“What time would you prefer a game to be played here?” asked NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell at a sold-out fan event in Frankfurt.
Most hands were raised in favour of an 8pm Sunday evening prime-time slot under the cinematic lights of European stadia, be it Germany or beyond. One fan seized the opportunity to request a Saturday night game, citing the extra non-working day during which to recover from Pilsner-enthused merriment. Goodell chuckled, nodding in appreciation to the logic before playing down the prospect of meddling with College Football’s traditional home.
In years gone by it might have been deemed a playful ploy to butter up the local crowd, but there was legitimacy to his reconnaissance.
It mirrored what had been a general needle-moving feeling over the last two months as London hosted three games across successive weeks followed by a landmark double-headed in Frankfurt. A feeling that long-familiar hypothesising/forecasting/fantasising – however you might see it – over a future European franchise is being superseded by a realisation that the league’s global appeal, reach and potential is far greater and far more lucrative than it might have ever believed.
Between the impact of the Global Markets Program and Flag Football’s insertion into the Olympic Games, the doors to more international territories are swinging open. Interested parties are forming a queue. Everybody wants a piece of football and its accompanying extravaganza, and the NFL will willingly oblige to the tune of fan interest where possible.
This writer perched outside a coffee shop in New Frankfurt Old Town on the Saturday before the Indianapolis Colts’ win over the New England Patriots, watching on as travelling supporters ambled in touristy admiration of the Gothic half-timbered architecture evoking pre-World War Two history. While visitors relaxed, posed for photos and snagged souvenir fridge magnets, behind the scenes the league’s growth was accelerating with an opportunist urgency and widened eyes.
Goodell confirmed in an interview with Sky Sports this month that the league would take a game to a new international territory in 2024, the likelihood being Madrid in Spain or Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo in Brazil.
He underlined his belief the NFL is in the “single most important growth moment” in its history. It feels it.
Frankfurt’s local Burger King stores had been decked out in Kansas City Chiefs branding, while the Super Bowl champions were greeted by their own themed boat – their championSHIP – situated on the Main River as the location for Commissioner Goodell and Dante Hall appearances. Every platform at the city’s train station was lined with Patriots billboards, suited brass bands paraded through the streets to celebrate the league’s presence in town, and Colts from across Europe united at Chicago Meatpackers bar for celebratory steins as social media relationships became in-person meetings.
With the NFL’s games overseas comes a festival of cultural exploration and diversity, thrusting sport’s most powerful league into cross-appeal markets as the world-touring attraction for which ticket demand has shattered the roof.
The league has now played 39 regular season games in Europe since 2007, including 36 in London and three in Germany alongside the four that have been held in Mexico. Beginning in 2022, teams are required to play a home game outside of American at least once every eight years on rotation. Five more international games are set to take place in 2024, with three scheduled to return to London in addition to one in Munich and one in either Spain or Brazil.
For two weeks running, 50,000 fans – a modest crowd by the NFL’s usual standards – made the noise of 80,000 in what became a reflection of their Super Bowl.
“Players come here and they all say that it’s unique, it’s like nothing else and that’s what it’s all about,” said Sky Sports NFL’s Jason Bell.
“My uncle was stationed in Germany for two years in the Army, so my whole life he has been telling me how awesome Germany was, but in my mind I’m, like, man, I’m going to Italy or French Alps or something,” said Colts linebacker Zaire Franklin. “I’ve really enjoyed my time here, and just coming out here is just amazing how far this game has really taken me in my life. It’s just something that I never want to take for granted, something I’m always truly appreciative of.”
Austrian-born Bernhard Raimann, who grew up just hours from Frankfurt, fought back tears as he spoke to NFL Network’s Stacey Dales following Sunday’s game, where he had been watched on by his grandmother and mother for the first time in something of a homecoming for the Colts offensive lineman. A decade earlier, he had travelled to London to watch the Minnesota Vikings take on the New Orleans Saints. Quite the story.
“I wish I could say hello to everybody in this stadium!” he said.
German-born NFL Academy duo Bryan Winter and Matti Krüger were meanwhile in attendance as beacons of football’s efforts to push the boundaries of its recruitment radius outside of the United States. Winter had received his first college offer from Division 1 Campbell University last month, immediately after scoring two touchdowns in the Academy’s win over Erasmus Hall at Tottenham Hotspur Stadium.
“It’s amazing to see the sport grown in our home country. Look at this amazing stadium, we love this sport,” Winter told Sky Sports.
Where might football be 10 years from now? How the Pittsburgh Steelers would love to honour the Rooney Family’s ties to Ireland by bringing a game to Dublin before then; allow us to point to next weekend’s sold-out watch-party at Croke Park as latest evidence of the soaring interest that awaits. How Australia might envision an opportunity to stage a Philadelphia Eagles matchup and celebrate the unprecedented success of their prized rugby-convert and angel-voiced Jordan Mailata.
With its brewing conveyor belt of footballing talent, could Africa host a game in which a product of Osi Umenyiora’s Uprise programme features? And what of Paris, where the New Orleans Saints own marketing rights? What of New Zealand, where the Eagles and Los Angeles Rams own marketing rights? What of Japan, where the X-League delivers some of the funkiest samples of play-calling following football’s surge in popularity since its introduction in the 1930s?
Berlin and Düsseldorf also remain in contention as future host partners in Germany, with Munich and Frankfurt currently on rotation across a four-year period starting last season. .
Spend some time in the company of Sky Sports NFL’s Phoebe Schecter and you will learn her weeks can consist of countless hours of sitting on international zoom calls in a bid to teach and sell the game of football around the world. This summer she ventured out to the Bahamas to help spread the sport further. Caribbean road trip? Sign everybody up.
In the coming years the league could find itself with a British defensive coordinator in Aden Durde, the right hand man to Dan Quinn in Dallas. It could find itself housing an NFL Academy-cultivated Draft pick, be it Tennessee’s Emmanuel Okoye or Oklahoma-bound Daniel Akinkunmi. It could find itself hopping between all corners of the world in Formula One fashion.
Germany seemed to cement its trademark in the form of spine-tingling renditions of John Denver’s ‘Take Me Home, Country Roads’. London became a home, Munich felt like a home, Frankfurt was very much a long-lost home from home as a back bone of NFL Europe. The league is now looking for its next home.
The newest phase of the NFL’s international expansion is here.