Globalisation strategies of the NFL and NBA

Steve Swanson, Programme Director for Sport Leadership at Loughborough University London, discusses Tottenham’s new American Football agreement and London’s role in the international expansion plans of two globally focused professional sports leagues.

The National Football League (NFL) recently announced a 10-year agreement with Tottenham Hotspur to play at least two regular season American Football games in London each year in their new stadium at White Hart Lane. This state-of-the art project is projected to cost more than £400 million and produce a 61,000 seat venue with a retractable grass pitch over an alternate artificial playing surface. The venture represents the first of its kind in producing a stadium built to cater for both British and American Football requirements, with completion is anticipated in time for both sports to begin hosting contests in the fall of 2018. The new deal also represents an interesting partnership between two entities previously in competition to gain tenancy of the Olympic Stadium, which is now set to become the new home of West Ham United in 2016. The NFL has been playing regular season games at Wembley since 2007 with crowds generally over 80,000, and is currently scheduled to play three more games each year there until at least 2016.

The securing of an NFL presence in London for the foreseeable future is of no great surprise, as the league has a long history of trying to grow their game internationally. From 1986-2005 the NFL played an extra pre-season game referred to as the American Bowl, which took place in various international locations such as London, Japan, Germany, and Spain. The globalisation initiative then turned to developing international clubs in London, Barcelona, and Frankfurt as part of the World League of American Football, which also included teams located in the United States. By 1997 this international presence had evolved into NFL Europe (also referred to as NFL Europa), a league with club representation in Germany, Spain, Netherlands, and the UK. At the conclusion of the 2007 season however, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell announced that NFL Europe would be disbanded immediately, citing yearly losses in excess of $30 million and limited success with player development as was originally intended. This timing also coincided with the new NFL International Series scheduled to kick-off at Wembley later that year.

NFL Expansion

It is no secret the NFL has been focusing on London to help grow their game internationally and develop a fan base to support a London-based franchise in the future. Mark Waller, the NFL Vice President International has said the league is committed to having even more games in London, and Mayor Boris Johnson has indicated that a permanent NFL franchise is indeed a goal for the city. However, despite the large success of NFL games in London over the past several years, it is interesting to note that the NFL ‘International’ Series has so far only taken place in one city. While London is arguable one of the most multi-cultural cities in the world, and the games do take place in a location outside of the US, it is interesting how the NFL has chosen to entrench itself in the London market rather holding contests in multiple locations worldwide. This is not to suggest that the NFL isn’t simultaneously looking to grow American Football elsewhere (recent reports indicate a focus on Germany and Mexico), however it is undeniable that they have placed their bets on an increased London presence as the best way forward.

When using terms such as globalisation and international strategy in reference to professional sports leagues, there are many different initiatives which play a role in this process (e.g. games on location, television access, websites and social media, merchandise sales, player appearance, etc). However, it does now appear that the NFL is strategically positioned to be the first league which includes a team located on different continent. If (and some say when) this happens, a strong argument could certainly be made for the NFL as the leader in globalisation of professional sport.

Another Globalisation Case

The timing of the NFL-Tottenham announcement is also interesting in relation to the soon-to-be-released 2015-2016 National Basketball Association (NBA) schedule. The American-based NBA is another professional sports league which is keenly aware of the opportunities that accompany growing their brand internationally. The new schedule will also include numerous NBA games taking place outside the US, with at least one game at the O2 Arena in London. The NBA is also interested in eventually having a team based in London, though NBA Commissioner Adam Silver earlier this year said he considered the NFL to be ahead in this pursuit. In addition to the large investment that the NFL has made in London, it also has some advantages over the NBA logistically due to playing far fewer games per season (16 versus 82) and only playing one game per week.

The NBA also has a rich history of playing games overseas, with the regular occurrence of exhibition games against European teams since 1984. NBA regular season games outside of North America began in 1990 in Japan, and have continued with numerous contests in China and Europe more recently. Like the NFL, London has played a significant role in the NBA’s globalisation campaign, hosting both the first international exhibition game between two NBA teams in 1993 and the first regular season contest in 2011. Last year the NBA made the decision to group all of these overseas initiatives under one banner referred to as the NBA Global Games. Unlike the NFL’s International Series, this collection of competitions continues to take place across numerous different countries.

League and Sport Considerations

The NFL seems to have the inside track on becoming the first transatlantic professional sports league by establishing a London-based franchise in the relatively near future. They also have several logistical advantages in relation to teams hosting only 8-10 home games per season, and numerous football (soccer) venues suitable to host their competitions across the globe. Beyond these advantageous circumstances however, there are also some barriers they face in their international efforts. One notable issue lies with the name of the sport. With ‘football’ referring to the most popular sport in the world (soccer) in all locations other than the US, this is an unfortunate circumstance for promoting international exposure and growth. Furthermore, the need to refer to the sport in terms of nationality (American) brings the concept of national boundaries to mind rather than facilitate a borderless concept of the sport (e.g. Basketball Without Borders). With regard to growing the game through increased participation, the need for specialised equipment (e.g. protective pads, helmets, etc) and relatively large player numbers also presents challenges at the grassroots level. In addition, increased concerns over the associated risk of brain trauma (e.g. chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE) stand as an additional obstacle which other sports don’t have to mitigate or continually manage to the same degree.

While the NBA may be a bit behind in the race for a London franchise, the landscape does seem to offer several advantages in relation to international growth. General interest in the game of basketball itself is second only to soccer in terms of worldwide appeal, with representation in many regions as one of the most popular sports overall (e.g. Lithuania, Spain, Argentina, and China). This is also evident in the fact that NBA international competitions have historically been friendlies against basketball teams which already exist in other nations. A global presence of participation is further exemplified by the existence of an international governing body (FIBA), which has more members than FIFA and exists in part to promote basketball all over the world. Furthermore, basketball’s inclusion as a recognised Olympic sport (though the NFL has applied for 2020) also provides a supplementary boost to the NBA’s brand in a continuous four-year cycle. Finally, the NBA also has a large capacity to leverage themselves internationally on the basis of player representation, with more than 100 foreign nationals from 37 different counties playing in the NBA last season.

It will be interesting to watch these contrasting globalisation approaches unfold over the next decade. Whether a London franchise for a US-based league indeed becomes a reality, and whether this will in turn be a catalyst for further expansion and international growth is yet to be determined. The NFL’s immense wealth and current foothold in London certainly indicate increased international growth, yet the global environment seems to signal a stronger position for the NBA throughout the rest of the world. As each league has a unique history and distinct set of environmental considerations, perhaps both pathways toward internationalisation will prove successful in their own way.