Britain is home to the most popular football league in the world. Football, of course, in the international sense of the word.
Soccer has long reigned supreme in Europe, with legions of dedicated fans engaging in positive ways (collective chants, sense of identity and solidarity) and in more negative ways (xenophobia, violence). But, generally speaking, soccer provides an outlet for millions and serves as an incubator for passion and enjoyment.
A different kind of football, however, has been skyrocketing in popularity across the Atlantic. The NFL has taken advantage of soaring viewership of American football in Great Britain. Since 2007, the NFL has offered regular season games abroad, primarily in Wembley Stadium in London, which hosts the likes of international soccer matches and sold old arena rock concerts concerts. Now, increasingly, it hosts games featuring the likes of the Ravens, Jaguars, and Browns.
In figures given in ESPN, NFL administrators paint a rosy view of international fandom: approximately 270 to 300 million fans worldwide. This is in addition to the 180 to 200 million fans in the United States, who combine to form the largest following of any major sport in the country.
There is speculation that the league’s push for greater international visibility comes at a time when the NFL has peaked in the United States; there may be simply no more people to convert. This could explain why the league sponsors events not only in London, but in Mexico City as well. Other nations in the league’s sight include Canada, Germany, and China.
Perhaps another explanation is the declining pool of players to fill the NFL’s teams. Youth engagement in the sport has declined sharply, likely stemming from the dangers of the sport, which the league has done a very poor job dealing with. As the NBA, for example, begins to attract a greater amount of international talent – hailing from Latin America to Eastern Europe – the NFL may too be angling to spark a global interest in order to preserve the long-term feasibility of the sport.
Whatever the reason, the fact remains that American football is increasingly popular across the globe. Whether or not London – the most populous foreign city with an active NFL fanbase – receives a team of their own remains to be seen.