By Alex Didion / for The Sporting Nation
Football has long been the most popular sport within the United States, but "America's Game" has now expanded around the world. The International Federation of American Football, American football's equivalent to an international governing body, now has 71 member nations and continues to look for more.
The National Football League began promoting American football abroad as early as the 1970s. Bob Kap, a football visionary known for bringing European soccer players and converting them to NFL kickers, was the catalyst behind the proposed Intercontinental Football League. The IFL would be an NFL-sponsored football league with six franchises spread across Europe. The NFL would give the new league players and coaches in exchange for U.S. television rights.
The first season was set to begin in April of 1975, but financial issues coupled with security concerns caused the league to fold before it ever began.
The NFL was able to field a successful, foreign-based league just over a decade later with the founding of the World League of American Football. The league consisted of 10 teams: six from the United States, three from Europe and one Canadian team. The league was seen as a spring developmental league, but once franchises began to hemorrhage money, the WLAF began to falter.
The league suspended operations after the 1992 season, but NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue said he planned to restart the league down the road with much more of an emphasis on European teams, where the league was much more popular. In 1995, the league was rebooted with only six teams, all of them based in Europe.
The league was rebranded as NFL Europe before the 1998 season and had many players go on to successful NFL careers, including Super Bowl MVP Kurt Warner and four-time Super Bowl champion Adam Vinatieri.
The league announced just over a week after the 2007 World Bowl was held in front of a crowd of 48,125 in Frankfurt, that NFL Europa would be ceasing operations immediately. NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said in a statement concerning the decision that the league would be shifting its international marketing strategy to spread more broadly across the globe. Also, the NFL was losing a reported $30 million according to NFL.com wire reports.
The first regular season game ever played outside of the United States was held in 2005 at Estadio Azteca in Mexico City between the Arizona Cardinals and the San Francisco 49ers. The game broke the league record for attendance at a regular season game with 103,467 fans on hand for the contest.
The Cardinals were definitely outnumbering the 49ers in fans, especially given the fact that Rolando Cantu, a tackle on the Cardinals practice squad, was born in Monterrey, Mexico, and played his college football at the Instituto Tecnológico y de Estudios Superiores de Monterrey. His jersey was seen displayed prominently across many of the fans’ chests, but almost every NFL team was supported through apparel worn by members of the crowd.
The success of the event prompted the league to create the International Series, with the league hosting one regular season game each season from 2007-2012. All of the games were played at Wembley Stadium, which has been the home of England’s national soccer team since 2007.
In 2013, the league announced it would be increasing its presence internationally with two regular season games in London during the 2013 and 2014 seasons. 2015 saw the league play three games at Wembley Stadium, including the first divisional matchup between the New York Jets and the Miami Dolphins.
2016 will mark the NFL’s return to Mexico City as the Oakland Raiders will take on the Houston Texans on Monday, November 21, 2016 at Estadio Azteca, the site of the 2005 game. This game will be added in addition to three London games for 2016.
Mexico has quietly developed into one of the world’s strongest nations at American football outside of the U.S. There are two major American football leagues played within the country. The Organización Nacional Estudiantil de Futbol Americano, or ONEFA, has over 100 teams within four separate age divisions: Liga Mayor (University/college), Liga Intermedia (Undergrad/ High School), Liga Juvenil (junior high/middle school) and Liga Infantil (elementary school).
ONEFA puts together an all-star team after each season and they match up against a squad of Division II, III, and NAIA players often hastily thrown together at the last minute. The Aztec Bowl has been played intermittently since 1950, with all but one of the games being played in Mexico.
Augsburg College head football coach Frank Haege has been on the coaching staff for Team USA in the Aztec Bowl since 2011. “It’s been a challenge to get kids from the states to get down there,” Haege said.
He talked about how his U.S.team, which is often a mishmash of players from across college football, gets only three days to meet and practice with each other before taking the field against the best Mexico’s public institutions of higher learning have to offer.
Haege does describe how impactful the experience can be for young players. “The guys can spend four days down there and experience real Mexico,” he said. The fans also come out in droves, as the 2015 edition of the game there were 32,000 fans in attendance to see the Mexican College All Stars defeat the Team USA Eagles 17-14. According to Haege, there is “huge football interest with Texas bordering Mexico.”
There is also CONADEIP, made up of 128 private schools and universities throughout Mexico, including Cantu’s alma mater, ITESM in Monterrey. The organization also hosts an all-star game against the United States, the Tazón de Estrellas. The seventh annual exhibition was held at the Margarita Asistiazrán de Fimbres Stadium in Baja California, with Team Stars and Stripes representing the United States winning a tightly contested game 15-14.
College all-star games are not the only opportunity for athletes to get a chance to compete for Team USA on the gridiron. The 2015 International Bowl featured the best U-19 football players the United States had to offer matched up against their counterparts from Canada.
Noah Myers, a sophomore offensive lineman at Washington State University, was a member of the 2015 squad. “The experience was pretty amazing, being on such a talented team was so motivating and I’m still great friends with some of the guys from the team,” he said. Team USA shutout the Canadians 35-0.
Clinton Alexander, currently the head football coach at Woodberry Forest School, was the Team USA defensive coordinator in 2014. “They are incredibly well-coached, it is amazing,” Alexander said when describing the opposing teams he saw.
American football has made a strong push to become an Olympic sport in line with the international growth of the sport. The International Olympic Committee gave the IFAF “provisional recognition” which allows a vote on whether it would be added to the Olympic slate as early as 2024. “Based on the structure of the international Olympic movement, our relationship is principally with the national organization, USA Football,” said Mark Jones, Senior Director of Communications for the United States Olympic Committee. USA Football was granted formal recognition by the USOC on November 6, 2015.
As a result of this spread of American football around the world, there's been a rise in international players making an impact in the NFL. Kicker Morten Andersen, born in Copenhagen, Denmark, garnered seven Pro Bowl selections and six All-Pro awards during his 25-year career.
Defensive end Ezekiel Ansah, a native of Ghana, tried out for basketball and track and field after coming to America for college at BYU before finally finding football. Ansah was selected with the fifth overall pick of the 2013 NFL Draft, and was a Pro Bowler and an All-Pro second-teamer in 2015.
Mexico has continued to attempt to develop a football culture among its sports fans, but soccer has seemed to always dominate the conversation. Ambassadors of the sport within the Latino community like Cantu and fellow Arizona Cardinals employee Luis Zendejas, a former kicker born in Mexico City who made 37 of his 55 field goal attempts during a three-year career in the league, will be instrumental in continuing to develop American football not just in Latin America, but across the world.
Zendejas invites kicking specialists from Mexico to attend a camp held annually in May in the Phoenix area.
There has been talk almost every year of the league potentially moving a team out to London to accommodate the great desire for NFL football in that city, but for the logistics of having one team over 5,000 miles away from any of the others. Moving a team to Mexico City would be the most ideal situation for the NFL in terms of an international team, as there would not be major distance concerns and the TV market is more than ideal to keep the NFL’s pockets lined for years.
The Oakland Raiders declined to make anyone available from their team about November’s game against the Texans, but commissioner Roger Goodell discussed the game during his Super Bowl 50 Press Conference. “We believe it’ll be a tremendous success and we’re excited about being there,” Goodell said. “To all of our fans down there, we’re happy to be able to give the right answer this year."