NFL Goes Worldwide

August 24, 2022

The National Football League is the most popular sports league in the United States with an estimated 160 million fans in the country alone. At the same time, the popularity of the league continues to expand globally. Indeed, in a just a few years the NFL’s international footprint has grown from a relatively a small operation into a virtual global phenomenon. We look at the history of international expansion efforts by the league and its individual teams, including why they began exploring international markets and what they’ve done to make it happen.

Who Are the NFL’s Overseas Fans?  The NFL’s overseas fan base is diverse. According to a report by the Sports and Fitness Industries Association (SFIA), NFL fans in the UK are predominantly white British men. Based on surveys, the majority of league fans in the UK are between the ages of 16 and 44, with the average age being 32. There is also a sizable following among Indian, Pakistani, and Chinese communities, as well as among British expats.

In fact, China has become one of the NFL’s strongest international markets. Based on market research done by Kantar/Tendance, Chinese NFL fans are 77% male, 68% under the age of 35, and 67% make less than $20,000 per year. Also, several Chinese NFL fans have attended a live football game and have placed bets on NFL odds.

The NFL has also been successful in Canada. Based on surveys, the average Canadian NFL fan is male and between the ages of 18 and 44. Given that Canada is home to many of the league’s ice hockey teams, it’s no surprise that the majority of Canadian NFL fans are hockey fans.

Why Has the NFL Only Recently Begun to Explore Overseas Markets? Although the NFL has had strong international fan bases for years, it did not actively explore those markets until recently. The NFL’s early efforts to expand internationally were limited to a few special events and exhibition games. As the league grew, so did its games. There were simply too many games in the U.S. for fans outside of the country to enjoy them all.

This led to a rise in the number of fans outside the U.S., many of whom wished to see their favorite teams play. Therefore, the NFL began hosting special events and exhibition games outside the U.S. The first international game was held in 1959 when the New York Giants played the Toronto Argonauts at the CNE Stadium in Toronto, Canada.

Past Efforts by the NFL to Expand Internationally The first International Bowl was held in Toronto in 2007. The International Bowl was an annual bowl-style game between high school football teams. There were also a number of NFL exhibition games held outside the U.S. The first league game in Asia was held in 1976 when the New York Giants played the Tokyo Giants. The NFL held its first regular season game in Asia in 1983 when the Houston Oilers played the Tokyo-based Tokyo Raiders. The first European NFL game was held in 1983 when the Minnesota Vikings played the St. Louis Cardinals at Wembley Stadium.

Individual Teams That Have Explored International Markets: While the NFL has not been actively pursuing international expansion, individual teams have been taking the initiative on their own. A few NFL teams have explored overseas markets, but no teams have yet played regular-season games outside the U.S. The Buffalo Bills explored a partnership with a soccer team in Hong Kong. The Bills even sent a delegation to Hong Kong to explore the idea further. However, the partnership was never realized.

The San Francisco 49ers explored an international partnership with the expansion team in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) called the Dubai Golden Knights. The Golden Knights even wore 49ers uniforms during their tryout. Nevertheless, the partnership was eventually abandoned. Meanwhile, the Miami Dolphins explored a partnership with the Chinese Football Association. The Chinese Football Association even held a Dolphins tryout in Beijing. However, the partnership was never realized. The Houston Texans explored a partnership with the Beijing Guoan Chinese soccer team. The Texans even sent a delegation to Beijing to explore the idea further. Nevertheless, the partnership was abandoned.

The Bottom Line: The National Football League has a long history of exploring international markets. In recent years, the NFL has not actively explored international markets, as most of its efforts have been focused on growing its fan base in the United States. However, with the advent of new technology, such as social media and streaming services, it is easier than ever for the NFL to reach existing and new fans around the world. These factors, coupled with the league’s continued international expansion, suggest that the league may soon begin actively exploring international markets for the first time in years.