The United States is one of only 35 countries where soccer is not the most popular sport. Other sports represented heavily involve basketball, hockey, and rugby. Naturally, football is only number one in the United States, where it is played by school children and celebrated by people all over the country. The problem is, how to get the rest of the world excited about football when the eye is continuously on soccer?
Several issues come to play. First of all, there is a significant focus on getting an NFL presence in Europe, the most important being the international games, played every four years. But is this really enough? The reality is that occasional heavy advertising appearing on the streets and the occasional television commercial doesn’t necessarily catch local public attention. In fact, most of the international NFL ticket sales go to tourists who happen to be in countries where these games are held at the time, London being the most popular location.
Another reason has to do with the manner in which football is structured on TV. European watching habits have been set in stone for generations. The standard soccer game last two hours, whereas the Super Bowl, for instance, is an all-day activity. Even regular football games tend to be quite long and are punctuated by long timeouts and breaks, which Europeans find frustrating and trying on their patience. These structures are often mocked, as is the extensive protective gear worn by the players. Though the game’s resemblance to rugby is uncanny, tradition and safety still call for the so-called “extra padding.”
Furthermore, football, as it is played in the United States, is more complicated than other sports, in particular, soccer. As a result, developing an interest in the game in the first place can be challenging because there are few local resources to understand them. For example, the only sports bars that broadcast football in Europe tend to be full of loud American tourists and expats that ruin the experience with an obnoxious over-enthusiasm that can be overwhelming for anyone who is not familiar with the culture. This can be enough to put anyone off of engaging in the sport.
One way that the NFL could work to spread the sport to Europe would be to place some of their foreign-born players into the spotlight. For example, quite a few British players are now doing quite well playing football. London born Jay Ajayi, for instance, was lucky enough to play on his home turf during the NFL International Series at Wembley Stadium. He has been playing for the Miami Dolphins since 2015 when in 2016 he became the fourth player in history to rush 200 yards three times in a season. He then went on to play for the Phillies until 2018.
The bottom line is that there is potential for the NFL to gain popularity in Europe, but the market should not end there. There are more opportunities beyond Europe, such as the emerging audiences of Africa and the Middle East. These regions tend to be taken for granted in as much as they are not as politically or economically stable as Europe, but these factors do not affect the quality of fandom. The United States, and specifically the NFL, thus need to employ more efforts to going beyond Europe for the spread of the game.