Despite Transatlantic flirting, NFL has failed to globalise

November 11, 2010

FNFL/licking through the television channels in Budapest, Hungary, last week, it took just five clicks before I stumbled across live coverage of the Minnesota Vikings playing the New England Patriots.

It was somewhat unexpected that a game which has very little following in Eastern Europe would be live on television but I should have known better. That day, the Denver Broncos and the San Francisco 49ers had been playing in London and now that ESPN has a channel in the region, it is surely only natural they beam in live coverage of ‘America’s Game’.

Nothing should really be surprising anymore in the era of increasingly globalized sport – I can watch six straight hours of Premier League soccer on a Saturday morning from my sofa in Miami while English NFL fans, as well as getting their solitary fix at Wembley each year, can watch live games on Sky Sports or listen to radio commentary via the BBC.

It is a far cry from the 1980s when Channel Four began their cult coverage of the NFL in the era of Dan Marino, Jim McMahon and William ‘The Fridge’ Perry while soccer fans in the United States had to make do with the ‘Soccer Made in Germany’ highlights show on television and scour foreign newspapers for two-day-old scores from Europe.

Technology, in television and the internet, is breaking down traditional sporting structures and allowing fans to become increasingly promiscuous in their viewing habits – it is not unusual to find Americans watching the Premier League at home on a Saturday morning, going to a college game on Saturday evening and then watching the NFL at their favourite sports bar on a Sunday, perhaps after catching another European soccer game earlier in the day.

Likewise, as the full-house at Wembley showed, there is enough interest in the American game in England to pack the country’s national soccer stadium with NFL fans.

It is hardly surprising that the NFL is talking about having more games in London and possibly, eventually (although count me as a sceptic) a UK-based franchise. At the same time, Liverpool’s new American owners have re-floated the idea of taking Premier League games abroad.

This transatlantic cross-dressing, fascinating though it is, is in commercial terms of relatively limited value for the NFL, a league which, despite superficial appearances, is struggling to globalize itself.

The NFL’s attempt to take root in Europe, through the World League of American Football and then NFL Europe, with the likes of the London Monarchs and the Amsterdam Admirals, ended in failure.

Likewise, while you can find an NFL game on a satellite channel in most parts of the continent, the numbers watching are miniscule. Indeed, even the Super Bowl fails to make much of a dent in the ratings charts – despite the hype that it is a global event.

In the early 1990s American sports executives knew that there was potential in the technological, economic and cultural forces of modern globalization to spread professional sports outside of their traditional markets – the NFL and the NBA and to a lesser extent the NHL and Major League Baseball have all tried to exploit overseas markets with varying degrees of success.

But what those executives didn’t expect was the boomerang effect — while they have been trying to sell basketball in Beijing and gridiron in Great Britain, soccer has snuck in America’s backdoor while American capital has been put into English clubs Manchester United, Aston Villa and Liverpool.

Even more significantly, the real treasures, in terms of brand expansion globally, are to be found in Asia and it is here that soccer’s greater global purchase, leaves the NFL looking little more than a bystander.

The Premier League along with UEFA’s Champions League, has established itself as a major sports product in Asia in a way in which the NFL can never hope to match.

It is not down to marketing or to business strategy – people around the world understand soccer; they have grown up playing it and their kids will grow up playing it. Even if the likes of Thailand or Malaysia are not going to be featuring in World Cups, the game is enough part of the national sporting culture to allow easy enjoyment of foreign soccer on television. People know the rules, understand the tactics and can enjoy the skills on display. There is simply no way that the NFL is ever going to be able to tap into that level of understanding and natural empathy.

In business terms, that leaves the NFL with little chance of enjoying the fruits of globalization but while that means no extra revenues, it should also mean fewer headaches for fans of the sport.

The supporter uproar over plans to play just a few Premier League fixtures outside of England showed that while fans may be happy with their teams receiving the fruits of global interest in terms of fresh resources, they don’t like giving up any of their own involvement.

NFL fans have been much less vocal over losing one home game per season to London but if that were to affect more than two teams each year, you can bet that the volume would be raised.

The NFL will be fine without franchises around the globe, without additional television revenue from new markets and the players will be well rewarded enough without the need for global endorsement deals.

Globalisation will impact American sports in the coming years but I would suggest it is likely to manifest itself inside the boundaries of the United States – with a continually growing audience for soccer, fragmented between fans of South American, English, North American and European teams.

But with the NFL in such a strong domestic position, the league should comfortably cope with that new diversity.

Unnecessary Roughness is a weekly blog looking at the NFL from British-born, Miami-based sports reporter Simon Evans.

PHOTO: San Francisco 49ers Michael Crabtree celebrates after scoring a touchdown against the Denver Broncos during their NFL football game at Wembley Stadium in London October 31, 2010. REUTERS/Eddie Keogh

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