NFL vs. NBA: The Duel for the Highly Profitable Global Market

By: Madhav Ramesh

The vision of the American family that congregates around the plasma television watching Sunday night football is becoming nonexistent. With this vision slowly fading away, there has been a rise in popularity of other sports leagues, particularly the National Basketball Association (NBA). The avid football fan might be outraged by that statement.  However, empirical data definitely proves this assertion. According to a Gallup poll, the percentage of self-identifying adult football fans have dipped 10 percentage points, from 67% in 2012 to 57% in 2017. Whereas, other sports either kept a constant fanbase or have actually increased their viewers. In addition, another Gallup poll found that the Republican voters, who originally had the highest percentage of professional football viewers amongst those affiliated with major political parties, decreased from 70% in 2012 to 55% in 2017. This decrease is not a random coincidence. Much of the fault lies in the league’s lackluster effort to expand its market. However, there are some other issues that may be attributed to the cause of this decline.

The rise of football players diagnosed with CTE and other brain conditions have been brought to light as of recently. While I doubt that this would have caused a huge decrease in the amount of fans in the short-term, I believe, along with many other sports experts like Bryant Gumbel and Orin Starn, that this could very potentially have long-term effects like dissuading the youth from watching and playing football, causing the lack of talent and therefore, a complete termination of the sport. Recently, there has been a movement in the NFL to kneel during the national anthem to protest police brutality and promote racial equality. Even during President Donald Trump’s recent State of the Union, he subtly condemned those actions of the football players. This issue is not one that solely the President disagrees with, rather a considerable amount of people consider the protest disrespectful to veterans who have risked their lives to protect the foundation of this country. While this may have recently caused some decrease in the number of fans, the problems were still lingering before the 2016 when the protests started. This is to the passive approach that the NFL is to retain their fan base and expand to other markets.

While the NFL ratings have considerably dropped in the United States, the NFL is looking to the United Kingdom as a potential market for viewers. In fact, the viewers in the United Kingdom have increased by 60% in 2017.. There is a great deal of risk for the NFL to put all their efforts in one country just for it to just be a “fad” or a passing phase, especially since Rugby is the primary sport known to English viewers. The NFL has committed to playing at least three games in the United Kingdom, but besides that, they are not doing comparably as much as the NBA in its reach for more viewers.

Looking at the NBA’s marketing strategy, much of the success that they have had is due to the heavy international presence that basketball has in the world, not solely in the United States. The NBA is not the only basketball league globally. There are also the Euroleague and the Chinese Basketball Association (CBA). Young talent from a variety of ethnic backgrounds are coming to the NBA and thus, bringing a massive fan base along with it. Part of the NBA’s success in Asia is because of Yao Ming’s efforts to promote the sport in China. While Asia is a strong market that the NBA has found considerable success in, they are not solely looking to expand into Asia. They have taken an interest in Mexico and potentially adding more events and potentially adding a franchise in Mexico City. The NBA has made some regular season games in Mexico to potentially spark interest in basketball there. In addition to direct expansion and international leagues, the NBA has created many development basketball camps in various places globally to develop international talent and to also spread the love for basketball. Recently, last summer, Kevin Durant, reigning NBA Finals MVP, went to India to head a basketball camp. India is a budding market for sports. While the likes of cricket and badminton are well-documented, there is still huge potential for the NBA.

Not only does the NBA spread the popularity of basketball through their controlled marketing plan, the level of endorsements that happen externally with the players have also increased the popularity of the sport. When Michael Jordan protested for players to wear their own shoes during games, he unintentionally sparked a cultural revolution that would spread the sport internationally. Now, most of the top NBA stars have custom-made shoes from many brands like Nike and Adidas, which are sold across the globe. This helps the NBA market its “product” better by having multiple different ways of entries into a market. Also, in entertainment and pop culture, there have been multiple references to basketball players. Drake, a global ambassador for the Toronto Raptors and a famous rapper, has mentioned aspects of professional basketball in his songs, which further promotes the NBA to his entire musical fan base.

While the NFL has executed similar marketing schemes, they have been rather complacent in starting in comparison to the NBA. NBA has been gradually growing since arguably 1984, while the NFL has only has actively sought long-term growth from 2007. While the NFL has made efforts to exposing American football to London, which has been a moderate success, for the NFL to transcend the limitations that are somewhat out of their control, they must expose the game to an even larger audience, similar to that of the NBA. Based on my personal opinion, even having a diverse executive board for the teams can potentially help with more international recognition of the sport. For example, Vivek Ranadive, an Indian-American, is the CEO of the Sacramento Kings. While not necessarily a primary reason of increases in Indian basketball fans, by having executive positions given to foreigners, there could potentially be a proclivity towards watching the sport.

I hope to see the NFL steal a play from the NBA’s playbook and expose American professional sports to a global arena. Globalization of the sport is the future of sports today and the NFL still has a long way to captivate the global audience.


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