The NFL’s Expansion Problem

The National Football League is the largest of the big four American sports leagues and raked in $8.7 billion in revenue last season. The league has a vast, loyal fan base and continuously ranks as the most popular sport in America. A 2018 Gallup poll revealed that 37% of Americans pick football as their favorite sport, but this number is down from its 2007 peak at 43%, while basketball and other sports are on the rise.

The NFL started to really take off in America in the 1960s when it began to capture the attention of Americans in big cities thanks to its television presence and big event appeal with the Super Bowl. The physical nature of the league resonated well with the American working class and the rapidly growing urban population who were quick to adopt their cities team as a sense of pride. The NFL overtook the MLB as America’s favorite sport in the mid-1960s and never looked back. The Super Bowl consistently ranks as the top viewed TV special of the year with over 100 million viewers on average in recent years. They were able to successfully market the sport to women with the weekly night games becoming a family night viewing event for women to watch the games with their husband and kids.

Despite their dominating popularity in the United States, football ranks as low as 9th in popularity on a global scale. They are the only one of the big four American sports leagues to not have a team located in Canada. Even with their enormous revenue stream, the NFL has experienced trouble marketing football on a global scale. They launched a professional league in Europe in 1991, which included six teams and saw success reaching new markets, but was ultimately shut down in 2007 after huge financial deficits from low crowd turnouts. European sports fans were already preoccupied with their incredibly popular soccer leagues and were having a hard time understanding the rules of American football. The NFL currently plays a few games annually in London, which draw big crowds, but it appears unlikely they will be able to have a permanent team located across the pond due to long flights and travel inconveniences for the players. The UK remains the NFL’s best opportunity to expand its fanbase, but many British sports fans are not open to the idea of another sport also called football, and sometimes refer to American football as “hand-egg”.

NFL commissioner Roger Goodell has referred to Asia, specifically China, as a high priority market to gain new fans. The league has reached broadcasting deals with the premier Asian digital platform Tencent and online video service Youku. The most recent Super Bowl was reportedly viewed by over 7 million people in China. In 2013, the American Football League of China was founded, but this remains the only league in all of Asia, and there is a notable lack of youth football programs and little to no opportunities for kids to pick up the sport. Asian youth is often deterred from the culture of American football as there are essentially no Asian players in the league so they cannot resonate with any of the players as role models. This leads to Asian kids following other American sports like basketball instead where there have been numerous successful players in the league of Asian heritage.

The lack of international players is a major problem for the NFL, as other leagues like the NBA and MLB have seen significant international growth as a result of having star players born outside the United States. Young athletes tend to gravitate towards hometown heroes who they look up to and aspire to be just like them, and in every country outside of the US, that role model player will be in a different sport than football. Cultural differences and a lack of familiarity with the sport from a young age have led to difficulties for the NFL gaining strides in foreign markets.

Australia represents a big potential market for the NFL and numerous rugby players have seen success in the college and pro football as punters. However, the country already has a widely popular physical sport of their own with rugby and many Aussies say football has too much start-stop time and the games take far too long. The huge time difference is also an issue for Australian sports fans looking to stream American football. The NFL hasn’t played a game in Australia since 1999, although the game did draw a respectable crowd of 73,000.

The NFL may have potentially plateaued in popularity within the U.S. and its expansion into foreign markets remains murky at best. Basketball poses an increasingly high threat to taking the crown from football in the US as the sport is more heavily followed on social media and the players are more culturally involved. There are also heightening concerns about the safety of football from the new generation of parents questioning if they want their kids to play such a physical sport as many former players are being diagnosed with CTE. We are also witnessing many niche sports like MMA and eSports gain huge popularity as any sporting event can be easily viewed via streaming today. The NFL may have already reached peak popularity and may continue to struggle in foreign markets due to cultural differences, complex game rules, and the high cost of equipment. While the other three big American sports leagues appear poised to capitalize on international growth and attract new fans, the NFL may be capped in terms of growth and attracting new fans.

2 thoughts on “The NFL’s Expansion Problem

  1. Another insightful piece. Challenges abound for the iconic league and brand, that’s for sure. Some self-induced (read anthem woes) but also times are changing. Many competitive options available for the sports consumer these days. Thanks for sharing.


    1. Thanks for the feedback! Yes, the rise of streaming services enables sports fans to watch whatever they want whenever they want, so they are not forced to simply watch the default game on ESPN anymore.


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