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Winning Hearts & Minds: Taking the NFL Global

May 31, 2009

Your correspondent has happened to be in Istanbul over the last week, and every taxi driver, bellboy and barman has struck up a conversation with the wandering Englishman about Wednesday’s Champions League final – even though it contains no Turkish team, no Turkish players, and took place in Rome. Every bar and hotel screened the full 90 minutes, and international news channels (including CNN) had both pre- and post- match analysis as part of their news bulletins for days surrounding the game.

"What I gatta go to make you love me?"

"What I gatta go to make you love me?"

No-one will have been watching more closely than Roger Goodell.  The NFL Commissioner’s accelerating efforts to internationalise the American version of football are aiming to create the sort of global interest that the Champions League effortlessly generates, and the 2009 final provides the league and the owners with both a clear goal and a demonstration of how far they have to go.

Tug at my heartstrings

Wednesday’s Champions League final was watched by over 200m people in 230 countries, generated around $435m in revenue, and billions of column inches and screen hours in news and other free media round the world. Within the world’s most popular sport, the European club final is the premiere global annual match, and is only surpassed by the quadrennial World Cup in cash and media attention.

At the risk of stating the bleeding obvious, the NFL is a long way behind. With a few exceptions in specific countries (Mexico, the UK, Germany, Canada), previous few of the world’s 6bn residents pay any attention to the NFL. Despite periodic marketing drives – and in contrast to many countries’ adoption of other US cultural exports –  the NFL has failed to connect with potential audiences worldwide. 

Not a man of the people

Not a man of the people

International sports fans, especially in blue-collar areas, tend to have other sports (soccer, rugby or cricket) embedded in their culture at an early age. Not only is the competition therefore well entrenched, but to make matters worse the foreign equivalents of the demographic groups which form the bedrock of the NFL’s support at home have a disdainful view of the sport.

Partly this is historical – the league embraced glossy theatrics and flashy divas some decades ago, at a time when most global fans preferred earthier, seemingly less money driven sports. It’s also cultural: men (and it’s usually men) who fanatically follow sports and pour their free cash into TV packages and merchandise are often a little macho in their outlook, and will take some convincing that a sport played in “suits of armour” isn’t, well, a little soft.

Fortress NFL

To some degree, however, world fandom’s shunning of US sport in general is also a reaction to its shunning of them.

This isn’t purely a football thing – the American cultural milieu unfortunately has an exceptionalist streak which sees the world as stopping at the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, and this turns off many global citizens. Whilst evangelising about the US as the “shining city on the hill” is an important part of the American national identity, it can leave others feeling patronised and unwelcome – whether it’s over Iraq, the economy or the World Series.

In sporting terms, this is shown through rhetoric and marketing – holding annual “World Championships” containing only American teams does nothing to make others feel welcome. Until recently, NFL games were held in the US, starred (almost) solely American players, and seemed to pay little regard to whether the rest of the world noticed or cared. This unfortunately exacerbates the wider anti-American sentiment that has become  prevalent in recent years, which casts the country as myopic, self-obsessed, culturally hegemonic and unwilling to adjust its own views to accommodate those of others.

Chief Salesman, America Plc

Chief Salesman, America Plc

Yes We Can

Commissioner Goodell therefore faces an uphill struggle to make football the world’s game, though the international strategy – combined with a general downturn in Americaphobia following November’s election – is starting to put a dent in reflexively hostile attitudes. To move beyond this and make serious contact with hearts and minds abroad, the league will have to demonstrate in some highly public ways that it’s serious about engaging with the global social fabric – and this means US fans will have to give up some of the exclusive rights and access they currently enjoy.

As with other aspects of the international strategy, the Commish isn’t waiting for an invitation – the current furore over holding a Superbowl in London could be Goodell’s “Clause Four” moment, where a public fight with the reactionary “America First” elements of the fanbase helps position the league as a liberal beacon of inclusivity.

The lights of Rome have illuminated the glittering prize this week, and the NFL isn’t wasting any time in moving towards it. If they are to grasp it fully, however, Commissioner Goodell and the owners have a huge diplomatic and cultural mountain to climb.

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