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."
Marshall emphasizes that it's not uncommon for Britons to play touch football with friends or catch the occasional NFL game on satellite, but "making the transition from recreational to a viable league has been the hard bit."
Tommy Wiking of Sweden, president of the International Federation of American Football (IFAF), the sport's global governing body, agrees that the "accessibility of reasonably priced equipment" is a major obstacle to the sport's growth. His organization has attempted to help by shipping equipment to youth leagues around the world, but he says that in most countries, the sport is taken up by adults who encounter it first on television, rather than young people who could grow into potential professional players.
The NFL has attempted to give global football a boost by exporting its own talent, notably through NFL Europe, a league of 10 teams in Germany, the Netherlands, Spain and Britain that operated from 1991 until 2007, but never really caught on with fans. "The league was bound to be a failure because it was trying to combine two different objectives," Wiking explains. "One was to develop players who were on the brink of being good enough to be in the NFL. That goal worked. The other goal was to develop a profitable league in Europe, and you just can't do that if whenever you get attached to a good player, they're not there the next season. That's not the way Europeans are used to seeing sport."
A more successful strategy over the last five years has been the league's new tradition of holding one regular-season game per year in Britain. This season's Oct. 28 matchup between the Patriots and Rams sold out Wembley Stadium, and two games may be held next year. Just as the 1992 Dream Team allowed world audiences to see NBA-quality basketball on the world stage, the London games give international exposure to football played at its highest level in meaningful games. Marshall says the games are "a massive reason why football is gaining in popularity" in Britain. His organization, BAFA, runs everything from touch football to elite-level fully padded games and has had success at getting football introduced into universities.
"It's grown from a time when you said you played American football and people didn't know what you were on about to being quite an established sport," he says. "It used to be very strange to have a Super Bowl party, but his weekend there will be parties all over the country."
In addition to Britain, Parsons identifies Canada, China, Japan, and Mexico as the countries where the NFL is devoting most of its marketing efforts. Canada has had its own popular league since 1958 and is the leading foreign contributor of NFL players -- as well as a common stopping point for former NFL players. The Buffalo Bills have also played one game per year in nearby Toronto for the last five years.
Football is increasingly popular in Mexico as well as with Americans of Mexican descent. A 2005 49ers-Cardinals game held in Mexico City's Azteca Stadium attracted more than 100,000 fans -- an all-time league record. Japan has played football since the end of World War II, in both academic and corporate leagues (a yearly championship game between the country's corporate and college champions is known as the Rice Bowl). NFL games, as well as local leagues, are increasingly popular in China, though it will likely be quite some time before Tom Brady or Adrian Peterson can get the same kind of reception in Beijing that Kobe Bryant enjoys.
Wiking's IFAF has member leagues in 64 countries on every continent and runs a World Cup style tournament between national teams every four years. (The United States participates -- and has won the last two -- but only with amateur players.) The 2015 tournament will be held in Sweden. But Wiking has his eye on some new markets. "In Europe, Poland has been the real star in terms of development," he says. "They've grown tremendously in the last five years." In Latin America, he pointed to Brazil. "In six years they've gone from nothing, and I mean nothing, to about 160 clubs."
While a number of foreign-born players such as British-Nigerian defensive end Osi Umenyiora and Soeul-born Korean-American wide receiver Hines Ward have been NFL stars, one thing international American football is still waiting for is what Wiking calls "the Yao Ming story."
"A foreign-born player who goes to high school and college in the states, basically no one will care about him because he's basically American," he says. "But if the player has been brought up in a club in his home country, played in domestic league, played on its own country's national team, and was a known star, and then makes it to the NFL, that's huge."
The closest so far have been a number of Australian Rules Football players who have been converted to NFL punters, including Sav Rocca of the Redskins and Mat McBriar of the Eagles. There are high hopes riding on Jesse Williams, an Australian nose tackle of indigenous descent who started last year for the University of Alabama after having played on club and national teams in his home country. There's also Bjorn Werner, a Berlin-bred defensive end who played on German club teams before starting at Florida State and could be a top prospect for the 2013 draft.
But even if the NFL may have to wait a while for its Yao, the NFL's Parsons is quick to note that football can be "a very engaging media property" even among people who -- like the vast majority of its American audience -- never played the game on any organized level. A former rugby player, he points to his own experience growing up as an American football fan in Manchester, England. "Literally my only engagement with it was watching a weekly highlights show on TV and trying very hard to tune in to a very weak Armed Forces Radio signal," he says. Things have gotten a bit easier for fans since then thanks to the Internet and ESPN International.
Marshall, a schoolteacher when he's not spreading the gridiron gospel, discovered the game later in life. A former junior rugby and soccer player, he walked into an electronics store with his wife in his hometown of Newcastle 25 years ago and was transfixed by the American game being shown on one of the display models. "To this day, my wife regrets not pulling me away from the TV sooner," he says.
It's not always love at first sight. Wiking, now football's top international official and a former player at both the university and club level, first saw the sport as a high-school student in 1988 when Volvo sponsored a televised preseason game between the Chicago Bears and Minnesota Vikings. "My friends loved it, but I thought it was the most boring thing I had ever seen," he remembers.
Guess there's hope for anyone.