When you are next on Google, type into the search box something like ‘the most-watched TV shows in history.’ You may be amazed to note that – spoiler alert – in the US, 19 of the 20 most-watched broadcasts have been separate editions of the Super Bowl.

On the all-time list, Super Bowl XLIX – which took place in 2015 – was watched by a staggering 115 million people. If we take a broader snapshot and look at the highest viewing figures for 2019, seven of the top ten most-watched were football games. Even the New England Patriots versus the Kansas City Chiefs playoff game was watched by more peoplethan Donald Trump’s State of the Union Address.

And yet, on a global scale, American football struggles to make inroads into other countries as a mainstream sport of choice.

‘Super Bowl XLVII’ – djanimal via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

There’s undoubtedly scope for growth. Just take a look at the attendance figures for the NFL International Series, which routinely sells out huge stadiums like Wembley Stadium in London and the Estadio Azteca in Mexico City.

However, the attendees are typically hardcore fanatics willing to travel to watch a live NFL game. The real test comes when looking at TV viewing figures in non-North American countries. Here, the problems that the sport’s organizers have become evident.

In the UK back in 2017, the Miami Dolphins took on the New Orleans Saints in an International Series game at Wembley Stadium. Some 84,000 people attended the game in person, and yet only 386,000 viewers tuned into the coverage on BBC 2 – a channel that comes with the low-cost UK TV license and is available on every single television set sold in the United Kingdom.

For context, the final of reality TV dating show Love Island got 2.6 million viewers. So why doesn’t American football travel well outside of North America?

Scrum Down

As we know, European audiences will always have their version of football – soccer – as the number one sport in their hearts. There are a number of reasons for this: tradition is one of them, but its popularity worldwide also means that commercial partners are desperate to get involved in the sport by sponsoring teams and competitions. That flow of money helps to improve the standard of play in the major European leagues, and so the cycle continues.

Soccer is also incredibly popular because there really isn’t another sport quite like it, and yet American football can be said to have a direct competitor in the shape of rugby, a popular sport across Europe and in the southern hemisphere. 

‘Rugby’ – Kerrie_ via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Rugby shares some common characteristics with American football. Firstly, it’s a full-contact sport, played on a similar size pitch to football with familiar line markings. And while the ball cannot travel forwards in rugby, the object is still to try and cross the end zone (known as the ‘try line’) and then add further points with a field goal (or a ‘conversion’ as it is named).

In Australia, there is even more competition in the public’s consciousness. This is a country that loves rugby – there are two codes of the sport, League and Union – as well as Aussie Rules football, which also shares many characteristics with rugby.

And then there’s soccer, which also continues to grow in popularity. For evidence of that, look no further than the latest A-League betting odds offered by the sportsbooks: in Australia, as well as the UK and parts of Europe, the standard A-League soccer game had more betting markets available than the Super Bowl.

That just goes to highlight the difficulties that the head honchos at the NFL face in growing the game on a global scale. There is such comprehensive competition from a wide variety of sports that American football doesn’t really get a look in – even when it is given a chance to shine on terrestrial television.

It’s a shame that the Super Bowl, the self-styled ‘Greatest Show on Earth’, fails to attract the attention it deserves outside of North America.