Americans refer to baseball as their “national pastime,” but in reality, football dominates the sports landscape in the country that consumes more than any other.
Since its inception as a collegiate sport with no forward passing, football has transcended the sporting realm and become laced into American culture. The day of the Super Bowl, the most-watched television event in the United States, is virtually a national holiday. NFL Sundays have become a ritual, while even the most casual fans are engaged in fantasy football leagues once reserved for diehards.
The NFL has stitched itself securely in the fabric of American culture, entrenched not only as the top sports league, but the most popular form of television as well.
However, the league’s immense popularity brings a new set of issues that the owners must address: Has the United States finally been saturated with NFL football?
How Much Room Is Left to Grow?
The best way to summarize the NFL’s popularity is with Super Bowl ratings; it is the event the most casual and even non-sports fans find ways to tune in for.
In February, 108.41 million people watched the Baltimore Ravens beat the San Francisco 49ers—roughly a third of the country. Keep in mind, this number includes everyone who was working emergency services during the game, infants, grandmothers, pizza guys, etc.
When you add all of that up, very few people who had a chance to watch the Super Bowl chose to do something else with their Sunday evening.
However, as big as this number was, there is an alarming aspect to it—the ratings were actually down from a year ago, as 111.3 million tuned in to see the New England Patriots fall to the New York Giants.
Could the fact that one of the teams in 2012 was from the New York market have helped ratings? Certainly—but it is not as if the 49ers are a localized team with no national recognition. The ratings are not going up at the rate they used to.
This graph, with numbers provided by zap2it.com, shows that while the Super Bowl has seen a steady increase in viewership, it appears as if there is a cap to how popular the NFL can truly get in a country already infected with the NFL sickness.
Why, then, can’t the owners just be content with their outrageous revenues and continue to nourish the well-oiled machine that has taken the country by storm?
First, there are the obvious economic benefits of increasing the market. The more people want the NFL product, the more tickets and jerseys they sell. More importantly, more eyeballs tuned in on Sundays, Monday nights and now Thursday nights equate to greater television ratings, which spawn lucrative network contracts.
Keep in mind: Roger Goodell and the owners who run the country's most powerful league are, by nature, ambitious. After all, one does not become a multi-billionaire who calls the shots for an NFL franchise by “settling” to make ends meet. Goodell, who rose through the ranks from being a Jets intern to league commissioner, does not have it in him to sit on the sidelines and watch the money printer that is the NFL do its own work.
Sure, the NFL could be content with just being a lucrative $9 billion industry—but in an increasingly global world, the NFL must continue to grow the game outside its borders if it wants to sustain growth and be the global sport it aspires to become.
There is a tangible reason and internal desire to grow the game internationally. Like a bottle of soda filled with pop rockets, the NFL is itching to explode outside of the American realm.
The Overseas Escapade
Of the four major American sports leagues, the NFL is the only league to be exclusively operated in America. The NBA, NHL and MLB all have teams that operate in Toronto, Canada (the NHL has several other teams throughout Canada as well), which is just a short drive from the American border.
While the NFL has taken longer to breach the American border, it has higher aspirations of spreading its empire to the old world.
The NFL and Europe have had a very high school-ish relationship, breaking up after a short stint before inevitably going back to flirting back and forth between one another—and it appears as if the NFL and London are set for a reunion.
In 1995, the NFL started a developmental offseason league called NFL Europe, which essentially served as an offshore petri dish for the NFL to experiment. In addition to the obvious brand extension into a global market, the German-based league was an opportunity for players to develop and gain recognition. It also served as a testing site for new rule changes before they were implemented into the NFL.
Organizational instability got the best of NFL Europe just over a decade after opening its doors. While the league failed, it did leave an impression on Europeans, as evidenced by their impressive attendance rates at all of the NFL’s annual expeditions to Wembley Stadium during the regular season.
In fact, the NFL has had so much success in London that it has added a second regular-season game to the London circuit for the 2013 season—which is certainly not Goodell’s endgame.
According to Bart Hubbuch of the New York Post, earlier this month Goodell publicly stated that not only is he exploring adding even more games to the London slate, but ultimately, he and select owners are eyeing a London-based franchise (h/t Pro Football Talk).
Hubbuch then dropped this bombshell to ignite rumors of a possible move of the Jaguars:
Most of these ideas are still in their infancy, and a London expansion is not happening anytime in the immediate future, but there is one question that needs to be answered before anything else can happen:
After all, if the NFL believes that its home market has been saturated, why not make the easier transition to Canada, or even Mexico? If NFL Europe was a German-based league, why start in a brand-new country?
First, the NFL has already toyed with a move to Canada, with disappointing results. The Bills, who are in Canada’s back (or front) yard, have held annual home games in Toronto since 2009 with disappointing results.
After all, it would be very unlike Goodell to make the “safe” move to Toronto just for the sake of moving to a new country. If the NFL is going to enter a new country, it is going to have to ignite an entirely new populace.
Second, there are many logistical advantages to playing in London. Most importantly, they speak English—a virtual necessity in order to lure free agents to the country. The travel time is slightly shorter, and the NFL has experience moving teams to and from the country with their annual trips.
Besides, the NFL already failed in Germany—it’s time to give someone else a chance.
Will a London Franchise Succeed?
So, we have a target destination and a commissioner who appears willing to pull the trigger.
The only remaining question is, can the NFL thrive with two Big Bens?
On the surface, it appears as if an NFL franchise in the UK would be a smash hit. In London, tickets for the Jaguars vs. 49ers matchup were eaten up moments after they become available. Had that game been in Jacksonville, the Jaguars would have had a hard time selling all of their tarped-over seats for a seemingly lopsided matchup.
It is clear that there is a market for the NFL in London, but how much of it is artificial?
If you are an NFL fan living in the UK, there is no doubt that you are going to want to go and see the only NFL exposition that year, no matter who is playing.
But if the games become a biweekly occurrence, is the English Bengals fan going to flock to London every Sunday to watch the London Jaguars?
Just take a look at the crowd shots of the London games—the vast majority of them are wearing jerseys of other teams. The London games are as much of a European football convention as they are an actual NFL game.
There is little doubt that the game is growing overseas, but it may not be at the level shown by ticket sales. English columnist Tom Hunt called the sport “as popular as darts.” Darts can be fun, but they’re not worth a multi-billion-dollar investment.
According to Lee Walker of Yahoo!, the NFL is the seventh-most popular sport on Sky Sports network, which is essentially the European equivalent of ESPN.
Let's look at it from a different angle. Every summer, European soccer clubs tour America, playing exhibition matches (or "friendlies," as they call them) against other European clubs and American all-star teams.
Despite being exhibition games, the games draw very well. Last May, Chelsea and Manchester City squared off in Yankee Stadium in front of nearly 40,000 people—close to the stadium’s capacity of 50,000.
However, as popular as these games are, soccer fans are not lining up the streets to get into MLS games (although the league is generally healthy).
Essentially, the success of a franchise in London comes down to basic supply and demand. Will Europeans crave their NFL as much when it is given to them eight times per year? More importantly, are enough NFL fans in the UK willing to forgo their current team allegiance in favor of a London team, spending thousands on season tickets in the process?
In the end, sending America’s most popular game overseas is more than just about increasing the yearly revenue total to make billionaire owners even richer. The NFL has aspirations of being a global game that is played around the world just like the “other” version of football.
Such a feat will not happen overnight. Even with continuous global expansion, spreading the game throughout the world will take generations that far outreach Goodell’s tenure. While he may never see the end result of his international efforts, adding a franchise in London would define Goodell’s career as commissioner.
Success in London would open up endless possibilities for global expansion. Perhaps the NFL could add two teams or an entire division in England.
In time, there could be an entirely new NFL Europe that is more than just a lab rat for the NFL and continues to spread the game into Eastern countries—resulting in the global product the league has always envisioned.
Conversely, if a London franchise fails, the NFL would have to reassess its level of popularity in the global market and accept that, for now, the NFL is purely an American sport that dominates in one specific culture—which is not a terrible problem to have.
In either case, sooner or later, the NFL is going to make the leap outside of American borders, whether American fans are ready for it or not.