Article contributed by Matt from Lift Your Game.
For decades now, soccer has been widely regarded as “The World Game” – the sport that knows no borders, or the game that’s played worldwide.
But this title has been in place for so long now, it’s time for a changing of the guard.
Here’s what needs to be done to make football the next “World Game”.
1. Better branding
What’s in a name?
In the European-speaking world, football means soccer – it’s as simple as that.
Using the term “American football” normally clears up any misunderstandings. However, the problem with this name is clear – it’s inherently American.
This might not be that much of a big deal – everyone knows that football’s roots lie in America.
But for the sake of consistency, sticking to a single, internationally-understood name, such as gridiron, may make more sense when marketing the sport overseas.
2. Grassroots investment
This is the difficult (and expensive) part.
The reason sports get embedded in our cultures is because kids begin playing them.
Whether it be basketball, football, or even soccer, there’s a cycle that keeps the sport in the nation’s psyche.
Kids are introduced to the sport by their friends or parents, and begin playing – whether it be in a local tournament or simply pick-up games at the local park.
These children then begin noticing the professional side of their favorite sport(s). Having played the game themselves, they understand how difficult it is to pull off what the pros do on a consistent basis.
As adults, people continue watching and enjoying the sport for its entertainment value. They then introduce their kids to the sport, hoping to spark the same excitement they felt as a child, restarting the process over.
Since this is a complete cycle, sparking it off in the first place, and getting significant momentum behind it, is what makes marketing a sport so hard. It’s especially difficult when certain sports have been popular for decades, but it’s by no means impossible.
The way to begin this cycle for football in overseas markets would be to invest in getting children interested in the game. In the NFL, the professional circuit already exists – the challenge is to get people from countries other than America invested in what’s going on.
To maximize the effectiveness of grassroots campaigns, it makes sense to appeal to younger children, before they become more interested in other sports. This begins the demand for youth competitions at a lower level, getting children playing football.
School holiday camps, marketed at parents with super-energetic kids, would be a great place to start.
3. Making football accessible
It’s all well and good to begin marketing football to kids (and their parents), but unless they actually have the means to begin playing the sport, very few are going to take up the offer to play.
Part of the solution is to devise problems that football can solve, to improve the value of what the sport can offer. For example, as discussed above, school holiday camps give parents the opportunity to have time away from their kids, while also giving their children the chance to burn off some of their excess energy.
But we also have to consider the other potential hindrances to playing American football. For instance, the cost of equipment. While rugby players only need socks, cleats, and a mouthguard, football players also need pads, helmets, and gloves, amongst other gear.
To start with, we could introduce football as a touch (instead of tackle) based game with variations like flag football, to allow kids to experience the thrill of completing a 40-yard pass, or running in a touchdown, without having to invest too heavily into the sport. Equipment-sharing options for teams and training camps are also an option worth considering.
4. Mainstream exposure
Everyone knows about American football – the problem is, showing off what the sport is actually like – and getting people watching it.
The NFL is shown globally on cable TV, but international interest isn’t massive, so it’s clear that more work still must be done.
Fortunately, steps have already been taken in the right direction – the NFL has started the International Series, allowing international locations a taste of live, top-level football.
What’s needed is more effective marketing campaigns, targeting those most likely to be interested in the sport. It’s not really cost-effective to play more NFL games overseas, nor is it fair on the American football fan.
Even video games like Madden can help spread the popularity of the sport. EA Sports’ largest game by playerbase is actually FIFA, its soccer game, which is built around the Ultimate Team mode – a sort of fantasy game where players can create a dream team.
Madden also has an Ultimate Team, but it hasn’t quite captured the world’s attention in the same way that the FIFA version has. Unfortunately, there’s not a great deal the football community can do to get EA to better-promote Madden to the public.
American Football already has three of the key prerequisites to becoming a global supersport:
A tier-1 professional league, demonstrating that football can function as a spectator sport at an elite level.
An established history, with an established metagame.
The blueprint for successful youth development – the framework that exists in the USA with the high school > college > NFL system.
The challenge then is effectively transplanting these successful frameworks into foreign sporting markets, where competing sports are already well-entrenched.
While it’s not going to be easy, it’s definitely possible for football to become the next world game.
The question is, do we, as a global community, have the willpower to make it happen?