It's a classic example of American hubris that we routinely refer to our winning sports teams as "world champions" even when they only play against other American teams. But in recent years, at least for some sports, an influx of international talent has made the label seem a bit less bizarre. The World Champion San Francisco Giants won baseball's title series last fall against a league with 243 international players -- a record 28.4 percent of the league on opening day -- hailing from 15 countries. The World Champion Miami Heat play in a league with 84 international players -- there's at least one on 29 on the 30 teams -- including marquee names like Dirk Nowitzki, Tony Parker, and Pau Gasol. Hockey, the British-invented, Canadian-developed national sport of Russia, has had an international flavor from the start.
Football remains the exception. According to the NFL, only 74 players out of more than 1,600 roster spots across 32 teams were born outside the United States. The overwhelming majority of those came to the country as children and were developed as players in U.S. high schools and colleges. And football's audience is mostly American as well. Sunday's showdown between the Baltimore Ravens and the San Francisco 49ers will be broadcast in 180 countries but, while exact viewership stats are hard to come by, it's a safe bet that outside the United States -- or at least North America -- the vast majority of those staying up late to watch will be American expats. The winner of the game will also have a plausible claim to the title of "world champion," but mostly because the rest of the world isn't particularly interested.
So what makes football such a bastion of American exceptionalism? Why does the country's most popular sport -- perhaps its most popular form of entertainment of any kind -- excite so little attention outside the land where it was invented?
It's probably not the innate Americanness of the sport. Few activities are more quintessentially American than baseball, but the national pastime has found a wide following throughout Latin America and Japan. And geopolitical tensions with the United States haven't stopped Venezuela from producing Major League stars or millions of Chinese from following Yao Ming's NBA career. Plus, successive generations of immigrants to the United States from Notre Dame's legendary Norwegian coach Knute Rockne to the Jacksonville Jaguars' Pakistani-born owner Shahid Khan have fallen in love with the gridiron game.
Some might point to the roughness of the sport -- which we're now learning may be far more dangerous than we previously realized -- but high-contact sports from rugby to boxing to ultimate fighting have found international success. There's also the complexity of the rules, which can be off-putting to first-time viewers, but tens of millions of people in Europe, Africa, Australia, and South Asia regularly tune in for similarly byzantine cricket.
More likely, non-Americans aren't all that interested in watching football because they don't grow up playing it, or at least watching it at a local level. "Our sport is not played in many curriculums in schools around the world," says Chris Parsons, vice president of NFL International, which promotes the league abroad. "Other sports have the benefit of that, such as soccer and to some degree basketball, so they have greater opportunities to engage." In the United States, high school and college teams serve are the incubators of NFL talent, and the lack of such infrastructure abroad is one major reason why so few non-U.S.-educated players have made it to the pros.
But why so few university or private club football teams abroad? The answers may have more to do with economics than culture. "It's the kit, and how expensive it can be," says Gary Marshall, Chairman of the British American Football Association (BAFA). "Basketball, you just need a hoop on the side of a garage and a couple of guys and you can play. Baseball you just need a bat and a ball and that's it. Football, it's the cost of the equipment to play the full 11-on-11 game."