The one American football game that the whole world holds it breath for - or so the National Football League would have us believe - is the Super Bowl.
But another matchup, far more modest than the megawatt championship game in New Orlean's Superdome on Jan. 26, could have far greater impact on the future of the sport.
It's the AFTI Global Junior Championship, which will be held Jan. 24 near New Orleans and pits the best junior football players from Europe against those from Mexico. The game's ticket price - an un-Super Bowl-like $7 - is part of a larger scheme to catalyze international participation in a popular American sport.
All "Big Four" pro sports - football, baseball, basketball, and hockey - are hustling to broaden their appeal worldwide. "They know that for long-term growth you can't just depend on the guys at the top [the athletes] and everybody wanting to buy [licensed merchandise]," says Patrick Steenberge, president of American Football Travel International (AFTI) and organizer of the Global Junior Championship.
He hopes the Jan. 24 game will inspire "kids sitting in Italy or Sweden or Spain [to] say, 'Wow, if I'm one of the best players in my country, I can go to the Super Bowl.' " Right now, says Mr. Steenberge, "there's not much of a football dream for them."
Despite its impressive-sounding name, though, the Global Junior Championship is still a sports acorn. The players stay with local host families, not in hotels, and will watch the Super Bowl on TV, not in person. Attending the game is too expensive.
The game's sponsor, Wilson Sporting Goods, is taking a wait-and-see approach to sponsoring the game again. But there's no doubt about the company's commitment to the Wilson NFL World Partnership, one of the many alliances sports leagues have forged to promote development through coaching clinics and educational ventures in other countries.
The National Basketball Association (NBA), which claims the sun never sets on its activities around the world, is a leader in this regard. With the help of corporate partners, the league has conducted "3-on-3" amateur competitions all over Europe and in Mexico and Japan. Currently, a skills-development program called "2ball" (two players pass and shoot together) is hot (see story below).
"Of the Big Four sports, basketball does far and away the best job [of global marketing] right now," says Jay Gladden, who teaches international sports at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst. He traces the NBA's global vision to the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona, Spain, when the "Dream Team" of United States basketball players revealed the tremendous international marketing power of the NBA's top stars.
Terry Lyons, NBA vice president for international public relations, says the league has benefited on the world stage from being in the Olympics and from worldwide advertising conducted by companies like Nike and Reebok that feature NBA players. "[Orlando Magic player] Penny Hardaway was known by everybody in Japan," Mr. Lyons says, recalling Mr. Hardaway's reception in Tokyo during two specially arranged early-season games. "Nike was a big part of that."
The promotion of sports overseas doesn't please everyone. Curtis Tong, athletic director at Pomona-Pitzer Colleges in Claremont, Calif., has traveled in Japan and worries that a flood of Big Four marketing experts is changing the Japanese sports landscape. "Professional sports in America have introduced a new marketing mentality into what had been a rather pure sports scene," he writes in a recent guest editorial in the NCAA News. Mr. Tong was struck by seeing many men and boys in rural Japan wearing the jackets of the National Hockey League teams.
Play and marketing as one
The NHL considers global merchandising integral to its growth. "The playing of the game is interwoven with the marketing of the game," says Steve Solomon, the league's chief operating officer.
That opinion echoes throughout Big Four front offices. Yet a leveling off of souvenir sales has put everyone on alert that solid international growth depends on more than trendy merchandise.
Win a fan's sporting heart and the wallet will follow, is today's modus operandi. "Most of the time when a person becomes a fan of the NBA they want to buy their favorite team's shirt," Lyons says. "The thing we most like to see, though, is somebody buying an NBA basketball. They're not buying it to put it on a shelf."
Observers agree that basketball attracts participants partly because it is inexpensive to play and the rules are relatively easy to understand. American football, on the other hand, appears to be neither. "It takes time to grow a sport outside of its main domain," says Pete Abitante, NFL director of international public relations.
That lesson was learned from the failure of the World League of American Football, a spring and summer league launched in 1991 by the NFL. It was the first sports league to operate on a weekly basis on two separate continents, Europe and North America. The World League suspended operation after two seasons, however, to regroup. Interest in products and one-time exhibitions, the NFL learned, doesn't easily translate into repeat game attendance - especially in a sport that can perplex Europeans and must always be distinguished from "real" football (alias soccer).
In the reincarnated Europe-only World League, with six teams, the profit motive has fallen away and missionary zeal risen for educating the public and gaining converts. Attendance was up nearly 20 percent, to about 17,000 a game, last year. "To fans in the US, that doesn't seem like a lot," Mr. Abitante says, "but from my experience in Europe that's actually quite impressive for something that's not a major soccer game."
Not only has the NFL worked to gain TV time for the league, which reserves a limited number of roster spots for Europeans, but it has put footballs in the hands of fans and promoted recreational and school flag-football leagues. These are seen as a less expensive, less physical entry-level alternative to the tackle game.
Abitante says NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue makes the point that football didn't begin as a equipment-oriented sport. "He likes to tell the story," Abitante says, "of the game being played in the street with a bunch of newspapers wrapped in electrical tape."
Gladden says those enlisted to market North American pro sports overseas are increasingly aware of other cultures. He cites a switch in the style of the World League uniforms to reflect soccer fashions as one example of the NFL's greater sensitivity.
Expanding American professional leagues globally would seem to be a way off. Among the Big Four, the emphasis is mainly on supporting the activity already in place. If expansion does occur, it may be to the south. Lyons says an NBA franchise in Mexico City is a "definite possibility" in the next five to 10 years.
And how can football resist? A 1994 preseason game between the Dallas Cowboys and Houston Oilers attracted an NFL-record 112,376 fans in Mexico City.