Baseball used to be the national pastime. At some point in the 1980s or early 1990s, football passed it. I don’t have a long explanation for this. I’m just going off my personal experience. Heck, look no further than The Sporting News. That publication lived for baseball for decades, but slowly became football obsessed. The NFL Draft preview was one page by Mel Kiper in the mid-80s and 1/4 of the magazine by the mid-90s.
Football wasn’t about to stop with taking over America. It wanted more. The next step was to go global.
The NFL has done a variety of things to grow the game around the globe. There was NFL Europe. That was an interesting idea, but didn’t work as hoped. It was supposed to be a developmental league for the NFL and an introduction to pro football for our brothers and sisters in Europe. While NFLE did develop some players, it wasn’t as good as was hoped.
The quality of the football was bad. It was hard to watch, even for a person like me who is a serious die-hard. The atmosphere at the games was awkward, which didn’t help watching bad football. I can’t really speak to how successful the league was at creating European fans. The poor quality of the play may not have bothered them. It could be that the novelty of seeing the games in person was enough to build a fascination with the game.
The NFL played some preseason games in London as far back as the 1980s. I know the Bears and Cowboys were over there. There have been preseason games in Mexico and Japan. There are now annual regular season games in London and Toronto.
The Super Bowl is the NFL’s crown jewel and it has become an international event. The game has only been played in America, but it is broadcast in a variety of languages. Former Eagle TE Chad Lewis has done Chinese language broadcasts of the game (not sure if Mandarin, Cantonese or whatever other dialect is out there). The Super Bowl is now a week long event that brings in media from all over the world to experience it.
Marketing is huge. The Raiders were the first team with a multi-lingual website that I recall. That was smart. The NFL has Cecil Martin doing some interesting things in the UK to help grow the game. He works with football teams over there to help teach the game and get people excited about it. He also does broadcasting.
Football players can be great ambassadors for the game. Matt Barkley went on a mission to Nigeria a few years back. New Eagles ILB Emmanuel Acho is over in Africa this summer.
— Emmanuel Acho (@thEMANacho) July 9, 2013
Those kids will be Eagles fans. Free t-shirts can have tremendous influence on kids. I’m sure there are other Eagles players and coaches taking international vacations this summer. They’ll help spread the word, even if it is just one person at a time.
One of the best ways to grow the game is to have international players. Last year in the draft we had Ziggy Ansah, Bjoern Werner and Margus Hunt as highly rated prospects. Ansah is from Ghana, Werner from Germany and Hunt from Estonia. Menelik Watson is from the UK and is another highly rated guy. All three were big athletes. They were from other countries, but were born to play football. The Eagles have Nic Purcell from New Zealand. Australia has put out a string of punters.
These players aren’t a big deal to US fans, but I’m sure Ghana will talk about the NFL more than ever due to Ansah. The same is true of Estonia and Hunt and Germany and Werner. Kids will see the stories and some will develop an interest in playing football over soccer, rugby, cricket or whatever the local game of choice is.
The NFL is obsessed with athletes. If you can’t find enough great athletes in the US, go look elsewhere. Look at the impact that foreign players have had on the NBA.
I don’t think football will ever be as international as basketball. 20 guys make two teams in basketball. That isn’t even a starting lineup in football. Just the sheer volume of players and equipment needed hurts the game. Football is a complex, complicated sport.
Will a team ever get to London? Sure sounds like that is what the NFL wants. I’m not for it. I love our UK brothers and sisters, but life in the NFL is hard. Taking trips across the pond during the season just makes life extra difficult. I don’t doubt that the fans would support the franchise. Anyone who has spent time in the comments section here knows how dedicated UK fans are. They stay up late for some games, get up early for others. They go out of their way to follow their team of choice.
The Internet might be the biggest factor in the growth of the game, to this point and into the future. Fans can now follow teams all year long. They can learn about the game. They can interact with other fans. They can also enjoy/endure the writings of Kempski and Lawlor. And Bowen, Domowitch, Mosher, McLane, Frank and Spadaro of course.
You wonder how much more football coverage can grow, but you know it will…somehow. And fans will eat it up, here and abroad. NFL fans never say the word “enough”.
The game of football will continue go grow and expand. Every year it will become more popular around the globe. And who knows…maybe one day even Los Angeles will get a team.