The NFL in London. A Work in Progress

The National Football League is once again trying to broaden the league’s reach and appeal as well as establishing more merchandising opportunities beyond the United States borders with an eye on setting up shop in London, England. This week’s London game isn’t a stellar match up, it features the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Minnesota Vikings, but league owners and officials know that the business has to grown globally or continue falling behind Major League Baseball, the National Basketball Association, the National Hockey League, tennis, golf, track and field on the world stage.

The National Football League is the most popular sport in the United States, franchise values have never been higher and television money pours into the business. College football is also flush with money and high school football is still a major force. The Super Bowl is the most watched television show in the United States but internationally American football hardly matters.

Soccer, or football, is the biggest sport in the world. The international reach of Manchester United (owned by the Glazier family–the Tampa Bay Buccaneers NFL franchise is part of the Glazier’s business portfolio) or Real Madrid in soccer is far flung. There is no NFL team that can match ManU or Real Madrid in global name recognition. Lionel Messi, an Argentina playing for FC Barcelona, is far better known than Tom Brady. Internationally Messi did a commercial for a Turkish airplane carrier with Kobe Bryant, the Los Angeles Lakers/basketball star.

Peyton Manning is probably the biggest commercial pitchman in the United States but he is nowhere near Lionel Messi or the Brazilian footballer Neymar in being a global salesman. Neymar, according to SportsPro magazine, was the most marketable sports figure in the world in 2012 and remains on top this year.

Neymar, Messi, golfer Rory McIlroy, track and field’s Usain Bolt and soccer’s Cristiano Ronaldo are the world’s top five marketable athletes according to the magazine. McIlroy has appeal in the United States, Bolt is well known as well, Neymar, Messi and Ronaldo are certainly recognizable in the growing soccer market in the United States.

The National Football League has a great number of problems in establishing a foothold globally. American football isn’t very popular around the world and is not played very much globally. A website,, seems to have a following among some American football players looking just to play somewhere. There are three “combines” scheduled in Europe in October and November in France, Belgium and Poland where Americans can try out for European teams. The website also listed the two dozen or so countries globally where American football style games are played including Russia and China.

But American football has a long way to go to catch up to Major League Baseball which is popular in North American, in the Caribbean, in the Pacific Rim (including Japan and South Korea) and is growing in China, India and Taiwan. Australia has a professional baseball league and The Netherlands is angling for a Major League regular season series in a new stadium near Amsterdam. Major League Baseball thinks India and Ghana are two potential growth spots.

The National Basketball Association is extremely popular in China and will be deploying teams around the world for the pre-season. There will be a regular season game in Mexico City and once again the Brooklyn (formerly New Jersey) Nets will play a regular season game in London.  NBA teams will be playing games in Istanbul, Turkey, Bilbao, Spain, Manchester, England, Manila, Philippines, Taipei, Taiwan, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Beijing and Shanghai, China. The NBA would like to create a niche in India.

The National Hockey League is skipping Europe this fall because the league will shut down in February so that players can compete for their home countries in the Sochi Olympics. That is the sporting world’s biggest international stage and the NHL wants the exposure.

The National Football League would like to get football into the Olympics but The NFL couldn’t get a game played in Beijing in 2007. The league has abandoned any plans to market the product in China and is concentrating solely on England.

Soccer teams are coming to America and soccer in past years has garnered the same TV numbers or bettered TV ratings than Major League Baseball in the United States on Saturday afternoon.

The National Football League needs to do a lot of work to become a global force and much of that work is beyond the league’s control. The league doesn’t have the local infrastructure in terms of a funnel system to get players ready for the top of the profession in most countries. American football on the high school and college level on the big time basis is played just in the United States and in British Columbia. There seems to be no training grounds that is organized in the same way as the United States for people between the ages of six and 15. The NFL’s tailgating and party, event culture has not translated to London, as of yet. Even league officials admit that American football would have to triple the existing London area fan base to be viable in the English city.

The NFL also is a betting sport and betting is legal in England. Given the way the NFL (and other American sports leagues) has fought to keep sports gambling out of Delaware and New Jersey, would the league pick a fight with the well established English’s sports betting business? In England, a soccer league is sponsored by a betting house.

The Steelers-Vikings game is one of two NFL games scheduled in London. Jacksonville will “host” the San Francisco 49ers in last October. Jacksonville will be playing an annual game in London for four seasons, this year, next year, 2015 and 2016. This has led to speculation that the NFL might give Jacksonville owner Shad Khan the go ahead to move the financially “struggling” Jaguars to London. Khan has a long term contract in Jacksonville that would need to be broken and that might be difficult to do if Khan is making money in Jacksonville despite the lack of corporate and fan support in filling up the stadium to capacity.

Khan also purchased Fulham in the English Premiership adding fuel to the fire that Khan might be interested in moving his team to London. Khan has exclusive NFL marketing rights in England to push his product.

The NFL has fallen far behind the other North America leagues–Major League Baseball, the NBA and NHL on the global stage. The NFL will have one game in Toronto as part of a deal signed by Buffalo Bills owner Ralph Wilson with Toronto businessmen in an effort to broaden the Buffalo Bills brand name in both western New York State and in the Niagara Frontier. The games have been greeted with some indifference in Toronto.

Sunday’s game will not be any real indicator of whether the NFL in London can be viable but football needs to move beyond the United States to keep up with the other sports. The football industry is also under siege in the United States because of long term health problems by former players. That issue too will follow the NFL or college football to other countries once football establishes some sort of foothold and that will bring up the question, if football manages to establish some sort of players’ development system from the age of six and up, will parents allow their children to play football and become football fans?

Evan Weiner can be reached at [email protected]. His e-book, “The Business and Politics of Sports, Second Edition” is available at and his e-books, America’s Passion: How a Coal Miner’s Game Became the NFL in the 20th Century, (,  From Peach Baskets to Dance Halls and the Not-so-Stern NBA (  and the reissue of the 2005 book, The Business and Politics of Sports ( are available