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American football has grown into a global phenomenon, with fans worldwide tuning in to weekly games from wherever they live. But do fans in other countries actually play the game?
American football is played in at least 19 countries outside the United States ~ and some even have their own professional leagues, like the well-known Canadian Football League.
In What Countries is American Football Most Popular?
As it was invented in the United States, this country without surprise leads all nations in terms of football players and fans. Football took over as the most-popular sport in America in the 1960s ~ with a great assist from the growth of television ~ and has yet to relinquish the crown, nor shown any signs that it may ever fall to No. 2.
There are over 5.3 million active players of the American version of football in the United States. Statista.com has the number of National Football League fans in the United States at 115 million ~ a little over a third of the nation’s total population.
Here’s what Statista logged for NFL fans in other nations:
- Mexico, 23.3 million NFL fans
- Brazil, 19.7 million
- Canada, 7.2 million
- South Korea, 6.72 million
- Germany, 6.66 million
- United Kingdom, 5.73 million
- Spain, 3.56 million
- Saudi Arabia, 3.12 million
- Australia, 2.64 million
- Argentina, 2.06 million
See any surprises? The fact that the top 2 are so far ahead of all the others ~ over 40 million NFL fans in just a couple of Latin countries? ~ says volumes. American football is similar to soccer, which is beyond huge in Latin nations. Note that Argentina is also in this Top 10.
What about South Korea? Saudi Arabia? Some say the NFL has not penetrated the entire global market. This list tells another story.
Besides having a lot of NFL fans, some of these nations have well-established American football organizations. Let’s take a peek at a few of them.
Not many know this, but American football has been played in Mexico since the 1920s. The nation’s first-ever professional football championship occurred in 1928. The game is still played there in semi-pro leagues, in colleges and universities, and in youth leagues. Some players from the Mexican National American Football team have made it all the way up to play in the National Football League.
Aside from the top sport of hockey, and also the popular rugby, American football has been popular in the Great White North for quite some time. Experts in the sport say that the Canadians have been playing football since it was invented, dating all the way back to 1861. The country has had a national team since 1986, and has been a member of the IFAF since 2004. The Canadian Football League (CFL) was launched in 1958.
American football has had a place in Japan since the early decades of the 20th century. In fact, the Japan American Football Association was founded in 1934. This Association includes corporate-sponsored teams, university clubs, semi-pro teams, and high school teams. The Pacific rim country even has annual bowl games, like the annual Koshien Bowl that was inaugurated in 1947.
The American Football Association of Germany was founded in 1982. The organization governs the national league, and the German bowls of football. There also is the very strong German Football League, created in 1979.
The British American Football Federation was founded in 1985. It is the national governing body for American football in a nation that for many years now has enjoyed NFL regular-season games in London.
Gridiron Australia was formed in 1996, and it is the governing body for American football in the nation. It is a member of the IFAF. Organized American football down under dates back to 1984.
- The Austrian Football League was founded in 1984.
- The national league for American football in Brazil, Superliga Nacional de Futebol Americano, started in 2010.
- The Israeli Football League (IFL), which was founded in 2005.
- Players in New Zealand organized American football in 1982.
- The Swedish American Football Federation (SAFF) was introduced in 1984.
First of all, American football as a game to watch is packed with action, including grown men purposely crashing into each other in ultra-violent collisions. Which human male wouldn’t want to watch at least a little of that? Why do you think so many people watch NASCAR races?
There also can be a fascination by foreigners as to why the National Football League is so popular in America. The Super Bowl alone is iconic in many countries. As are some of the well-known NFL players, like Tom Brady or Aaron Rodgers. So there’s the curiosity factor.
Perhaps the biggest reason American football sticks in some countries and not others is its similarity to soccer, and other sports that are popular abroad like rugby.
All 3 sports ~ soccer, rugby, and American football ~ are played on a rectangular field with goals at either end. Most historians link the birth of American football with rugby, which was born in 1823 at the Rugby School in Rugby, Warwickshire, England. It took until 1845 to codify the rules, but as you can see rugby outdated American football by decades.
As with American football, rugby began gaining popularity in schools, with students playing the new game all over the British Empire which spread the sport globally.
Games involving 2 sides scrimmaging while carrying and tossing a ball had existed for centuries in Great Britain. It should be noted that by the 1860s, a mild controversy surfaced regarding the growing sport of soccer.
In fact, in 1863, the Football Association (FA) was created to ban the carrying of the ball with the hands, and also forbidding holding players from access to the ball. This differentiated what became known as association football ~ now soccer ~ and rugby where blocking other players physically is part of the game.
Soccer is the most-popular sport in the world, a fact surprising to Americans as the sport never established solid footing among sports fans in the United States. The reasons vary from games being low-scoring affairs, to the lack of bodily contact you get with most major sports in North America.
However, everywhere besides in America, soccer is huge. We bring this up because fans who are accustomed to the ebb and flow of soccer, all the running back and forth shooting for a goal at either end of the field, made it easier for them to become familiar with the format that American football is played.
Think about it: Someone in a country far away, totally immersed in watching soccer, sees American football for the first time. They see a game where a ball is pushed by a squad against another who opposes and tries to take the ball the other way. Just like soccer.
Except in this new game, players are wearing these big ol’ helmets with face masks, and something under their uniform to make them look bigger (pads), and they all crash into each other hard, on purpose, every play! In fact, play does not stop until a player is knocked to the ground, or pushed out of bounds.
It’s easy to understand how longtime soccer fans might be attracted to the violent action of American football.
Add to that all the pomp and circumstance that comes with American football. Let’s say millions of people around the globe are attracted to American football due to the Super Bowl. Think about everything they will see.
They’ll see plenty of action on the gridiron, certainly, and a lot of noise from the large crowded stadium. But there’s also the camera shifting to the announcers’ booth for guys to talk about the game; all the silly commercials during breaks; and of course this extravagant halftime show.
Question: Why don’t more countries play our version of football?
Answer: Who knows? It could be an aversion to violence, since the game clearly has a lot of it. However, the biggest hurdle is probably money-related. Football requires a lot of land with manicured grass, plus a couple of huge field goals. Then there’s what’s needed for the players. Not every nation can equip 22 players with a helmet, shoulder pads, and all the other assorted gear that comes with a football uniform.
Q.: Can’t new countries try football games without pads?
A.: Yes, and they do. For instance, the Israeli Football League (IFL) is that country’s American football league. By 2005 it was fully formed for football as we know it with helmets and pads. However, initially it was started as a touch football league, in 1988.
Q.: Can’t other countries stage games with fewer players?
A.: Yes, and they do. For example, the Israeli women’s American football team debuted in 2005 at a European women’s tournament for 7-player teams.