Although the rules were vastly different – with the game resembling rugby or even soccer more so than the modern sport – the first American football game was played on Nov. 6, 1869, in New Jersey.
The final score was Rutgers 6, Princeton 4. About 100 people saw the match. And according to legend, the Rutgers student body mobbed the visiting Princeton team and quite literally ran them out of town, with Princeton fleeing back to its campus 20 miles away by horse-drawn carriage.
They were humble beginnings – not just for American football, but for America itself. Both the United States and its favorite sport have grown and changed immeasurably in a century and a half. This has become the richest, most powerful country in the world, and the globe's cultural bellwether. And from a one-off Yankee curiosity, the gridiron game has grown into an incredible spectacle. It is a beloved pastime the likes of which has no equal in this country. Also one of the United States' healthiest industries, current estimates project the league's annual revenues to be north of $10 billion.
For all the passion we have over the game, however, there remains a general apathy toward it outside our borders. Soccer, or as virtually every other country in the world knows as simply football, is truly our world's favorite game. From the earliest recorded history, versions of modern soccer have existed in Asia, Europe and North America as well as most points in between. The rules of the sport were standardized in England in the mid-19th century, and spread to the colonies. Just as the sun never set on the British Empire, neither did it set on the game of soccer.
American football will never catch up to soccer in terms of global popularity, but that doesn't mean there isn't room for growth. The NFL takes its overseas initiatives as seriously as anything in the sport.
As Chris Parsons, the senior vice president of NFL International put it, this isn't for philanthropic reasons. The league has set a $25 billion annual revenue goal for itself by 2027, and the biggest growth opportunities are outside of the U.S.
But this is a long-term plan, a push that will continue past 2027, or 2127. The league has essentially reached a financial saturation point domestically – about half of all Americans say they are pro football fans, which represents about 160 million customers for the NFL. Half of the world's population, by comparison, would be about 3.5 billion customers.
"Ultimately we want to build our business globally," Parsons says. "But we recognize that to do that effectively, you've got to build the fan base. So our goal at the moment is to really, in a smart, strategic way, build the fan base by focusing on a few strategic countries, but also using technology to broadcast it to the world and create some scale so that over a period of time, multiple years, we can have a much bigger global audience, which obviously then we could drive value from. That is the reason we do this. Economically, at the moment, international business is doing very well and continues to grow well, and has been for the last five or six years. So if we continue that trend, ultimately we'll be a fairly sizeable part of the overall revenue delivery for the NFL."
The NFL may never have as many fans outside the U.S. as it does in the 50 states, but that doesn't make the overseas fan base an insignificant part of the pie. At the same time, there is strong competition for the international sports fan's money and attention.
International headquarters for the NFL are at the league offices in New York City, but there are outposts in Beijing, London, Mexico City, Toronto and Tokyo. In some countries there is work being done to introduce children to the game through youth leagues, and in others, the NFL is marketed as an alternative to soccer.
"Expect the unexpected," is the slogan at NFLUK.com. Whereas the richest soccer clubs in Europe can money-whip the best players and dominate the poorer competition, the NFL is downright socialist by comparison. Not only do the owners share revenue amongst themselves, but also the salary cap levels the playing field, and the draft system allows the least competitive teams to quickly rebuild.
"Every week it's a big game," Parsons says of the NFL. "Because of the fact that the season is so short, 16 games, every game matters. You could arguably lose a soccer match and it's not going to have that much of an impact at the end of the year. But each NFL game is precious."
Slowly but surely, the league is making inroads across the pond. Next week, as part of the NFL International Series, the Dallas Cowboys are playing at London's Wembley Stadium against the Jacksonville Jaguars, marking the team's first appearance in Britain since a preseason game against the Chicago Bears in 1986.
For a devoted segment of Cowboys fans, seeing America's Team playing in Britain is a dream come true.
Jamie Smith, a 30-year-old from Leeds (roughly 180 miles north of London), runs UKCowboysFans.com, an online hub for followers of the team and, for all practical purposes, a fan club that will be hosting a party the night before the big game and greeting other Cowboys fans throughout the week as they arrive in London. The group has arranged for a block of 60 tickets right behind the Dallas bench.
"We may never get to see the Cowboys play here again," Smith says. "So we want to make sure that fans look back in years to come and can say they truly had the best experience. We aim to make as much noise as possible to make it feel like a game at AT&T Stadium, and make Cowboys Nation proud."
Over the last 20 years, the rise of the Internet and the expansion of satellite television have made the world a smaller place for sports fans. Smith keeps up with the Cowboys by subscribing to Dallas Cowboys Star Magazine, but also by visiting DallasCowboys.com on a daily basis. When his team isn't being shown on TV, he listens to the call on the radio.
He began following the NFL as a teenager when a friend turned him on to the game.
"I found myself always wanting to know the Cowboys results before any others," he remembers. "I would be happy or disappointed depending on how the game went. From that moment, I knew I was hooked on the Cowboys. A lot of Cowboys fans here became hooked on the sport during the 1980s, and that passion stayed with them. With the newer fans, it's come from the NFL getting more coverage here. They've just been intrigued with what the NFL has to offer."
Lauren Draper-Wood, 28, of Hertfordshire, just north of London, is one of those newer fans. She began following the NFL and the Cowboys in 2010 after family members in the U.S. told her stories about the team's history.
"I started by checking the football scores each week, and within a month was staying up until all hours watching games, reading books, articles, anything I could get my hands on that was Cowboys related," she says. "Fast forward to 2014, and here we are. I'm a full-fledged member of Cowboys Nation!
"There's unquestionably an interest from UK fans in American football, and the fact the games at Wembley sell out each year prove that. I'd be inclined to say fewer than 50 percent of those who attend are hardcore fans, though, and people attend out of intrigue as much as anything else. Americana is hugely popular in the UK, and the tailgate events are as much of an attraction as the game itself.
"Each International Series, regardless of the teams playing, we organize a UK Cowboys Fans meet-up, and usually have a few pints together. With soccer, there's been a historical link with hooliganism here, so the tailgate parties are illegal in England. It's fantastic to see fans of different teams mix and celebrate together in the NFL – this wouldn't ever happen in soccer."
Still, soccer is part and parcel to English culture, and some fans of the sport are so dedicated to it that they have little interest in any other games.
"My friends that don't like the sport give me a lot of grief for liking it," Smith says. "I think this is because they don't understand the game, so they automatically dismiss it without giving it a chance. If they gave it a chance they would understand why it's becoming more and more popular over here."
The popularity growth of football in England has been greatly accelerated by the NFL's commitment to playing at Wembley Stadium each year. Regular-season games in London have been an annual occurrence since 2007, leading to 1.5 million new fans, according to Parsons.
"Our definition of a fan is quite narrow – it's an avid fan," he says. "We look at the core fan base, the ones who will buy game tickets, and merchandise, watch week after week, have their favorite team and so on. About 1.5 million new fans is more than double where we started in the UK, so we see that as a success story. … As long as that success continues, we'll continue to play these games and look to add more as well."
This year three games are being held at Wembley: The Raiders, as "hosts," lost to the Dolphins in Week 4, 38-14, the "home" team Falcons lost to the Lions, 22-21, in Week 8, and Jacksonville will technically be the "home" side against Dallas on Sunday.
While this movement across the Atlantic is relatively recent, the NFL actually has a long history of leaving the United States to promote the game. The New York Giants were the first NFL team to play outside of the U.S., taking on the Canadian Football League's Ottawa Rough Riders in a 1950 exhibition. During the 1950s and 1960s, American teams played seven games against CFL opponents.
The league then ventured outside North America for the first time in 1976, with an exhibition between the St. Louis Cardinals and San Diego Chargers in Tokyo. Two years later, the Saints met the Eagles in a Mexico City game, the first NFL contest held south of the border.
Since the league expanded its international efforts in the 1980s, exhibitions and regular-season games have been played not only in England, Canada, Mexico and Japan, but also in Sweden, Germany, Spain, Ireland and Australia. Goodell and some NFL owners have even floated the idea of playing a Super Bowl in London.
"The Super Bowl piece, I think, is premature," says Parsons, an Englishman. "The time zones are very different. It's a great stadium we play at, which is worthy of a Super Bowl, but I don't think it's in our plans to think about the Super Bowl in the UK right now."
Parsons suggests that a great skill player from overseas would be a boon to the game's popularity in the player's home country. Consider the explosion of basketball in China since Yao Ming was drafted first overall by the Houston Rockets in 2002. In 2013, the NBA's Chinese website registered more than 4.5 billion page views. Today, there are more basketball fans in China than in the United States, where the game was invented.
"I think fundamentally, though, the challenge with that is not insignificant," Parsons says of identifying a foreign-born star. "There's no football infrastructure to the same degree that there is in the U.S. in other countries to make for an easy transition."
A handful of European-born players are in the league today, including Cowboys defensive end Jack Crawford, who hails from London. Offensive lineman Menelik Watson of the Oakland Raiders was born in Manchester, linebacker Björn Werner of the Indianapolis Colts is German and defensive end Margus Hunt of the Cincinnati Bengals is from Estonia. But of those, only Werner played American football in his home country.
The NFL previously attempted to grow its profile overseas by staging a spring league. Originally called the World League of American Football, it was later renamed NFL Europe and then NFL Europa. With teams based in Germany, The Netherlands, Spain, England and Scotland, the league played two initial seasons, 1991 and 1992, then was reconstituted as a developmental league for young NFL players from 1995-2007.
Elsewhere, little to the knowledge of fans in the U.S., American football is actually rather popular in Mexico, where intercollegiate games have been staged since the 1920s.
Victor Villalba, the play-by-play announcer for the Cowboys' Spanish language radio broadcasts (which air in the U.S. and Mexico), became a fan of American football during the 1970s and 1980s while growing up in Mexico City and Monterrey. His brother also played the game in high school and college.
"I actually was there when NFL football was starting to be seen on TV," Villalba says. "I remember sitting there watching the Steelers and the Oilers on the little black-and-white TV I had in my room. For me, it was kind of magical watching football."
For all the same reasons the Cowboys are considered America's Team – namely their media exposure and championship legacy – they are also the most popular NFL team in Mexico, which contributes to a huge following among Latino Americans.
"Legend has it," Villalba says, "that the Cowboys became very popular in Mexico in the late 1960s and early 1970s because they were on television so often due to the regionalization of which broadcasts would be sent to Mexico at that time. The fact of the matter is the Cowboys were seen on TV very often then and as you see shots of the bench, and you see the players without their helmets on and so forth, there is a little bit of an intimate feeling created. And fans in Mexico are just like any other fans – when teams are winning, they're going to want to get on the bandwagon. You start winning championships, and more people follow you. That's the nature of sports."
In some places across the globe, whether the disconnection is because of proximity or culture, the game of football doesn't translate as well as it does to our North American neighbors. Many American companies covet a large presence in China, the world's most populated country, but the rather complicated NFL isn't as easy a fit as KFC's fried chicken.
Richard Young, the managing director of NFL China, presents the success of Starbucks Coffee in that country as a reason for optimism. China, famously, has a tea-drinking culture. But Starbucks has been persistent in its efforts to expand in the country, opening a new store there every 24 hours, on average. And although less than 10 percent of people in China have ever been to a Starbucks, it is now the company's second-largest market behind only the U.S.
Despite the great challenges, the NFL has to be resolute in its pursuit of the Chinese market.
"Here, Monday Night Football comes on at 8 in the morning on Tuesday," Young says. "That's a tough timeslot for a three-hour game. We don't have a player in the league, or a Chinese National Team. We're not an Olympic sport, and in China there's a lot of national and ethnic pride around sports, although in any country you're going to have more patriots than sports fans. So people ask, 'when are you going to be the No. 1 sport in China?' That's not on our immediate horizon of what we want to achieve. But I've been here a long time, and I can remember when a lot of the products that are here now weren't around, and people didn't think they would ever enter the market – coffee, red wine, baby strollers. Well, good products are good products, and cultural differences are not that divisive.
"At the same time, coffee is not going to overtake tea. But the idea is you don't need to be No. 1. We can make a business here by really focusing on the people who do experience the product having a good time. Every sport has its great moments. But how regularly does the sport give those to you? The NFL gives those moments to you a lot, and that's the hallmark as it comes to a quality product."
Young counts 14 million NFL fans across China, from the mildly interested to the avid. The league's strategy is to make the games and the media properties accessible to as many people as possible while also staging local events to teach young people the sport.
"Once people have had that exposure, we hope they'll have enough interest to follow the sport," Young says. "For us, it is very much about youth outreach. There's a lot more interest in adopting something that's new and different among the youth here. … It's fun to see people who aren't jaded or don't have preset assumptions about the game."
Ultimately, the league's best hope for winning new fans and growing its market share across the globe is exposure. To that end, it seems a foregone conclusion that a team will eventually be based in London, the fifth-largest economic hub in the world, according to the Brookings Institution.
[embeddedad0]Over time, several more clubs could be based overseas.
"On the team side, I think we have to grow the fan base further than we've grown it today to have success if we moved a team," Parsons says. "We're really focused on that part of the puzzle at the moment – how do we continue to see this growth and generate enough interest in the market. If we do that, it sets us up nicely to be able to look at our options."
Speaking on behalf of their fellow UK Cowboys Fans, Smith and Draper-Wood say that their allegiance won't change when a team is placed in London.
"There is no way on earth I would stop following the Cowboys," Smith says. "If a team was based here, I would go watch some of the games just because it would be an opportunity to see NFL action live and in person. But the Cowboys are and always will be my team – my family.
"I'm Dallas Cowboys for life."