Clearly the dominant sport in the United States, the NFL has set its sights on global domination. And while football (the kind with touchdowns) has a ways to go before it catches up with football (the one with limited scoring and the announcer who yells "goooooooaaaaaalllllllll!"), nothing can stop the NFL on its slow march to global dominance.
Huge ratings domestically
The NFL averaged 17.4 million television viewers per game, according to Nielsen's Year in Sports Media Report 2013. To put how huge that number is in perspective, the NBA -- arguably the number two sports in the United States -- averaged 1.4 million viewers for its regular season games. The NBA Finals averaged 17.7 million -- barely beating regular season football.
The Super Bowl between San Francisco and Baltimore edged out the NBA finals, pulling in 108.7 million viewers to squeeze out the win by 90 million people.
Taking the long road
The NFL does not need the rest of the world to be successful. But to reach NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell's stated goal of $25 billion in revenues by 2027 (they were $9 billion in 2013), growing global audience is key. To get there, the league has to maximize its assets. One asset -- global streaming rights -- are still owned by the NFL. Forbes estimated that those rights alone are worth another $100 million annually.
The league, as far back as 1999, has taken a slow, steady approach to growing internationally.
Don Garber, then senior vice president of NFL International, explained in 1999: "We invest in a long-term plan to help the sport grow around the world. The vision is to be a leading global sport. We need to create awareness and encourage involvement," as reported in the book, Sports in America, Volume II.
London first, then Europe, then the world
While the NFL can become globally dominant, it's not there yet. The league, however, has made strides. The NFL stages three games each year in London and Goodell sees that as just the beginning.
"We don't have a timetable for (a London franchise). We want to continue building interest, and if it continues to go well, we believe a franchise could be here," Goodell said to NFL.com in October 2013.
London is the beginning of the league's European strategy, but it's not the endgame. "Right now, our focus is on the U.K. since the European fans can get here," Goodell said.
It's not just Goodell who sees the NFL with a team in London. Owner Jerry Jones, whose Cowboys play their first London game next year (it's already sold out), supports the idea.
"I think that's very possible and I'm very much for it," Jones told Sky Sports. "These games will be a good indication of the type of support that we could have there."
What about NFL Europe?
People who doubt the NFL's ability to become a global sport always point to the failure of NFL Europe. But NFL Europe failed because there is little demand anywhere to watch minor league football.
The biggest problem facing the NFL as it expands globally is that until very recently, few countries outside the United States played American football. That, however, has been changing and now, according to the International Federation of American Football, 64 countries play the sport. That number is well behind soccer, which is played pretty much everywhere. But with major countries, including essentially all European nations, Canada, Mexico, Brazil, Japan, India, New Zealand, and Australia now having national federations, football it is growing in the nations with the economic means to make a financial difference to the NFL.
NFL games are an event
The biggest thing the NFL has in its favor is a scarcity of product. With only 16 regular season games, every game is an event. Soccer, despite its popularity globally, not only plays way more games, the top teams compete for multiple championships in one season, making individual games less important (and less valuable to advertisers).
According to The Hollywood Reporter, European soccer's top domestic soccer leagues and club competitions generated $9.8 billion in revenues in 2014, led by England's Premier League with $2.9 billion. The NFL, according to the Los Angeles Times, makes $3.1 billion per year in TV rights through its U.S. deals with Fox (FOX), Walt Disney's (DIS -3.79%) ESPN and Comcast's (NASDAQ: CMCSK) NBC. As the demand for sports content goes up across the world, the NFL, with its increasingly global profile, stands to grow internationally.
"We see no signs that the premium sports rights value bubble is about to burst. Rights fees for live content to premium properties overall will continue to grow," Austin Houlihan, a senior consultant in the Sports Business Group at Deloitte, told The Hollywood Reporter. "Premium live sport delivers large audiences, typically characterized by an attractive demographic profile. It drives subscriptions and generates advertising for broadcasters."
Soccer is still king (for now)
The world is in love with soccer because it hasn't experienced American football yet. It's like the way Pong was a pretty awesome game in its day, but once Pac-Man and Super Mario Bros. arrived, only a very tiny group of people still found batting a digital dot back and forth fun.
Americans, who play soccer in large numbers as kids, have largely rejected it as TV property because, well, it's Pong to the NFL's Grand Theft Auto.
Major League Soccer, the U.S. league, has gained fans in some markets and, according to Nielsen's Year in Sports Media Report 2013, 7 million people did watch the United States take on Mexico in a World Cup Qualifier in the U.S. But in general, soccer is an also-ran of roller derby levels in the U.S. -- MLS has a tiny TV audience with less than half a million people watching the league's championship game.
The NFL may not quickly supplant soccer as the favorite sport of the rest of the world, but it will turn Europe into fans, followed by the rest of the globe. Football is the perfect sport for television and its schedule makes it easy to become invested in a team. As the world begins to play the game, learn its rules, and see players from their countries play in the NFL eventually, football Sunday will become a worldwide event.
For the other side to this argument, read why Fool colleague Jake Mann thinks soccer will long continue its global reign.