A general view during the NFL London 2021 match between Miami Dolphins and Jacksonville Jaguars at Tottenham Hotspur Stadium on October 17, 2021 in London, England.
Alex Panting | Getty Images
The NFL says it has a plan to grow its international business to $1 billion a year and attract its next group of fans.
But the league has work to do first. And that involves flag football.
“Over the next five years, we want to grow NFL flag football,” said Damani Leech, chief operating officer of NFL International.
In an interview with CNBC at the NFL’s annual meetings last week, Leech discussed the next phase of the NFL’s overseas expansion. He said that over the next 10 years, the NFL expects to attract 50 million consumers internationally. This would add to its 180 million domestic consumers and more than 150 million international fans who already consume America’s most popular sport.
“That’s our big number that we’re focused on,” Leech said.
Here’s a look at the NFL’s 10-year international plan.
The NFL needs flag football at the Olympics
“We have to make the game count,” Leech said when discussing the importance of expanding the sport overseas.
And to do that, the NFL needs the Olympics.
The league is pushing for flag football to be included in the Summer Games. Flag football is similar to grid football, except there is no tackling and pads and helmets are not required to participate.
“If flag football becomes an Olympic sport, more countries will invest in playing the sport,” Leech said.
It wouldn’t be the first time football has aimed for Olympic inclusion.
American football was included in the 1932 Olympics as a demonstration sport. Since then, he is no longer recognized. In 1996, clothing company Reebok unsuccessfully lobbied for gridiron football to reenter the Olympic landscape with an ad featuring Dallas Cowboys running back Emmitt Smith.
But the International Olympic Committee recognized the International Federation of American Football as its governing body in 2013. This could help the NFL in its efforts for the 2028 Olympics.
During Super Bowl weekend earlier this year in Los Angeles, Leech said the NFL hosted a men’s and women’s American football game against Mexico — an Olympic requirement. Casey Wasserman, the media executive who chaired the campaign to catch the 2028 Los Angeles Summer Olympics, was in attendance. He was also chairman of the Super Bowl organizing committee in Los Angeles.
LA28 officials did not make Wasserman available to comment on the matter. However, Leech said the Wasserman Media Group CEO “supports the idea” of including flag football.
“I think they were impressed with the speed,” Leech said of other LA28 officials watching the five-on-five football game. “It’s positionless football where everyone’s a receiver and everyone’s a quarterback. You see the speed and it’s fun.”
Additionally, the NFL is aligned with the 2022 World Flag Football Games, which will be held in Alabama from July 7-17. The matches feature men’s and women’s teams from countries such as Brazil, France, Germany, Japan and Mexico.
Leech added that the World Games would be “a good opportunity to show the IOC what this sport looks like. That it is competitive and attractive”.
Hamburgs Quarterback Rod Rutherford (C) in action during the NFL Europe game between Hamburg Sea Devils and Cologne Centurions at AOL Arena on April 14, 2007 in Hamburg, Germany.
Alexander Hassenstein | Bongard | Getty Images
Lessons from the NFL Europe experience
As the league pressures IOC officials, Leech persists in seeking new international markets.
The NFL already has a base in Europe. He says he still has 4 million “hungry” fans in Canada. Leech is traveling to Africa this month to seek business opportunities and line up NFL academies for high school students around the world to teach American football.
The league has also increased its global scouting with its NFL Players Pathway program. This unit is used to attract and develop non-traditional players around the world. In March 2020, the NFL began trying to attract football players to the program as it wants to convert these players for possible NFL kicker positions.
The NFL attempted to develop football internationally in previous years, but failed to produce significant results.
In 1991, the NFL helped launch the American Football World League and matched national teams, including San Antonio and Sacramento, to play in a league that incorporated international clubs. The WLFA didn’t last too long. In 1995 it folded and was renamed NFL Europe. This business closed in 2007.
Currently, the NFL is experimenting with playing games in Europe – primarily featuring the Jacksonville Jaguars. At annual meetings last week, the owners approved the Jaguars’ plan to play at Wembley Stadium in London for the next three years.
When discussing why the NFL would work in Europe this time, Leech referenced the league’s history with spring football, saying it cultivates fans.
“Financially, has it worked out for the league?” he said. “No. But it had a lot of advantages.”
During the 2022 season, the NFL has scheduled five games abroad – three games in London, one game in Germany and one in Mexico.
Leech said the German market “surpasses many other markets in terms of viewership and consumer products. They consume the sport without us having played it.”
NFL Sunday Ticket Sister Property
The NFL also granted teams access to collect more revenue and consumer data with its International Home Marketing Areas plan in December 2021. It allows 18 teams across 26 international territories to leverage “marketing.” Sport. If it works, it will only fuel the league’s international media asset – NFL Game Pass.
Leech described the asset as another version of NFL Sunday Ticket but only for fans outside the United States. In this package, international consumers can stream live on all platforms, including DAZN, which licenses NFL content for streaming revenue in Canada.
Damani Leech, NFL COO
Leech said NFL Game Pass has reached 1 million paying subscribers, 600,000 in Europe. Although European consumers are not yet paying for Game Pass, the NFL knows who they are through data collection. “We need to increase that number,” Leech said of NFL Game Pass.
It also benefits fanatics. Since the e-commerce and memorabilia company is part-owned by the NFL, it relies on consumer data from the league. Fanatics has 80 million users, which is the basis of its projected valuation of $27 billion.
The global landscape could disrupt plans
The NFL’s international expansion plans face several challenges.
There is no guarantee that the IOC will accept flag football as a sport. On Friday, the IOC revealed a set of “principles” that sports federations must adhere to before any consideration of Olympic integration. The decision to add flag football will be made after the 2024 Olympics in Paris.
Harvey Schiller, former executive director of the U.S. Olympic Committee, said the NFL needs to execute a series of measures to put flag football on the Olympics radar.
The first step is to find more countries to play the game.
“The second step is spending time with the IOC members who are voting. That takes a lot of time and energy,” Schiller said. They also want top athletes to be involved, he added. “They want to see players who have competed in the NFL or will compete in the future,” he said.
The NFL must also compete with football in many international markets. In Australia, the league is expected to rival the continent’s own version of football, as well as rugby.
The NBA has already captured major international markets by building a $5 billion+ business in China and a $1 billion business in Africa. He also wants to add India.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is also causing businesses to fear less globalization. This could further jeopardize growth in countries whose ideals do not match American values.
Leech said the NFL has retired all of its business in Russia, which represents about $300,000 in annual revenue primarily from Electronic Arts’ Madden football video games.
“We can’t take advantage of a market where things like this are happening,” Leech said. When asked if the NFL would consider pulling its 2022 games overseas if the war escalates, Leech replied, “If it turns into something bigger, we’ll fix it when it happens. .”
Still, Leech expressed confidence in the NFL’s plan for international growth over the next 10 years.
Where would the NFL be then?
Leech predicted he would be “deeply engaged” with football fans in 12 to 15 markets around the world. The NFL also reportedly has more than 3 million paying subscribers for its Game Pass streaming business, he said.
“And, by market,” Leech added, “the three most popular sports properties in this country.”