Two of America’s most popular sports leagues, the National Football League and Major League Baseball, have struggled for years to grow on an international level. Where the NBA has seen its global initiative increase under its last two commissioners, football and baseball continue to only be popular in North America.
What’s the reason behind their lack of growth in places such as Europe and South America? Today we will try to answer that question and determine whether these sports can have a bright future on a global scale.
The NFL in Europe
The NFL started hosting international regular-season games in 2007, which were hosted in Wembley stadium until 2015. Since then there have been games played in other stadiums in London, plus a handful of games in Mexico.
But the product just doesn’t seem the same. There have been issues with field turf, empty seats devaluing the NFL product, and a lack of excitement from the crowd.
The current series of games run until the end of the 2027 season, so this will be around for years to come.
Baseball is popular in Asia, why hasn’t it grown in other continents?
For decades MLB players have gone to different cities in Asia to faceoff against each other or regional all-stars. Japan is the first country that comes to mind when talking about international baseball, and rightfully so.
Ichiro Suzuki (arguably the most famous Japanese baseball player of all-time) helped explode baseball’s popularity in the country. You would be hard-pressed to find a league outside of the country that can be viewed as comparable to AAA talent.
Baseball and football aren’t cheap sports to play, and one main cause is the lack of funding in other countries.
Youth sports plays a significant role
One major issue with these sports growing in international popularity is the costs of equipment. Keeping baseball and football fields in good condition, along with balls, bats, facemasks, and other equipment doesn’t come cheap.
This is why you see a sport such as soccer played on a global scale. Basically all you need is a ball for children to play with.
Follow the NBA’s blueprint
NBA Commissioner Adam Silver has made growing the game of basketball one of his top priorities. Until the 2004 Summer Olympics, where the USA Men’s basketball team finished with the bronze medal, basketball wasn’t looked at as an international game. We have seen several players drafted from Europe and South America over that time span. Surprisingly, the reigning NBA MVP is from Greece!
Growing the sport in China and Africa has helped league popularity spike. Former President Barack Obama and Toronto Raptors President of Basketball Operations, Masai Ujiri, have helped the NBA partner with FIBA to create the African Basketball league. It is a 12-team league scheduled to start play in 2020.
Why can’t the NFL and MLB take that same approach? NFL Europe was a way for the league to have their own developmental league but it stopped operating before the start of the 2007 season. Bringing the league back would be a great way to increase the NFL’s awareness on the other side of the pond.
Baseball is already popular in Asia and parts of South America, so there’s no reason the MLB couldn’t sponsor a few South American winter leagues (since some players go back to their respective countries to play during the offseason). This would also allow each MLB franchise to designate a team they can use as a pipeline for talent.
Will the NFL and MLB grow internationally?
Unless the development programs from each league take on an innovative approach, we doubt either will become as popular as basketball is globally. If you are looking for more content surrounding the NFL and MLB be sure to check out those sections of our site as summer continues to heat up!