The Hustle

The NFL is going after international players — but it really wants international fans

The NFL’s expanded International Player Pathway program hopes to recruit foreign players -- and foreign fans.

March 11, 2020

The NFL plans to expand its International Player Pathway Program for the 2020 season, CNBC reports.

Since 2017, the IPP has invited a handful of non-American players each year to try and win a spot on an NFL squad. Efe Obada, a defensive end with the Carolina Panthers, became the first to make a team’s final roster in 2018.

By expanding the program, the NFL hopes to make international players — and their future fans — a bigger part of the league. 

The NFL wants to look more like the NBA

In recent years, roughly 25% of the NBA’s players have been international (this season it’s 108 players, or 24% of the league).

In the NFL, in contrast, often fewer than 2% of players are international (last year it was 23 players, or about 1.4%).

By expanding the international pipeline, the NFL hopes to attract greater talent from abroad that it might otherwise be missing (specifically, the NFL has said it hopes to recruit international soccer players as kickers).

But it’s as much about fans as it is about players

When international players rise to the top of foreign leagues, people from their countries often take notice: Foreign-born NBA stars like Dirk Nowitzki and Yao Ming both built huge fan bases in their home countries of Germany and China.

Japanese-born Rui Hachimura, who is in his rookie season with the NBA’s Washington Wizards, is already among the league’s most marketable players.

So for the NFL, international fans are a huge, untapped fan base — and league officials are eager to engage with them.

“This is about creating local heroes that are going to grow fans in the markets they’re from,” Damani Leech, chief operating officer of NFL International, explained to ESPN.

The NFL’s Competition Committee is expected to decide on final approval of the change later this month.

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