3 crushing challenges for the international expansion of the NFL
The NFL’s international expansion has been a topic of discussion lately. The NFL is trying to become a global brand. Other leagues, like MLB and NBA, have had great success expanding globally. However, the NFL is fairly new to the game. The NFL has been playing regular season games in London since 2007. This year saw a record number of games being played internationally with Munich, with Germany being added to the list with Mexico and London. The aim seems to be to expand internationally at some point, but there are a lot of problems with that. Let’s look at 3 challenges for the international expansion of the NFL.
Time zone changes
This is the most obvious challenge for the international expansion of the NFL. Outside of all of North America, the stress of traveling overseas to play games takes a heavy toll on players and coaches. Teams have intense regiments in order to try to combat jet lag and get a new schedule quickly. Football is already a difficult sport. Each time a team travels to the West Coast, there is a slight period of biological clock adjustment. Trying to add intense time zone changes into the normal league setting will be a difficult task for players and coaches. There is also the question of logistics for an NFL team, especially in Europe.
Let’s say the NFL’s international expansion plan goes ahead and they decide to give a team to London. They’ve put the most games there in the last 15 years. What does this team’s schedule look like? If they play a normal NFL schedule, they travel to the United States every two weeks. This would put that team at a disadvantage, as their body would constantly adjust to the time change. I guess they could go 8-9 straight home games followed by 8-9 straight games, but that schedule looks just as awful for the players and the coaches. The time zone change is a huge challenge for the NFL’s international expansion.
Focus on flag football
One of the main ways the NFL tries to gain international recognition is through flag football. The NFL is trying to bring it into the 2028 Summer Olympics. For the NFL’s international expansion to happen, it needs to be known to the world. The sport was recently featured at the 2022 World Games, with Mexico winning the gold medal. This seems like a good strategy because flag football has less start-up costs because you don’t need pads, helmets, and any other safety gear to attack. The challenge comes from the fact that flag football is a completely different game.
For starters, the pitch is only 70 meters long. There is no blocking or scouting as it is a non-contact sport. It also means very few rushing passes. There are areas where you can only pass the ball. All passes must be beyond the line of scrimmage and the quarterback cannot run the ball. Watch a few minutes of a game and it looks completely different. It has the bones of the same game but it’s not the same. This is a huge challenge for the international expansion of the NFL. If people are used to one game, it will be difficult to convince them to follow another.
Past international chess
International expansion of the NFL had apparently been attempted before. Did you know there was an NFL Europe league? I have no shame in admitting that I didn’t. (Although I have to say I have vague memories of a Madden game having European teams). It was founded in 1989 and operated until 2007 when the NFL decided to play regular season games overseas. It’s been through many different iterations, but at its core it was a developmental league for the NFL. It was a place where they could test out new rules and experience the game. While many people were fans of it, there were two things that doomed the league.
First, it was clearly an inferior product and the fans knew it. As the NFL became easier to watch around the world, people chose to watch that over the inferior NFL Europe. This is seen in other football leagues trying to start in the United States. Do you remember the American Football Alliance? It didn’t even make a full season because the product just wasn’t as good as the NFL. If the NFL wants international expansion, it has to be the same level of quality on the field.
The second was what dooms just about all failing products, money. NFL Europe has hemorrhaged money in its years of operation. If an organization isn’t making money, it’s hard to stay in business. It eventually became more profitable to just play a few regular season games there. The NFL then invested international expansion funds in media deals that would help grow the game. The question really becomes has the NFL learned from its past failures? This will be key to the NFL’s international expansion.
There are many challenges for the international expansion of the NFL. However, the demand seems to be there. Football is definitely gaining popularity around the world. The fact that the United States of America did not sweep the gold medals at the 2022 World Games indicates that football has popularity elsewhere. The games sell out every year, which is no small feat. The NFL will have to decide exactly how it wants to proceed in the coming years when it comes to international expansion.