A look at NFL Globalization strategies – Exporting football to Europe

Thirty years ago, the NFL launched its globalization project. Today American football in Europe is more active than ever.

In 1989 the World League of American Football (WLAF) was created with the contribution of 50.000 dollars from each NFL team. The aim was to encourage American football outside the USA for a future NFL globalization. The championship started in 1991 with 6 USA teams, 3 European teams and 1 Canadian team and the players were mostly undrafted athletes from the previous years or former NFL players looking to get back on the field.

The WLAF was experimental in many ways and it proved to be more like a farm league where players had the possibility to acquire more experience. Moreover, new rules were tested on field goals points – in order to make the game more familiar to soccer and rugby fans – and on local players presence on the field to obtain more compatriots at the stadiums. Due to financial problems and miscommunication with European spectators, in 1993 the WLAF closed to reappear two years later as NFL Europe. Despite the new league name was now more suitable and appealing for Europeans, problems persisted, and the scarcity of affluence in stadiums showed that those audience was not fully embracing the new sport.

After all, European culture never had any knowledge of the new sport rules, and the NFL for his part did nothing to explain them (as they do now before the International Series games in London). American football is likely one of the most strategic and regulated sports in the world, and a pre-game brief introduction could have been useful to European public for a better understanding of the game.

Although the league lasted for many years, European stadiums were growing emptier and in 2007 the NFL decided to close its European counterpart, but without setting Europe apart.

Mark Waller, Executive Vice President of International at the time:

“We will continue to build our international fan base by taking advantage of technology and customized digital media that make the NFL more accessible on a global scale than ever before and through the regular-season game experience. NFL Europa has created thousands of passionate fans who have supported that league and our sport for many years and we look forward to building on this foundation as we begin this new phase of our international development.”

In the same year, the International Series project took hold and for the first time an NFL game was held in London’s Wembley Stadium. This kind of approach seemed to have a wider appeal on Europeans, who were enthusiastic to see real professional players and filled the stadium for the game. For this reason, and due to some English stadiums size, European audiences finally gained the interest of the NFL (Wembley is able to house 90.000 spectators, more than any NFL stadium) and this strategy appeared to be so successful that International Series games in London are now 4 every season.

Continuous rumors moreover, continue to swirl about a potential franchise in Mexico City or London; and despite for logistic problems this seems still impossible to us, recent news confirmed the close business relations between the NFL and some English sport institutions and structures.

Additionally, NFL Game Pass, born as spin-off service, quickly turned into a huge success and today is offered exclusively to the European public. In this final season report, on their website, they declared that more and more fans are submitting every year with view peaks in the UK, Germany and Italy.

It is worth noting however that a European community of American football was slowly emerging also before WLAF and NFL Europe and of course, it also represented a strong incentive for the sport’s growth in Europe. Nowadays, that community has grown to about 1500 teams and it keeps growing. National institutions are doing a great job in cooperating and we recently saw the  the Canadian Football League enter into agreements with several European federations and draft European players into the CFL.

With the NFL’s announcement that it will be holding its own combine in Cologne, Germany this fall, it is clear that NFL globalization is on the rise.




Rome native Alessandro Fantin, recently graduated from Sapienza University of Rome in Languages, Literature, Culture and Translation. He has been playing American football for 9 years now, and at present plays for the Lazio Ducks in Italy's Div. 1.