football has carried on throughout the year; at most of the league’s official events, there has been some sort of activation around flag football, whether through a celebrity flag football game or a flag football clinic.
It’s all of a piece: As the league looks for new and creative ways to enhance the game beyond the shores of North America, fans can expect the NFL to continue an all-of-the-above approach.
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