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In September 2008, Forbes dubbed the NFL “the strongest sport in the world.” With annual
league revenues of roughly $6.5 billion and each of the 32 NFL teams worth $1 billion on
average (compared to only four professional soccer teams worldwide worth over $1 billion), the
NFL is one of the most lucrative and financially resilient sports leagues worldwide. Forbes’s
August 2008 list of the world’s best-paid athletes, however, does not have a single football
player. It is populated by soccer, tennis, and basketball players; motorcycle and auto racers;
One reason that football players do not make the list of the world’s best-paid athletes is because
American football is American. It does not have effective international appeal. Even baseball, a
game some might consider more American than football, has gained a substantial following in
Japan and Latin America. But considering the amount of athletes’ earnings that come from
marketing contracts, it’s no surprise that the top 10 (and in fact the top 20) are dominated by
sports that hold a much more global appeal. For all its success, the vast majority of the NFL’s
market remains in the United States.
Over the years, numerous attempts have been made to export American football overseas. Its
most recent endeavor, NFL Europa, closed down in 2007 without any plans for a replacement.
NFL Europa had lost money for 15 years straight and was largely being used by NFL owners as
a place to stash extra players during training camp.
Over the last two years, the NFL has started trying another tack—the NFL International Series.
It is a program that exports real NFL games overseas. In 2007, the New York Giants and Miami
Dolphins played the first NFL game in London’s Wembley Stadium to a sold-out crowd of over
83,000 fans, followed in 2008 by the New Orleans Saints and San Diego Chargers.
The original game in 2007 proved that offering the real thing to an international audience could
generate a lot of excitement, and the game itself provided the Giants a momentum boost in the
midst of a run that ended with a Super Bowl victory. In 2007, the teams arrived in London only a
couple of days before the match. In 2008 (hoping to increase exposure), the teams were
brought over at the beginning of the week. They held practices throughout the week to which
the media was granted access, along with press conferences. Perhaps one of the biggest
boosts was the agreement the league reached with the BBC to broadcast the game live, which
would potentially add an additional 2 million viewers. Previously, NFL games could be viewed
only on a British pay channel, which garnered about 120,000 viewers per week.
Though the program is still young, it has produced promising results, with the 2009 game
between the New England Patriots and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers drawing the largest
attendance yet, largely due to Tom Brady’s popularity in the UK. The NFL confirmed a 2010
International series between the Denver Broncos and the San Francisco 49ers in late October
2010. In the meantime, the NFL has identified education as a key factor in sustaining interest in
London (and other potential foreign markets). After the 2007 game, the league performed
surveys among Londoners about what they liked best about the game. One of their top answers
was the strategy. Compared to more internationally popular games like soccer, American
football is extremely complex, and if viewers don’t understand it, it will be difficult for them to
appreciate its strategic value. To help with this, the NFL launched an interactive Web site to
help present new fans with the basics of American football in laymen’s terms. With a cast of
fictional characters playing roles in a fictional football organization, led by the hard-nosed Coach
Stilo who quizzes viewers on what they’re learning as they go, and guest appearances by real
NFL football players without their helmets, viewers are led through a series of 18 episodes in
which they learn the basic terminology, positions, plays, and strategy. The Web site is available
in English, Spanish, French, Japanese, and Mandarin. In places like China, the terminology
does not translate well, so the league has invented a nomenclature that better fits with the
language. All in all, the NFL believes that a better understanding of the game will make a huge
difference in drawing fans in as it continues promoting American football overseas.
SOURCES: Lacey Rose, “The World’s Best-Paid Male Athletes,” Forbes, August 8, 2008; Tom
Van Riper and Kurt Badenhausen, “Top-Earning Female Athletes,” Forbes, July 22, 2008; Kurt
Badenhausen, Michael Ozanian, Christina Settimi, “The Richest Game,” Forbes, September 11,
2008; Len Pasquarelli, “NFL Europa Failed to Produce Players, Profi ts,” ESPN, June 29, 2007;
Mike Carlson, “Saints Put on a Show for ‘Home’ Crowd at Wembley,” NFL.com, October 27,
2008; Lisa Altobelli, “Think Globally: NFL Visits England to Increase Awareness of Football,”
Sports Illustrated, October 24, 2008; Associated Press, “NFL Hoping Rules, Jargon Doesn’t
Prevent Chinese from Learning Game,” ESPN, June 29, 2007; Matthew Futterman, “Football
Tries a New Play to Score Overseas,” Wall Street Journal, October 9, 2008.