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The NFL: America's League

The National Football League has become the top professional sports league in the United States. The NFL wants to move beyond the borders of America, but attempts to move into international markets are being hindered by the All-American nature of the league.

Tom Pennington

Despite a spate of recent negative news involving National Football League athletes and the law, there is no question that the NFL is the top professional sports league in the United States. It dominates in television ratings, which is the life's blood of any sport today. And we all have a vested interest in the health of the NFL, since there has to be someone for the Cowboys to play on Sundays.

The Dallas Cowboys have long been known by their fans as "America's Team", courtesy of an old NFL Films production. In American sports culture, the NFL is also America's League. But the US market is now close to maximum saturation. The league is trying to sell the product more to female viewers, since there is just not much of an unreached market left among the male part of the population.

This has led to the NFL seeking to expand its market overseas. This is why we keep seeing games held in London, and even talk of establishing a franchise there. But while the NFL has shown to be a bigger attraction to fans in the US than any of the competing sports, there is one big disadvantage the league has that it will have a hard time overcoming in getting many overseas fans to start identifying with the game the way Americans do.

The NFL is so, well, American. The players, that is.

There is just a natural tendency for sports fans to root for someone they feel some tie to. Although this can come from a variety of things, one of the most common is to root for people from your own country. It is, after all, the basis for the Olympics. You just feel a certain sense of identification with players who share the same culture, who grew up in the same area you did, or who perhaps attended the college you went to or root for. And of the top professional team sports in the US, the NFL, the NHL, the NBA and MLB, the NFL has by far the smallest representation of foreign born players. (Sorry, soccer fans, but The Sport Known As Football Everywhere But Here doesn't yet qualify and is not part of this discussion.)

Hockey is almost too obvious, since the nation referred to in "National Hockey League" is Canada, not the US. It started north of the border, still has several teams there, and has always depended on Canada for a large part (currently over half) of its players. And talented Europeans are always welcome, with large contingents currently in the league from countries like Sweden and Russia. It is an import, like soccer wants to be, but although it has some of the same characteristics of soccer, like frequent low scoring games and a certain tolerance for ties, it does have some inherent advantages, like violent collisions and the always present chance of a fight breaking out between men in heavy pads but carrying clubs. And with the growing presence of European players (mostly from the northern latitudes there, just like in North America), there are familiar players that create a rooting interest for fans from other countries.

Baseball was, of course, the original American Pastime, but that concept is now just a quaint memory, much like the myth of the clean-cut, wholesome player that existed back until about 1950 or so. But unlike the American version of football, it spread into other parts of the world, particularly Latin America and parts of Asia. This meant that a pool of talent exists outside the US, and since American professional sports has the highest pay, the best of that talent started gravitating towards the US in the late twentieth century. It was a slow process at first. The total number of players born outside the US stayed under 10% up until 1985, when it started to go up dramatically. In 2013, 28% of MLB rosters are from outside the United States. This gives it a chance to market itself more easily in the home countries those players come from, where many of those players are already celebrities and serve as natural spokesmen to promote the game.

But if you want to see a league that has done a really good job of promoting itself as well as recruiting overseas, that is the NBA. Pro basketball is arguably the second biggest sport internationally behind what we call soccer, and the biggest stars are the ones who play in the NBA. There are some really excellent teams in Europe and South America, but once again, the deepest pockets are to be found in the USA, and it gets its pick of players. Given the rarity of players with the combination of size and athleticism needed to excel in the game, it is not at all surprising that the league looks for talent wherever it can. When the 2012-2013 NBA season opened, the league rosters were 18.6% from outside the USA, and the San Antonio Spurs became the first team to have over half their roster (8 out of 15) from other countries. Again, it is a big advantage in getting fans in South America or Europe or Asia to want to tune in to NBA games, which of course means more revenue, when you have players from there in the mix.

So the three sports competing with the NFL all have a large, and based on current trends, growing contingent of foreign players. And then you have football. Where last season, there was a whopping 2.88% of the players born outside the country. And that includes names like Robert Griffin III, who was born in Okinawa while his parents were there but is hardly thought of as foreign-born. Along with the games overseas, there is a move to try and expand the presence of athletes from outside the US in the NFL, but it is going to be a long process. Outside of kickers, very few foreign players are exposed to the skills and training needed for the game. American football, with the need for infrastructure and equipment, is not an easy thing to start from scratch. It has not exported itself outside the US the way baseball and basketball have. After all, you can start a baseball team with some bats, gloves and balls, and all you need for basketball are the goals and balls. But football requires helmets and pads, things that are expensive by comparison. And the sources for a lot of the talent coming into the other pro sports are in some pretty economically disadvantaged countries. Low cost is an advantage there.

As a result, the vast majority of players in the NFL are from right around here, so to speak. And there are far more NFL players than there are in any other sport (at the top level). With a 53-man regular season roster, there are more NFL players than the next two sports, baseball and hockey, combined. So not only does it have by far the highest concentration of American players, it is also seen by many kids in the US as the most likely pro league to get into (not that any pro sport should be plan A for any great number of young men planning their future, but dreams die hard). You would think that the large number of players in the NFL would mean that there were more openings for players from other countries, but the competition among college players is so strong that they largely squeeze the rest of the world out. Most foreign born talent in the league today came to the US at some point and learned the game as a teenager.

So while the other sports become increasingly multinational, the NFL, not through intent but because of the way things are, remains the most American of all. This is not by choice, and there have already been attempts to change things like NFL Europe, which have not met much success. It is to a certain extent a self-perpetuating situation. The league is going to keep trying to penetrate other markets, It wants more foreign players as a part of that strategy, and as the global culture becomes more connected, our brand of football is slowly getting out there. But for now, when people talk about American football, they are also talking about Americans playing football.

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