Globalization is a key component of professional sports leagues around the world, and the National Football League is no exception, despite its reputation as a US-centered league, partly due to the lower number of international players compared to other major North American competitions.

In recent years the league has tried to go further overseas, trying to fill that void with a number of global initiatives.

Prior to the announcement of 11 players invited to this year’s International Player Pathway Program, the Japan Times spoke to Damani Leech, Chief Operating Officer of NFL International, about the league’s international strategies and their growing efforts in the Japanese market.

The COVID-19 pandemic has obviously affected the NFL and its season. How has this affected the league’s international activities?

It was both negative and positive I would say. From a negative point of view, it was of course very difficult not to be able to play international games this year. For our employees from a moral point of view and for our fans in the markets who expect these games every year and are happy about them and fill these stadiums, it was very difficult for them.

But it really forced us to accelerate our social and digital efforts and put more energy into finding ways to get our teams and our players creative using platforms like Microsoft Teams (and) Zoom, great platforms our players have connect with our fans feel good now and our fans feel good now. And that as a way to connect them. We found that this year was really, really good for us.

The UK and Mexico have hosted more NFL games in recent years. Meanwhile, Japan hosted the American Bowl preseason game every two years, but hasn’t seen any real NFL games since 2005. Why is that? Is the distance something that makes games more difficult?

Distance is certainly a challenge, (but) I would put that in an operational bucket. We don’t want the circus to come and go to town and then nothing will happen. We have to feel that there is a fan base in this market – that playing the game can really trigger incremental step change growth there, whatever you want to call it, but that it is fan growth as part of one Broader fan development can really trigger strategy.

When comparing soccer to other sports to break into the global marketplace, the NBA has players like Michael Jordan as the faces of the league. Several players from Japan were successful in Major League Baseball for several decades. What are the specific strategies and challenges for the NFL playing the game outside of North America?

I think it’s a very real challenge. And that’s why I said when I talk about our fan strategy and engagement, the game is so important because it’s a very American sport. At the top of that list, in terms of actual mature football structures, Canada, Japan, Mexico, and Germany … I mean, there are very few countries where it is played at a structured level.

Damani Leech | Courtesy of the NFL

While the X League and college football are played in Japan, there are very few such countries. In many countries we have to inform the fans about the soccer game. So we’re starting from a very low base and trying to grow our fandom – that’s a real challenge. And that’s why we’re trying, among other things, to increase the NFL flag so that young children can play the sport. We know that if you have played this sport, there is an incredibly great chance that you will become a fan of the sport.

Because of this, over the past four years we have invested in the International Player Pathway program, achieved great success with athletes from different markets, and are starting to put more energy into the Olympic pursuit of flag football.

Flag Football will be at the World Games in 2022. And then we all turned our eyes to the Los Angeles Olympics in 2028 as an opportunity for adult male and female flag football to be an Olympic-level sport.

And I think that’s what makes basketball so strong, doesn’t it? It’s an Olympic sport. You had this great dream team moment in the 90s. Baseball benefits from being a sport played all over the world. We have the Little League World Series. Children all over the world are playing the game. And they have professional athletes from many different countries, and that helps them too. So a very important part of our overall strategy is to expand the game.

The NFL has previously attempted to enter the Asian market including China, but it doesn’t seem to have turned out well. In Japan, the league was more popular in the 1980s and 1990s. How do you see the Asian market at the moment?

Let’s talk about Japan specifically. As I said, Japan is one of the few countries in the world that really has a mature football system in terms of (structural) structures. And that benefits us, and that was one of the first things I said when I got into that role about a year and a half ago – we were very euro-centric in evaluating players for the International Player Pathway Program.

And my point was, you know, finding rugby players and soccer players and teaching them soccer is really difficult. This is just a saying, at least here in the US, you fish where the fish are. And right now there is a lot of football in Japan, we have to fish in Japan. So this year we spent more time and energy getting in touch with the football organizers in Japan and getting information. I mean, the first step is to get information about players, rosters, and movies so our reviewers can review and identify people who may have a promise.

Would you agree that English is a must as well as physicality for these international players to ultimately make it to the NFL? After all, you can’t bring your interpreter into the group.

I think the physical component is incredibly important because if you don’t have that, other things don’t really matter. But once you have the physical component, the language is really very important because of the way the game is communicated.

Practice, in groups, on the field, make adjustments on the sidelines … you have to understand the language well.

The language is one of the biggest challenges for Japanese players when trying to play in North America as it is not actually an English speaking country.

Many countries are not. It’s definitely a challenge. I think that’s one of the advantages of looking at players who already play American football. Some of the terminology trips, some of the slang trips, and they may not have the full language but maybe they somehow understand the football language. (The X League) has a limited number of American players on each team. So there is a certain familiarity with the English language.

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  • Damani Leech |  Courtesy of the NFL