Flag football at the Olympics might be the key to the NFL's overseas business plan

Key Points
  • The NFL says it has a plan to grow its international business to $1 billion annually and attract its next set of fans.
  • The league projects it will attract 50 million consumers internationally over the next 10 years.
  • The league is pushing for flag football to be included in the 2028 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles.
A general view during the NFL London 2021 match between Miami Dolphins and Jacksonville Jaguars at Tottenham Hotspur Stadium on October 17, 2021 in London, England.
Alex Pantling | Getty 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 some work to do first. And it involves 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's annual meetings this past week, Leech discussed the next phase of NFL expansion overseas. He said that in the next 10 years, the NFL projects it will attract 50 million consumers internationally. That would add to its 180 million consumers domestically and over 150 million international fans who already consume the most popular U.S. sport.

"That's our big number that we're focused on," Leech said.

Here's a look inside the NFL's 10-year international plan.

TOKYO, JAPAN - JULY 23: The Olympic Rings are seen outside the stadium as fireworks go off during the Opening Ceremony of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games at Olympic Stadium on July 23, 2021 in Tokyo, Japan.
Lintao Zhang | Getty Images Sport | Getty Images

NFL needs flag football in the Olympics

"We've got to make the game matter," Leech said when discussing the importance of expanding the sport overseas.  

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 resembles gridiron football, except there is no tackling, and pads and helmets aren't necessary for participation.

"If flag football becomes an Olympic sport, more countries will invest in playing that sport," Leech said.

It wouldn't be the first time football aimed for Olympic inclusion.

American football was included in the 1932 Olympic Games as a demonstration sport. Since then, it hasn't been recognized. In 1996, apparel company Reebok lobbied unsuccessfully for gridiron football to re-enter the Olympics landscape with a commercial featuring Dallas Cowboys running back Emmitt Smith.

But the International Olympic Committee did recognize the International Federation of American Football as a governing body in 2013. That could help the NFL as it pushes for the 2028 Olympic Games.

During Super Bowl weekend earlier this year in Los Angeles, Leech said the NFL organized a U.S. versus Mexico flag football game featuring both men and women – an Olympic requirement. Casey Wasserman, the media executive who chaired the push to nab the Summer Olympics for Los Angeles in 2028, was in attendance. He was the chair of the host committee for the Super Bowl in LA, as well.

LA28 officials did not make Wasserman available for comment to discuss the matter. However, Leech said the CEO of Wasserman Media Group is "supportive of the idea" to include flag football.

"I think they were impressed by the speed of it," Leech said of other LA28 officials watching the five-on-five football game. "It's position-less football where everyone is a receiver, and everyone is a quarterback. You see the speed of it, and it's entertaining."

Also, the NFL is aligned with flag football's 2022 World Games, which will be held in Alabama from July 7 to July 17. The games feature men and women from teams from countries that include Brazil, France, Germany, Japan, and Mexico.

Leech added that the World Games would be "a good opportunity to show the IOC what this sport looks like. That it is competitive and attractive."

Hamburgs Quarterback Rod Rutherford (C) in action during the NFL Europe game between Hamburg Sea Devils and Cologne Centurions at the AOL Arena on April 14, 2007 in Hamburg, Germany.
Alexander Hassenstein | Bongarts | Getty Images

Lessons from NFL Europe experiment 

While the league lobbies IOC officials, Leech persists in seeking new international markets.

The NFL already has a base in Europe. It says it has another 4 million "avid" fans in Canada. Leech is traveling to Africa this month to scout business opportunities and align NFL Academies for high schoolers worldwide to teach American football.

The league also increased its global scouting with its NFL Players Pathway program. This unit is used to attract and develop non-traditional players throughout the world. In March 2020, the NFL started trying to lure soccer players to the program as it wants to convert these players for possible NFL kicker 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 matched domestic teams, including San Antonio and Sacramento, to play in a league that incorporated international clubs. The WLFA didn't last too long. In 1995, it folded and was rebranded as NFL Europe. That business closed in 2007.

Currently, the NFL experiments by playing games in Europe – mainly featuring the Jacksonville Jaguars. At the annual meetings last week, owners approved the Jaguars' plan to play at Wembley Stadium in London over the next three years.

When discussing why the NFL would work in Europe this time, Leech referenced the league's history with spring football, saying it cultivated fans.

"Financially did it work for the league?" he said. "No. But it had a lot of 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 the Germany market "outperforms many other markets in terms of viewership, consumer products. They are consuming the sport without us having played games there."

NFL Sunday Ticket sister property

The NFL also granted access to teams to collect more revenue and consumer data with its International Home Marketing Areas plan in December 2021. It allows 18 teams throughout 26 international territories to leverage the "commercialization" of the sport. If that works, it only helps fuel 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 the United States. In this package, international consumers can stream live all on platforms, including DAZN, which licenses NFL content for streaming revenue in Canada.

Damani Leech, NFL COO
Source: NFL

Leech said NFL Game Pass has reached 1 million paid subscribers, 600,000 in Europe. Though consumers in Europe don't pay for Game Pass just yet, the NFL knows who they are through data collection. "We need to grow that number," Leech said of NFL Game Pass.

That also benefits Fanatics. Since the e-commerce and memorabilia company is partly owned by the NFL, and it relies on the league's consumer data. Fanatics has 80 million users, who are the foundation for its projected $27 billion valuation.

The global landscape could interrupt plans

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

There's no guarantee the IOC will accept flag football as a sport. On Friday, the IOC revealed a set of "principles" sports federations need to honor before any consideration for Olympic integration. The decision to add flag football will be determined after the 2024 Olympics Games in Paris.

Harvey Schiller, a former executive director of the U.S. Olympic Committee, said the NFL needs to execute a series of steps to get flag football on the Olympics' radar.

Step one is finding more countries to play the game.

"The second step is spending time with the IOC members that vote on it. That takes a lot of time and energy," Schiller said. They also want the best athletes involved, he added. "They want to see players that have competed in the NFL or will compete in the future," he said.

The NFL also must compete with soccer 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 seized large international markets by establishing a more than $5 billion business in China and a $1 billion business in Africa. It also wants to add India. 

Russia's invasion of Ukraine is also sparking fears among businesses of reduced globalization. That could further jeopardize growth in countries whose ideals don't match American values.

Leech said the NFL pulled all of its business in Russia, which amounts to about $300,000 in annual revenue that mostly comes from Electronic Arts' Madden football video games.

"We can't be profiting in a market where things like that are happening," Leech said. Asked whether the NFL would consider pulling its 2022 games overseas if the war escalates, Leech responded: "If it turns into something larger, we'll address it when it happens."

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

Where would the NFL be at that point? 

Leech projected it would be "deeply engaged" with football fans in 12 to 15 markets worldwide. The NFL would also have over 3 million paid subscribers for its Game Pass streaming business, he said.

"And, depending on the market," Leech added, "the top three most-popular sports properties in that country."

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