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A League of Nations?

March 30, 2009

NFL owners’ ruminations over extending the length of the (meaningful) football season again focus the spotlight on the league’s efforts to grow from a national sport into a global brand. Over the last decade pro football has become the most popular and profitable sport in the US, but the ever-sharp cartel of team owners believe that the NFL is rapidly reaching saturation point in its domestic market, and further growth is going to have to come from overseas.

The latest development is NFL commissioner Steve Goodell’s charge towards an 18-game regular season with a portion of games played at “neutral sites”. This builds on recent moves including the announcement that the Bills will play one home game per season in Toronto, and the successful International Series which is staging an game in London every year until 2010. The particularly observant will also remember a 2005 regular season game played in Mexico City, and ongoing scuttlebutt (fed by the league) about the possibility of holding a Super Bowl in a foreign city.

The NFL clearly doesnt understand marketing

The NFL clearly doesn't understand marketing

In reality, holding these isolated games abroad is a pain in the arse for the league. It’s expensive and unfamiliar, some of the players get confused about what language is spoken in England, and the home team’s usual locale is deprived of cash and profile. Goodell’s drive to try and hold more each year is therefore a sign that the owners are pretty serious about reaching into new markets, and are willing to stomach some inconvenience in order to show a bit of leg to overseas fans and press.

You can see why they’re putting in so much effort – lest we forget, this year half a million people signed up to get tickets for the third London game. The 2005 game in Mexico, between the then-unappealing Cardinals and always unappealing 49ers, drew the highest ever attendance for a regular season game. Japan (where Major League Baseball landed a TV deal worth $235m a year) is on the wish list for additional future games, as is Germany – where even the substandard NFL Europe was popular.

Mike! Good news! Youre the only NFL analyst outside North America!

"Mike! Good news! You're the only NFL analyst outside North America!"

So far the league has put its toe in the water, and the owners (who didn’t get to be squillionaires by jumping in without looking) will probably continue testing the global market for a while yet. They’ll want to see whether substantial, non novelty, interest is sustained against incumbent national sports, and whether the pitfalls of previous efforts like NFL Europe and the World League can be avoided.

Based on form so far, though, the export of authentic, meaningful NFL games seems to be attracting audiences, leading NFL execs to start speculating off the record about overseas franchises. A game between the London Punks and the Vancouver Stand Up Comedians may seem a long way off right now, but in recent years this initiative has already developed far and fast. PaP wouldn’t count against the world’s savviest sport taking some big leaps in the short term to build a more profitable future.

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