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NFL’s International Push Seeds Its Global Ambitions

The NFL will finish this season with eight more years of labor peace, $130 billion in new media deals and soaring valuations. Attendance and sponsorships are up. TV ratings are dominant. So what’s next for the world’s richest sports league?

Weeks before the San Francisco 49ers game against the Arizona Cardinals in Mexico City in November, the Niners marketing team had already been deployed south of the border.

It was a chance for team staffers to finalize plans for their main in-market activation, La Casa de los 49ers, inside a refurbished factory-turned-restaurant. There, fans found former 49er players, a mariachi band and a pop-up shop where they could grab the latest scarlet-and-gold gear. Sourdough Sam, the 49ers mascot, took photos with visitors while kids participated in football drills. Others walked away with 49ers memorabilia and game tickets from a series of raffles.

That week, over 13,000 people attended the activation, which included a rally and a watch party for the game at Estadio Azteca. It also gave 49ers corporate partners, including Levi’s and Vivid Seats, a chance to activate in Mexico. It’s the latest phase of San Francisco’s plan to cultivate new fans, many of whom aren’t familiar with American football—at least not yet.

The 49ers have built up their global marketing and sponsorship infrastructure since being granted commercial and marketing rights in Mexico as part of the NFL’s international home marketing area (IHMA) designation. The IHMA program, the latest ploy in the NFL’s international takeover, gives teams access to international areas for marketing, fan engagement and commercialization. For San Francisco, that has meant bringing on agency partners such as Wasserman and Elevate Sports Ventures while also creating custom content for the new audiences, including videos of 49ers’ players testing their Spanish skills during Latino Heritage Month.

“It’s a pretty thoughtful strategy,” 49ers chief marketing officer Alex Chang said in an interview. “I think being able to play one of the first games in international markets since the [IHMA] rights were unlocked was a huge priority … We know that [it’s] a big catalyst for us in terms of energizing our fanbase and finding new fans in Mexico.”

The IHMA program makes sense for the 49ers, who have one of the largest non-American fanbases in a league that claims more than 67 million international fans. A little more than a year after the program’s launch, there’s a divide between teams willing to make six-to seven-figure marketing investments and those who aren’t, according to team sources. In all, 19 of the 32 teams have jumped in while teams such as the Cincinnati Bengals and New Orleans Saints are among those that have opted not to participate in the program, at least not yet.

Some teams had a head start. The Pittsburgh Steelers, Dallas Cowboys and New England Patriots are among the most popular teams overseas, because they thrived during a time when more NFL games were airing in international markets. The Jacksonville Jaguars, which are only 29 years old, pounced on the opportunity to play in the UK, where owner Shad Khan also holds a controlling stake in Fulham FC. The team committed to play one game per season in London’s Wembley Stadium starting in 2012 and has developed a solid following since.

The IHMA program, which currently spans 10 countries, complements the NFL’s International Series, an annual set of games played outside of the U.S. The games so far have yielded little to no profit, but they’re expected to pay off over time. With help from the IHMA program, the games are more about identifying long-term growth opportunities and access to new global partnerships.

The experiment may prove to be worth it.

“That’s the ultimate goal, to be able to build relationships with brands to do hybrid deals that are both international and U.S. local,” SportFive senior vice president of commercial Bob Brennfleck said in an interview. “It brings a whole set of prospects that teams didn’t have before.”

The NFL has the luxury, with the owners’ approval, of not looking at profit margins the same way a public corporation does. It looks at potential.

“This is business development and innovation,” said sports consultant Marc Ganis, who also serves as an advisor to NFL owners. “International is the NFL’s version of investing in R&D.”

Now that it dominates the domestic market in seemingly every significant metric, from viewership ratings to sponsorship dollars, the NFL is seeking new worlds to conquer—and a hedge for the future.

Next Generation

The international strategy is motivated in part by the fragmented domestic Gen Z audience, a large faction of which doesn’t see NFL games as appointment television like their parents did. Amid increases in online media consumption, Gen Z audiences spend two-thirds of their total media time on digital channels (67.7%), highest of any age group, according to marketing intelligence service WARC.

The decline in youth participation is also noteworthy as Damar Hamlin‘s and Tua Tagovailoa’s injuries, among other incidents, highlight the dangers of the sport. Overall, sign-ups have dropped at the high school level, according to a study by the Aspen Institute and National Federation of State High School Association (NFHS). A separate and more recent survey from NFHS shows 11-person football participation decreased again during the 2021-22 school year but increased for teams with fewer players per side. Meanwhile, tackle football participation for children between ages 6 and 12 declined 29% from 2016 to 2021, according to data from Project Play.

One response is the league’s promotion of boys and girls flag football, which is an integral part of its globalization strategy. With a push from the NFL, several states now sanction it as a varsity girls sport. The NFL is also working with the International Federation of American Football to get the non-contact version of the game included as a participation sport in the 2028 Olympic Games. The league also recently tweaked its Pro Bowl format to include flag football, showcasing the game’s greatest players ripping off each other’s flags instead of delivering heavy blows.

Pro Bowl flag football action
This year, the NFL replaced its standard Pro Bowl games with a skills competition and a flag football game. Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images

At the same time, the league is doubling down on its International Series, as it looks to eventually generate $1 billion annually from its international business. So far, the loot for series games is coming mostly from broadcast distribution, gate receipts, merchandise and other consumer products.

The NFL, which has one of the oldest demos in sports with the average fan about 50 years old, is focusing on younger potential fans (see: deals with Amazon and Roblox and Nickelodeon telecasts), and the international efforts are part of that push. The league’s current UK deal with Sky Sports expires in 2025, and that price will go up as youth viewership continues to increase. The NFL also announced on Tuesday a new 10-year streaming deal with UK sports media company DAZN to bring Game Pass International to more fans outside of the U.S. 

While the UK has been a focus of international growth and an unofficial blueprint for other markets, the NFL hosted its first regular season game in Germany last year after realizing that a large chunk of fans who traveled to its London games came from Germany as well as France and Spain—which may be destined to host a game of their own in coming years, according to league officials. Canada, which last hosted a regular season game in 2013, also remains one of the league’s top markets out of the U.S.

‘We’ve made a big effort to not be a traveling circus’

This year Sky Sports aired its divisional playoff round weekend show in front of a live audience at a watch party in Manchester instead of from its London studio. “We’ve made a big effort to not be a traveling circus,” NFL UK general manager Henry Hodgson said in an interview. “We don’t want to arrive in town for a couple games and say see you in 50 weeks. We have to be present year-round.” The IHMA program has helped the NFL be more front-of-mind abroad by providing more consistent touch points, especially in the UK where six NFL teams have secured marketing rights.

The NFL has seen that approach work in the other direction. Formula One has quickly grown its audience in the U.S. by fostering connections through TV and streaming, then followed up by investing heavily to bring races to Miami and soon Las Vegas. Another hopeful signpost for the NFL is the English Premier League, which has several connections to NFL owners. International committee chairman and Buccaneers owner Joel Glazer (Manchester United), Rams owner Stan Kroenke (Aresnal), 49ers owner John York (Leeds) and Khan all have stakes in EPL teams.

“It’s not necessary, but it’s very helpful when you have a broader ownership structure that’s committed and has a long-term strategy,” Steinforth added. “Ownership clearly thinks it’s the right thing to do.”

While the Premier League took decades to infiltrate the U.S. market, it’s now an anchor of the American soccer business. Just ask NBC, which agreed to pay $2.6 billion to retain rights to EPL matches. 

And the NFL can’t help but notice the NBA’s international success, anchored by stars from around the world like Giannis Antetokounmpo, Joel Embiid and Luka Doncic. The league staged a Chicago Bulls vs. Detroit Pistons game a few weeks ago in Paris, its 119th preseason or regular-season global game since 1984, and is set to begin a third season of the Basketball Africa League next month.

NFL commissioner Roger Goodell has hinted at a permanent four-team European division, but with potential scheduling headaches and a limited number of adequate soccer stadiums, the league may have to get creative in its year-round approach—such as hosting more overseas player combines or staging draft events.

The IHMA may be a test of sorts for that concept, but it’s not the NFL’s first foray abroad. NFL Europe launched in 1991 (as the World League of American Football) with great fanfare and once featured star QB Kurt Warner and famed kicker Adam Vinatieri. While the offshoot league shuttered in 2007, after failing to turn profits, it did have local successes, including in Dusseldorf, where the NFL’s new Germany office is located and where the Rhein Fire once drew 40,000 for a game.

That history shows some of the league’s challenges compared with basketball or baseball. Soccer is like a religion in Europe while American football remains a novelty, despite increases in interest and organic participation over the last decade. Germany, considered to have the biggest NFL fanbase in Europe, will host two international games next season, but it takes the right host city partners and supportive municipalities to execute the massive undertaking.

“City and state are super important,” NFL Germany general manager Alexander Steinforth said in an interview. “Because it’s not just about hosting a game but creating essentially four years of storytelling in market, where people experience the NFL as something that’s relevant for everybody, not just fans living in the states.” 

The league has looked for ways to surmount these problems. Instead of highlighting the game itself, the NFL hopes to amplify engagement through personal connections, with a focus on the league’s international player pathway program. NFL Africa, for example, has spent the last week promoting Eagles defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh, Chiefs defensive tackle Derrick Nnadi and other African players who will suit up in the Super Bowl this week. The Eagles, the lone team that has marketing rights in Africa, worked with league to host a development camp and fan event in Ghana last summer.

“You’ve seen it with other sports that have been successful in globalizing,” Hodgson added. “We want to be following players that are from our [respective] market that we can understand and that have lived and seen the same things growing up as we did.”

In terms of putting on games overseas, it’s a much more difficult product to transport than the NBA, starting with 53-man rosters as opposed to 15-man NBA teams. Production costs are far greater, too. And revenue is a problem, according to league sources, because many teams don’t like losing a home game.

The NFL has so far taken a conservative approach with the IHMA program, opting to give teams jurisdiction across countries instead of cities, which was initially considered. But owners will eventually have to decide how to adjust their foreign policy to maximize growth. Right now, the league’s plan pales compared to that of European soccer federations, which allow clubs to do licensing deals and market themselves beyond their territories. There eventually may be a chance to spread international marketing opportunities equally instead of being confined to specific countries.

These potential tweaks will be top of mind for whoever steps into the NFL International CEO role, which was left vacant when Damani Leech took the Denver Broncos president job last year.

In general, East Coast teams are eyeing Europe and West Coast teams are looking at Asia. Teams in the middle of the U.S. are exploring opportunities south of the border, where the Dallas Cowboys are already popular.

The 49ers are an exception—a California team making inroads into the Cowboys’ turf. San Francisco grew its social media following in the country by more than 70% during this past season. They also flew home from Mexico with a 38-10 win against the Cardinals, although their real victory may decades away.

(This has been updated to include the NFL’s streaming agreement with DAZN.)

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