The world’s most popular and well-known sports tend to be enjoyed evenly around the globe. There are soccer, cricket, and rugby leagues on every continent, while sports like golf and tennis tend to be internationally mobile.
There’s one notable exception to this rule: the US’s NFL. American football, though recognized in most corners of the world, isn’t played or watched beyond the country’s borders. Because of the league’s massive revenue and high production value, it’s an export many are familiar with even if they don’t plan on picking up a ‘pig skin’ anytime soon.
A closer look at US sports reveals just how strange this is. The US’s other major leagues, including the MLB (baseball), NHL (hockey), NBA (basketball), and MLS (soccer), all stretch across North America to include Canadian teams. The NFL is the notable exception, as it’s played solely in the US.
With big money and a massive, passionate fan base, the NFL’s relatively limited demographic of US fans is surprising. Each year, the league sees huge action on NFL picks of the week throughout the regular season up to the Super Bowl—even from those who don’t watch the games normally. Clearly, the league has entertainment value, but the sport itself isn’t familiar to many.
There’s one notable fact about the NFL: its rules are absolutely unique to the league and don’t exist anywhere else. This means the NFL can’t partner with similar leagues, including Canada’s own CFL. The NFL and CFL have slight differences in rules and format, which neither organization is willing to alter to put together a joint league or tournament.
In fact, the NFL works closest with the NCAAF, a collegiate football league. Student-athletes from the US’s university system compete against one another, often drawing in hundreds of millions in profits. Student-athletes commit to top-tier football programs in the hopes of being drafted into the NFL. As such, the NFL has a unique and unaffiliated farming system to develop top players.
Beyond these factors, the NFL has struggled to leave the US because it’s a uniquely American sport. In many areas, such as the American South, football is closely tied to local culture. Families reschedule weddings and other major events around big games, for example.
An Expanded Series
Though the NFL is largely confined to US borders, the league is interested in branching out. The NFL has its own International Series, which organizes exhibition games from top teams abroad. In the past, teams have played in London and Mexico City, and could even see action in countries like Germany.
The NFL has penned contracts with massive stadiums in order to develop this series, which is designed to introduce new fans to the sport. Additionally, the NFL seems interested in launching a franchise abroad, including more than a handful of proposed London-based teams.
For the time being, the NFL has other issues to hammer out, such as its new 17-week game schedule.
Growing in the US First
For those who’ve never watched the NFL, games are often structured in a simple format of Week 1, Week 2, etc. With one game a week, the schedule is easy to follow, allowing teams time to rest and travel. Given each game runs around three hours, it’s often a day-long event for viewers.
This year, the NFL is launching its inaugural 17-week format for the first time since it expanded to 16 games back in 1978. In addition to providing more content for fans, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell cited international growth as one of his key reasons for supporting the regular-season expansion.
In a statement about the new schedule, Goodell said, “And one of the benefits of each team playing 17 regular-season games is the ability for us to continue to grow our game around the world.” For some, this might be ringing alarm bells, especially as other leagues face fixture congestion.
Earlier this year, plans for a European Super League were quashed not only for the apparent money-grab but because the proposed league would have caused serious issues related to fixture congestion. As the NFL expands, it will have to scale its schedule with players in mind.