THE BUSINESS AND POLITICS OF SPORTS
(Tallinn, Estonia) – The National Football League season is opening but America’s Sunday obsession or American men’s excuse to rot in front of a television for 13 hours a day once a week in the fall is not shared by Europeans. The National Football League is far, far behind the other North American sports, the National Hockey League, the National Basketball Association, Major League Baseball, Major League Soccer, track and field, golf, tennis, sailing and cycling in both popularity and selling merchandise around the world, particularly in Europe.
The NFL has tried to make a dent in the European marketplace for two decades but has failed. The Finnish equivalent of a sports magazine like Sports Illustrated or The Sporting News, Veikkaaja, featured Finnish basketball player Petteri Koponen on the cover and his hopes for a shot in the NBA. The magazine was loaded with articles on golf, biking, hockey and football—the international game not the American obsession.
There were two hockey magazines on the rack at S Market in Helsinki and yes a football magazine, but not the kind of magazine that the NFL would like. There was a featured piece on Wayne Rooney, the English footballer not Tom Brady or Peyton Manning or even Rex Ryan.
Across the Gulf of Finland in the emerging city of Tallinn, Estonia, Finnish hockey is a big deal and that Rooney guy is on the cover of football magazines—the international game not the American game.
In St. Petersburg, Russia, hockey and football are popular, but again it is not the kind of football which Americans dote upon during the fall and early winter. In a town where McDonalds, Coca-Cola and other American “icons” are accepted, the National Football League remains a mystery. Russians have competed in the NHL and NBA; Russian women dominate tennis (although the best of the Russians seem to have been trained in Florida). In 1972, two events, the Canada-Russia Summit Series in hockey and the Soviet’s victory over the Americans in the Olympics changed both industries. The Soviets started going to North America to play both National Hockey League and World Hockey Association teams and the disputed end to the US-USSR basketball game forced Americans to look at what went wrong in Munich in the scarred 1972 Olympics.
The Boston Celtics’ czar Red Auerbach really began the globalization of basketball in 1964 when he took a group of NBA players to Europe with the goal of beating the Soviet National Team in Moscow. Auerbach was annoyed that the Soviet Union team was beating up on American college kids in various international tournaments and decided to march on Moscow with the help of his friends at the United States Department of State. Auerbach’s goal was to get a Soviet visa for himself, his staff and players and be a Johnny Appleseed by putting seeds down in various European countries by playing games and giving clinics through a his march on the European continent.
Auerbach got as far as Cairo, Egypt. He never did get the Soviet visas and was stopped but along the way throughout Europe and into Cairo, Auerbach planted the seeds that would eventually produce quality European basketball players who would play in the league and open up international markets.
There are many European leagues and players and that may have been pushed along by Auerbach and his group of players back in 1964.
Hockey’s involvement with the European continent goes back more than a half a century. In fact, President Dwight D. Eisenhower tried to put a thaw in the Cold War with the Soviet Union in the late 1950s by sending the United States national hockey team to play some exhibition games against the Soviets in Moscow. The Americans failed in their efforts to bring down the temperature between the two countries that were at the nadir of their relationship at that point. Bill Cleary, one of the players who went to Moscow, in an interview years later with this reporter, told of eating in a Moscow restaurant with his teammates and the Soviet intimidation tactic of the day was placing models of the Sputnik spacecraft at every table where the Americans dined to remind the Americans that the Soviet Union, not the United States, was successful in getting into space.
Following the 1957-58 season, the NHL sent two teams to Moscow to play exhibition games, the Boston Bruins and the New York Rangers. In 1964, the Swedish trained Ulf Sterner played a number of games for the Rangers and by 1973, National Hockey League and World Hockey Association teams began signing Swedish and Finnish players.
The National Football League has never had a Red Auerbach or a Cold War to propel American football into European space. The league has had difficulty in establishing a beachhead on the continent. Various league experiments, the World League of American Football, NFL Europe, NFL Europa, have failed In Amsterdam, there is no trace that the NFL back league once existed. In the former East German cities of Warnemunde, Rostock and Schwerin, football is popular but again that Rooney guy is well known, but its not American football.
The NFL does stage an annual game in London and there were American football goalposts in an athletic field in Stockholm, Sweden. So there are signs of some growth on the European continent. But the NFL is rather limited in the ability to grow the brand in Europe. American football is played in just American and in some small pockets of the world. There is no support system from grade school to junior high school to high school to college to prepare players in the industry anywhere but in the United States and British Columbia.
The world game is football—the international variety—the NFL had hoped to play a game in Beijing in 2007 on the date that marked the one year exactly to the 2008 Beijing Games. The league could not pull off the exhibition game and while league officials stated that the NFL would try and send two teams over to China, the project seems to have been permanently shelved. The NFL has been to Japan, Australia and Sweden but there seems to be a severe lack of interest in the game on the ground although NFL games are available on TV. But a trip to a department store in Stockholm provides a clue to the NFL’s lack of popularity in Sweden. You can get a National Hockey League TV package and the NHL video game but you really have to look to find the same NFL product. John Madden’s game is not found but the NHL game with Steve Stamkos on the cover is prominently displayed as is the NHL TV package.
NBA Commissioner David Stern had a stated goal of establishing an NBA European division by 2010. That didn’t happen but the NBA sent the New Jersey Nets and the Toronto Raptors to play in London last March as part of the regular season. The NBA has staged many pre-season games throughout the European continent. The NBA has not been able to establish the four, five or six team European division because of arena restrictions. Phil Anschutz runs the North American style arenas in London and Berlin but there are not enough of those buildings in Europe and that is what is holding back NBA expansion into Europe.
The National Hockey League will be opening the season in Stockholm, Helsinki and Berlin in October. It will be the fifth season that the league will be hold opening games on the continent.
Major League Baseball has strongholds in Latin America, the Caribbean, Asian Pacific rim and in Australia. MLB has identified Italy as a place where baseball could grow and India might be a place where players could be found.