There is no question that football is the most popular sport in America. In February, Super Bowl XLVI between the New York Giants and New England Patriots achieved a record high of 111.3 million TV viewers. But whether it can get even more popular here is hard to say.
If the NFL has reached its peak in America, the league will look beyond our shores to fuel its growth. Commissioner Roger Goodell has made global expansion a priority. Football is a sport that is tailor-made for today's broadcast technology. Sunday Ticket gives fans access to every NFL game. The ability to offer games to fans that are far away via TV and the Internet opens the door to international expansion.
Instant replay, "flying" overhead cameras, on-field microphones, digital on-screen graphics, first down yellow line and red zone markers have all enhanced the viewing experience for fans allowing them to see and hear the game as if they were on the field and to understand it better.
Surprisingly, although the NFL is America’s most popular sport, it rarely produces international stars. Meanwhile, the NBA has produced numerous players who are popular globally. The success of the 2012 "Dream Team" certainly helped increase the value of the NBA brand internationally. Kobe Bryant has had the top-selling NBA jersey outside the U.S. for six straight years, while LeBron James, Derrick Rose and Jeremy Lin have also sold a ton of jerseys abroad. Likewise, foreign players such as Dirk Nowitzki, (Germany), Pau Gasol (Spain), and Manu Ginobili (Argentina) have come to the U.S. and thrived.
While it is no longer an Olympic sport, baseball certainly has global appeal. Since the time of Babe Ruth, American baseball players have been ambassadors for the sport. MLB has long sent players on tours of Japan and has held its Opening Series in Tokyo several times. Meanwhile, the World Baseball Classic, won in 2006 and 2009 by Japan, will again showcase international stars in 2013. At a younger level, Japan won the 2012 Little League World Series and boasts eight championships overall. The country ranks third behind the U.S. (33 titles) and Taiwan (17).
For years, the NHL has thrived with the arrival of Europeans, notably players from Sweden, Finland, Russia, and the Czech Republic. The league has played games in Europe during the past four seasons, though it has had to cancel season-opening games in Berlin, Stockholm and Helsinki this year because of uncertainty over the new collective bargaining agreement.
Meanwhile, the NFL seems intent on building global buzz. Although NFL Europe ended in 2007, the league has remained active in the European market, particularly in the UK. In an effort to continue building interest across the Atlantic, the NFL initiated an annual game in London. The 2012 NFL International Series game at Wembley Stadium will take place on Sunday, October 28th and pits the St Louis Rams against the New England Patriots.
TV coverage in the UK has experienced significant ratings increases annually since 2007 when the Miami Dolphins and New York Giants first played in London. Further, the Jacksonville Jaguars have agreed to play one home game at Wembley Stadium for the next four years (2013-2016). There is also a further possibility that the league may increase its presence to two regular season games each year. From there, the NFL will determine the sustainability of the market and make a decision about possibly basing a team in London.
The NFL is no different from any other corporation that has reached the peak of popularity in the U.S. Its next logical step is global expansion. American football is now played in 64 countries, and Commissioner Roger Goodell has publicly expressed his desire for it to become an Olympic sport. This weekend, Notre Dame plays Navy in Dublin, which has piqued curiosity for the sport in that country. Perhaps an NFL matchup in the Irish Capital will be considered in the not so distant future.
Jed Hughes is Vice Chair of Korn/Ferry and the leader of the executive search firm's Global Sports Practice. Among his high profile placements are Mark Murphy, CEO of the Green Bay Packers; Larry Scott, Commissioner of the Pac-12 Conference; and Brady Hoke, head coach of the Michigan Wolverines. Earlier in his career, Mr. Hughes coached for two decades in professional and intercollegiate football where he served under five Hall of Fame coaches: Bo Schembechler (Michigan), Chuck Noll (Pittsburgh Steelers), Bud Grant (Minnesota Vikings), John Ralston (Stanford) and Terry Donahue (UCLA). Follow him on Facebook, Twitter @jedhughesKF.