There is no doubt the Super Bowl is the biggest sporting event in America. It is our yearly version of the World Cup and the Olympics. It is probably the most watched event on television throughout the year. People gather from near and far to watch, even if they are not football fans. It is the most unofficial holiday in the United States.
But that of course, is in America. Is the Super Bowl just as popular overseas? What about in Canada or Mexico?
As usual, during the hype that is Super Bowl week, the NFL is quick to claim the absolute popularity and reach of American football. In 2007, the NFL purported that the Super Bowl was broadcast in 232 countries and in 33 languages. In last year’s Super Bowl was not only the highest rated Super Bowl in American history with 93 million viewers, but also was seen by 11 million Canadian viewers. That means, based on my archaic math, a higher percentage of Canadians (33%) tuned in than American viewers (31%).
However large its viewing audience, the Super Bowl’s magnitude of viewers and impact on worldwide culture does not make American football a prominent international game. I would guess American football is still behind soccer, golf, basketball, hockey, and baseball on the totem pole of global sports.
American football still has a long way to go in regards to international players as well. Whereas the other three major American sports (hockey, basketball, and baseball) all have notable stars from other nations, where are the foreign-born Pro-Bowlers? According to Sportsjunkie.info,
“The NFL is the only one of the four leagues not to have seen a dramatic increase in foreign-born players. It has held steady at a rate below 3% for more than 20 years. In fact, only 51 of the league’s 1,841 players in the NFL this season were born outside the U.S; seven of them were born in Canada. It’s interesting to note that Jamaica sent the most foreigners, nine, to the NFL in 2002. We North Americans know about the pattern of baseball imports from the Carribean, and hockey and basketball imports from Europe, but there is no such pattern in football.”
Despite the growth in Super Bowl viewership, the numbers of foreign-born football players trying to make it in the NFL actually decreased recently after increasing nearly 100% since the late 1990s. In 2006, there were 109 foreign-born players in NFL training camps. The following year, in 2007, there were only 99.
So far, the NFL has not been able to translate international viewing interest into athletic interest. Despite entities such as the International Development Practice Squad Program, the NFL still lags considerably behind the NBA, NHL, and Major League Baseball in international talent.
My guess is that the current low level of internationality will persist in the NFL for at least for another few years. During that time, Hockey and Basketball will continue to prosper through their respective world-wide independent leagues, and Baseball will lean on its ability to run international academies and training facilities to acquire international talent. But for now and the near future, the National Football League, the sport that most transends American culture, will stay the least international of the major American sports. Even if you can watch the Super Bowl in Zimbabwae.