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Can The NFL Trounce FIFA To Define “Football” Once And For All?

Scandal notwithstanding, both have made inroads abroad. But the NFL has a plan to loosen FIFA’s global grip—starting with the U.K.

Can The NFL Trounce FIFA To Define “Football” Once And For All?
[Illustration: MUTI]

It’s the homonym that has divided legions of sports fans for decades: football vs. fútbol. The stateside popularity of American pigskin has always been as fierce as soccer’s unshakeable foothold in Europe and Latin America. But recent efforts by each sport to make inroads abroad, along with PR firestorms on both sides—from the suspiciously squishy balls at the heart of the NFL’s Deflategate to the multiple charges of corruption leveled against FIFA (not to mention the grim concussion reports and domestic abuse scandals in between)—have transported this rivalry from the sports bar to the business world.

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The misdeeds have yet to hurt either sport. The NFL’s projected 2015 revenue is stamped at $12 billion (up $1 billion from last year’s), and even though consumers dinged the NFL shield during the height of Deflategate, they still tuned into the 2015 Super Bowl in record numbers, and sponsorship revenue is expected to rise 4% to 5% this year. Brands backing FIFA have also hung in there—although they feel really bad about the scandals and are seriously considering their options. (Cheers, Coca-Cola.) And why not? Neither U.S. nor U.K. consumers changed their feelings about sponsors following the FIFA scandal. Neither sport, then, will win by their opponent fumbling in its own end.

Soccer appears to be ahead in the cross-invasion, as the youth leagues that first proliferated throughout the U.S. decades ago continue to churn out die-hard spectators. The 2014 World Cup marked a watershed moment for soccer in America, even beating out the deciding games of the NBA Finals and the 2013 World Series in TV viewership.

The NFL’s penetration into Europe is doing better than you might expect, though. The league has focused predominantly on the U.K., where it plays its annual International Series, as an untapped market that could be the jumping-off point for the organization’s very real desire for global domination. “One of the reasons that we targeted that market is they have five or six very popular sports,” says Mark Waller, the NFL’s SVP of international. “So there’s a broad sports fan-base open to looking at other sports.” Waller claims that exposing audiences abroad to American football has indeed moved the needle on the sport’s popularity in the U.K. Internal NFL polling identified that the number of “avid fans” (those who watch football weekly) leapt from 1.5 million in 2009 to 3.1 million in 2015. The next phase, Waller says, is locating a team abroad. For now, the lousy Jacksonville Jaguars have been the league’s ambassador; they will play in London this November for the third time since 2012. And in July, the NFL signed a deal to play two games per year for 10 years in the city, starting in 2018. As for Latin America, where soccer fans cheer the loudest, Waller says the NFL is eyeing Brazil, but that it’s not yet a priority.

That might point to why soccer has infiltrated the States in a way football hasn’t come close to doing in the rest of the world. The U.S.’s rapidly increasing racial and cultural diversity is a great asset to FIFA, which has been smart in marketing to fans who identify with their home country’s teams, whether they’re from Colombia or India. By the time the U.S. is a majority-minority country, perhaps there will also (and finally) be a majority of soccer fans.

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About the author

KC covers entertainment and pop culture for Fast Company. Previously, KC was part of the Emmy Award-winning team at "Good Morning America," where he was the social media producer.

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