Perhaps the earth-shattering rumors of pop icon Taylor Swift cozying up with Kansas City Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce will be the moment American football finally kicks its way into global stardom. However, the Swift-Kelce saga is but a monumental stepping stone in a long-growing story: the evolving popularity of the National Football League (NFL) and American football beyond the borders of the United States of America.
Intrinsic to its name, American football’s roots are most strongly intertwined with American culture and pastimes, on par with hot dog-eating contests and presidential turkey pardons. However, in recent years, the NFL has embarked on a strategic mission to broaden its horizons and extend its reach beyond the confines of the US.
On paper, American football’s chief representative has little reason or need to grow. Since 1972, it has been the most popular sport in the United States. Subsequently, despite the greater international appeal of its two chief competitors, the National Basketball Association (NBA) and Major League Baseball (MLB), its teams and revenue are worth more.
But, as the old adage goes, “If you’re not moving forward, you’re moving backward.” Yes, the NFL may genuinely wish to expand its viewership outside the US and find A Place In This World. For now, though, the NFL’s interest in growing internationally arguably provides it the greatest benefit in keeping its competitive edge among American sports leagues.
According to the NFL, Super Bowl LVII saw a 7% increase in international viewership from the year before as the Kansas City Chiefs notched a 38-35 win over the Philadelphia Eagles (perhaps, if the Kelce-Swift saga started earlier, more fans would have been Enchanted and that number much higher). Arguably, a large part of the NFL’s growth abroad has to do with the rise of streaming services and ease of watching for viewers globally. This slow but steady globalization of American football underscores the league’s determination to transcend its domestic roots and be a global product. After all, what could unite people more than grown men tackling and throwing each other over an oblong ball?
Almost all countries that have or plan to host NFL games as part of its International Series were part of the 10 countries with the highest viewership outside the US in 2015. It is important to note that no study has been done since then on NFL viewership outside the US. But, based on the NFL’s behavior, its marketing efforts seem to be paying off in the countries where it’s invested.
Except for 2020, the NFL has hosted at least one game in London every year since 2007. The NFL has also, albeit with less consistency, hosted games in Mexico and confirmed additional cities in Brazil and Spain as future host sites. More recently, the league’s growing popularity in Germany led to the league hosting a matchup between the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Seattle Seahawks in Munich in 2022. This traction led to the NFL scheduling two games each in Frankfurt and Munich over the following four years. Perhaps, American football is the most significant American export to Germany since David Hasselhoff in 1989. That, or 1989 a la Swift.
But, then, there’s the question of international talent, which is currently a bit of a Blank Space for the NFL. Currently, the 82 international players form a very small percentage of the 1,696 active players presently on an NFL roster. Contrast that with other American sports leagues, such as the National Basketball Association (NBA) or Major League Baseball (MLB). Around 28% of current MLB players and 24.1% of current NBA players were born or represent countries outside the US, including some of the most accomplished and recognized in each of these leagues. The MLB’s popularity is still largely limited, but the traction in the markets where MLB has invested in recent years is still discernible, even outpacing US viewership in some countries. As of now, the NFL’s dream to catch up on international talent only exists in its Wildest Dreams.
However, baseball and basketball also have strong national and continental leagues outside of the US that can more easily direct attention to the MLB and NBA, respectively. The only institution that brings together the handful of American football teams outside of the US is the International Federation of American Football (IFAF). For this reason, the NFL’s limited and largely American talent pool prevents it from having a Love Story with the rest of the world. To rectify their struggles with attracting international talent, the NFL established the International Player Pathway Program (IPPP). Presently, a majority of NFL players with non-American nationalities hail from Canada, Australia, and Nigeria. While there are 125 players of African descent from 15 countries, a majority are first-generation Americans; thus, it is difficult to attribute this figure to any traction or popularity in Africa. For this reason, the NFL headed to Kenya in August 2023 as part of its expansion efforts in Africa and the broader global context.
The NFL still has a long way to go before it can internationally paint the town Red. With a little help from the Kelce-Swift axis, who knows, they might just score a touchdown in the world of international sports. Perhaps, one day it will grow enough that more people in more places in the world will have to ask, “Which football?”