By: Alejandro Echeverria
November 27, 2023
Photo Credit: Associated Press
History of Games Abroad:
To understand the current state of the NFL’s global expansion plan, it is necessary to first have an understanding of the history of NFL games abroad. Below is a timeline which outlines this history:
Photo Credit: Alejandro Echeverria
After beginning its expansion with off-season and eventually regular season games abroad, the NFL began to establish itself internationally by introducing various programs and regulations for its clubs in other countries. Home Marketing Areas were created to foster fandom for teams in certain global markets. This initiative required clubs to submit a proposal for the top three markets they thought their club should be given, having to provide data-based claims and reasoning.
Through a rigorous selection process, the NFL then awarded teams with a market, making them the only NFL team allowed to market, engage with fans, and undergo commercial activations in that respective country. This year, the term “Home Marketing Areas” was changed to the Global Markets Program, with 21 clubs now participating in the program across 14 international markets, up from 19 clubs across 10 markets last year.
The NFL has also looked to grow its reach outside of the U.S. by establishing various grassroots programs in international markets. One of these is the NFL Academy, which is a group of 62 players from 13 countries that are brought together to learn the sport and potentially receive college scholarships. There is also the International Players Pathway Program, where NFL scouts and clubs can find, train, and prepare exceptional global athletes for potential NFL careers. Another program is the NFL Foundation, which serves to promote youth football, health and safety, character education, and community engagement around the world through a variety of partnerships and initiatives, such as grassroots grants. The final way in which the NFL has made its mark around the world is through other development camps across the globe, which educate young athletes on the game and create opportunities for them to make it to the NFL.
Recent Developments in the NFL’s Plans
Recent Success & Potential Risks
Recently, we have seen lots of new developments in the NFL’s plans for global expansion. With the Dolphins vs. Chiefs game in Germany on November 5th averaging a 4.8 rating and 9.18 million viewers (most-watched morning game in NFL Network History), the league has seen continued success abroad. As a result, the NFL has established offices in London, Mexico City, Toronto, Shanghai, Sydney, and, most recently, Dusseldorf.
This shows a clear statement of intent from the NFL that continued global expansion is where the league is headed, although questions have been raised around how this will work logistically and from a fan and player buy-in perspective. There have been talks around a potential NFL franchise in London, with a couple of cities in Germany also being considered. However, with the long travel times and different time zones already taking a huge toll on the players when they have played abroad, it will be interesting to see how the league accounts for both fan engagement and player support for the expansion.
Potential NFL Expansion Solutions
A potential way the league could look to combat this issue is by establishing separate, but related leagues in these global markets. For example, although there are several European soccer leagues at the highest level of world soccer, the best teams in each league all compete in one competition, the UEFA Champions League. If football leagues were to be established abroad, the NFL could adopt a similar model, allowing teams to first play others in their region and then face-off against the best teams in each league in an extra competition. The adoption of models like this one could potentially help the NFL to successfully expand globally, while still maintaining a high level of competition and player buy-in across the league.
Flag Football in the Olympics
A final thing to consider in terms of the NFL’s expansion is the recent announcement of flag football being introduced as an Olympic sport. Although not the same as football played in the NFL, we are likely to see various NFL players compete in this competition, bringing awareness to the game at one of the world’s premier global events.
Keys to Long-Term Success
In order to continue to achieve success with games abroad, the NFL will have to continue to be intentional and consider its players, especially when developing and implementing their new expansion strategy. Going further, the league will have to develop authentic connections to the communities and markets it expands into. This is important so that clubs make sure they have real, engaged fan bases. Although this will come with a variety of challenges, such as competition with other sports teams that have long-standing traditions in their respective cities, the NFL will continue to make developments in this space. As for other American sport leagues, they will be taking note, as all sports continue to become more and more globalized.