Flag football at the Olympics could be key to NFL’s overseas business plan

A general view during the NFL London 2021 game between the Miami Dolphins and the Jacksonville Jaguars at Tottenham Hotspur Stadium on October 17, 2021 in London, England.

Alex Pantling | fake images

The NFL says it has a plan to grow its international business to $1 billion annually and attract its next set of fans.

But the league has work to do first. And it’s about flag football.

“Over the next five years, we want to expand NFL flag football,” said Damani Leech, chief operating officer of NFL International.

In an interview with CNBC at the NFL Annual Meetings last week, Leech discussed the upcoming phase of the NFL’s expansion abroad. He said that in the next 10 years, the NFL projects to attract 50 million consumers internationally. That would add to its 180 million domestic consumers and more than 150 million international fans who already consume the most popular sport in the US.

“That’s our big number that we’re focused on,” Leech said.

Here’s a look at the NFL’s 10-year international plan.

The NFL needs flag football at the Olympics

“We have to make the game matter,” Leech said of the importance of expanding the sport abroad.

And to do that, the NFL needs the Olympics.

The league is pushing for flag football to be included in the Summer Games. Flag football is similar to gridiron football, except there is no tackling, and no pads or helmets are needed to participate.

“If flag football becomes an Olympic sport, more countries will invest in playing the sport,” Leech said.

It would not be the first time that football has aimed for Olympic inclusion.

American football was included in the 1932 Olympics as a demonstration sport. Since then, he has not been recognized. In 1996, the apparel company Reebok unsuccessfully lobbied for field football to re-enter the Olympics landscape with a commercial featuring Dallas Cowboys running back Emmitt Smith.

But the International Olympic Committee recognized the International Federation of American Football as its governing body in 2013. That could help the NFL in its campaign for the 2028 Olympics.

During Super Bowl weekend earlier this year in Los Angeles, Leech said the NFL hosted a US flag football game against Mexico with both men and women, an Olympic requirement. Casey Wasserman, the media executive who presided over the push to get the 2028 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles, was in attendance. He was also chairman of the host committee for the Super Bowl in Los Angeles.

LA28 officials did not make Wasserman available for comment on the matter. However, Leech said the CEO of Wasserman Media Group “supports the idea” of including flag football.

“I think they were blown away by the speed,” Leech said of other LA28 officials who watched the five-on-five soccer game. “It’s positionless football where everyone’s a receiver and everyone’s a quarterback. You see the speed and it’s entertaining.”

Additionally, the NFL is aligned with the 2022 World Games of flag football, which will take place in Alabama from July 7-17. The games feature men’s and women’s teams from countries including Brazil, France, Germany, Japan and Mexico.

Leech added that the World Games would be “a good opportunity to show the IOC what this sport is like. Which is competitive and attractive.”

Hamburg’s quarterback Rod Rutherford (C) in action during the NFL Europe game between the Hamburg Marine Devils and the Cologne Centurions at the AOL Arena on April 14, 2007 in Hamburg, Germany.

Alexander Hassenstein | Bongarts | fake images

Lessons from the NFL Europa experiment

As the league puts pressure on IOC officials, Leech persists in seeking new international markets.

The NFL already has a base in Europe. He says he has another 4 million “avid” fans in Canada. Leech will travel to Africa this month to pursue business opportunities and line up NFL Academies for high school students from around the world to teach football.

The league also increased its global exploration with its NFL Players Pathway program. This unit is used to attract and develop non-traditional players around the world. In March 2020, the NFL began trying to attract football players to the program as it wants to convert these players for potential NFL kicking positions.

The NFL tried to grow football internationally in previous years, but failed to produce significant results.

In 1991, the NFL helped start the World League of American Football and combined national teams, including San Antonio and Sacramento, to play in a league that incorporated international clubs. The WLFA did not last long. In 1995, it closed and was renamed NFL Europa. That business closed in 2007.

Currently, the NFL is experimenting with playing games in Europe, primarily with the Jacksonville Jaguars. At their annual meetings last week, the owners approved the Jaguars’ plan to play at Wembley Stadium in London for the next three years.

Discussing why the NFL would work in Europe this time around, Leech referenced the league’s history with spring football and said it cultivated fans.

“Financially did it work out for the league?” he said. “No. But it had many benefits.”

In the 2022 season, the NFL scheduled five games abroad: three games in London, one game in Germany and one in Mexico.

Leech said Germany’s market “outperforms many other markets in terms of viewership, consumer products. They are consuming the sport without us having played there”.

Sister property of NFL Sunday Ticket

The NFL also gave teams access to collect more revenue and consumer data with its International Domestic Marketing Areas plan in December 2021. It allows 18 teams in 26 international territories to take advantage of the “marketing” of the sport. If that works, it will only help boost the league’s international media asset: NFL Game Pass.

Leech described the asset as another version of NFL Sunday Ticket but only for fans outside of the United States. In this package, international consumers can stream live on all platforms, including DAZN, which licenses NFL content for broadcast revenue in Canada.

Damani Leech, NFL chief operating officer

Source: NFL

Leech said that NFL Game Pass has reached 1 million paid subscribers, 600,000 in Europe. Although consumers in Europe still don’t pay for Game Pass, the NFL knows who they are through data collection. “We need to increase that number,” Leech said of NFL Game Pass.

That also benefits the fans. Since the e-commerce and memorabilia company is partially owned by the NFL, and is based on consumer data from the league. Fanatics has 80 million users, which is the basis for its projected valuation of $27 billion.

The global panorama could disrupt plans

The NFL’s plans for further international expansion face several challenges.

There is no guarantee that the IOC will accept flag football as a sport. On Friday, the IOC unveiled a set of “principles” that sports federations must adhere to before any consideration for Olympic integration. The decision to add flag football will be determined after the 2024 Olympics in Paris.

Harvey Schiller, former CEO of the US Olympic Committee, said the NFL needs to take a number of steps to get flag football on the radar for the Olympics.

The first step is to find more countries to play.

“The second step is to spend time with the IOC members who vote for him. That takes a lot of time and energy,” Schiller said. They also want top athletes to participate, he added. “They want to see players who have competed in the NFL or will compete in the future,” he said.

The NFL must also compete with football in many international markets. In Australia, the league would have to compete with the continent’s own version of football, as well as rugby.

The NBA has already taken over large international markets by establishing a more than $5 billion business in China and a $1 billion business in Africa. He also wants to add India.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine is also raising fears among businesses of reduced globalization. That could further jeopardize growth in countries whose ideals don’t match American values.

Leech said the NFL has withdrawn all of its business in Russia, amounting to about $300,000 in annual revenue that comes primarily from Electronic Arts’ Madden football video games.

“We can’t make a profit in a market where things like that happen,” Leech said. Asked if the NFL would consider pulling its 2022 games abroad if the war escalates, Leech replied, “If it turns into something bigger, we’ll address it when it happens.”

Still, Leech expressed confidence in the NFL’s plan for international growth over the next 10 years.

Where would the NFL be at that point?

Leech projected that it would be “deeply engaged” with soccer fans in 12 to 15 markets around the world. The NFL would also have more than 3 million paid subscribers for its Game Pass streaming business, he said.

“And, depending on the market,” Leech added, “the three most popular sports properties in that country.”

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Flag football at the Olympics could be key to NFL’s overseas business plan