In 2021, NFL games made up 75 of the top 100 most-watched sporting events in the United States.
NFL regular-season ratings increased 10% over last season with games averaging 17.1 million viewers, the highest total since 2015. 72% of households watched the Super Bowl in 2022 as well.
In contrast, 2022 NBA finals ratings were down almost 40% from 2015 levels and the MLB has been on a noticeable decline for nearly 45 years.
While football is on the rise in America, do other countries care?
According to the NFL, the league has 67.5 million international fans coming primarily from Mexico, Canada, Germany, the U.K., China, and Brazil. Still, Chris Halpin, the NFL’s chief strategy officer says “our next 50 million fans will come from these international markets.”
This season, the NFL will play 5 games outside of the U.S.-- three in the UK, one in Mexico, and for the first time ever, one in Germany.
Between 1969 and 2005, the league held 50 games outside of the U.S., all preseason games, held in Germany, Japan, Mexico, Ireland, and Canada.
At the time, the league's primary method of promoting the NFL outside of the states was through the American Bowl, a series of abroad presason games, and NFL Europe which ultimately shut down in 2007 but was a developmental league for the NFL, similar to the NBA's G-League or NHL's AHL.
In 2005, The International Series was founded, replacing the American Bowl. It allowed for regular season games to be played abroad. Since then, the Series has included 45 games: 5 in Mexico, 9 in Canada, and 29 in the United Kingdom.
Following the hiatus in 2020 due to Covid, the series returned in 2021 with 2 games in the hottest market, the UK.
Fandom in the UK has seen noticeable growth with the NFL reporting that the 4 million that watched the 2021 Super Bowl was the highest total in 30 years. Also note that the Super Bowl kicks off at 4am in the UK.
In response to the growth in the UK, the NFL and Sky Sports came to an agreement in 2020 to create Sky Sports NFL, a channel dedicated solely to streaming live NFL games to UK fans.
The Jaguars have been a major proponent of international games, specifically them playing in London. Because it is financially beneficial, Jaguars owner Shad Khan wants the team to continue to play games in London which they will in 2022 for the 8th straight season. There have even been rumors that Khan was trying to move the team to London at one point.
The league is also pushing team's to play more international games. After the advent of the 17-game season in 2021, it became required that each team play one international game every eight years.
In 2018, the Titans played the Chargers in the second of 3 games at Wembley stadium that season. They ultimately lost by one point after Mike Vrabel opted to go for 2 in the closing minutes but regardless, it was an exciting game.
A similarly hot market, German interest continues to grow as highlighted by this season's Bucs-Seahawks game in Munich. Damani Leech, CEO of NFL International said that Germany "outperforms many other markets...They are consuming the sports without us having played games there."
Germany is set to host 4 games over the next 4 seasons as agreed upon between the NFL and Germany's Bundesliga. Because they are playing in the stadium of FC Bayern Munich, the NFL had to work with the German soccer league much like they did with English Premiere League before playing games in London.
In December of 2021, another milestone was reached in terms of expanding the game as 18 teams were granted international marketing rights across 8 countries. This allows teams to host in-person events, youth football activities, sell merchandise, and more.
NFL executive vice president, Christopher Halpin, said "This important initiative enables NFL teams to develop meaningful, direct relationships with NFL fans abroad, driving fan growth and avidity globally.
Following that agreement, the league began attempting to expand 'NFL flag football' abroad. To make other countries invest into football, they are even pushing to make it an Olympic competition beginning in Los Angeles 2028. This is among various efforts from the league to find their next 50 million fans over the next 10 years.
Because it is beneficial to the organizations themselves and allows for continued financial growth, I expect the International Series to continue to expand, like it will in 2022 by playing a game in Munich.
Overall, international interest in the NFL is growing noticeably and the league realizes that it is a major growth opportunity. In markets such as the UK, Germany, and Canada, there is continued demand for NFL football.
Personally, I am a big fan of International games, especially in Europe, as it has an 8:30am CT kickoff making for 12+ straight hours of football.