The NFL is the most popular sport in the United States. Every year’s Super Bowl viewership shows the sport has plenty of support overseas, but football is still very much an American sport. There are professional and semi-professional leagues across the world, but none carry the same cache as other international leagues in basketball and baseball. Because of that, the NFL’s player base is still largely American, but that may change soon.
The NFL follows the lead of MLB, NBA
Following in the footsteps of Major League Baseball and the National Basketball Association, the NFL will soon start looking overseas for talent after announcing that it will open a training academy in London. It will let potential players ages 16-18 to show off their talent for people who may otherwise not be able to see what they have to offer, and for the NFL it could mean a further international reach, which is something the NBA and MLB have enjoyed for decades.
All 30 MLB teams operate training academies in the Dominican Republic. The academies not only help foster a love of the game abroad, but they also help the teams find young talent who could help them on the field in years to come.
This is not the NFL’s first attempt at going overseas. From 1989 to 2007, the NFL operated what would eventually be known as NFL Europe. The league not only let players, such as eventual superstar quarterback Kurt Warner hone their skills, but it helped football shine overseas. Although it lasted nearly two decades, NFL Europe folded after the international audience found it hard to get into the sport.
Canada’s professional league, the CFL, sees great success each year, but other international leagues do not get nearly as much attention, although they do exist. If the London project is a success, perhaps the NFL would move to other countries too.
As we mentioned a minute ago, both basketball and baseball have grown increasingly international over the past few decades.
Baseball’s growth in Central American countries such as the Dominican Republic is well documented, and all 30 teams currently host academies there. In basketball, there is a widespread culture of countries getting behind the sport, which is why it remains a popular Olympic sport.
Part of this growing popularity has to do with players from these countries hitting it big in the American leagues. Chinese interest in the NBA grew exponentially when their superstar center Yao Ming entered the league in 2002, and the MLB has produced multiple foreign-born superstars. The NFL is not without its own.
Eagles running back Jay Ajayi was born in London before moving to America as a child. Former superstar Hines Ward was born in South Korea, and recently-retired kicker Sebastian Janikowski hailed from Poland.
Despite big names such as these, the overall number of international players is still quite small compared to other leagues.
London and the NFL have built a relationship over the past few years thanks in large part to the games the league has been hosting there since 2007. What started as a single game played at Wembley Stadium for many years eventually grew to as many as four games played in London across Wembley and in Tottenham Hotspur stadium.
With the success of those games, which typically draw massive crowds, the NFL has interest in sending a franchise to London full-time, even though travel and time differences would complicate such a move. The addition of homegrown talent from England could increase the international interest needed for such a move to be viable.
Will It work?
Exposure can be one of the greatest factors in whether a region takes to a new sport. Seeing players from their neck of the woods has proven to make people more interested in sports internationally. Still, even if the league starts adding from the streets of London, it still may take a superstar or two before the NFL can fully commit to expanding its international reach.