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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 U.S.-centric league, which stems in part from its smaller slate of international players compared with other major North American competitions.

In recent years the league has looked to reach further overseas and attempt to close that gap with a number of global initiatives.

Ahead of the announcement of 11 players invited for this year’s International Player Pathway Program, The Japan Times spoke with Damani Leech, the chief operating officer of NFL International, to discuss the league’s international strategies and its growing efforts in the Japanese market.

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

It’s been both negative and positive, I would say. I think from a negative standpoint, obviously, not being able to play international games this year was very difficult. For our staff, from a morale standpoint, and for our fans in those markets that have come to expect those games every year and get excited about it and fill those stadiums, it was very difficult for them.

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

Britain and Mexico have hosted more NFL games in recent years. Meanwhile, Japan used to host the American Bowl preseason game every other year but has not seen any real NFL games since 2005. Why is this? Is the distance something that makes games more challenging?

Distance is certainly a challenge, (but) I would put that in an operational bucket. We don’t want this to be, as we say, that the circus comes to town and leaves, and then nothing happens. We have to feel like there is a fan base in that market — that playing the game there can really spark incremental step-change growth, however you want to call it, but that it can really spark fan growth as part of a broader fan development strategy.

When you compare football with other sports, in terms of trying to penetrate into the global market, the NBA has had players such as Michael Jordan as faces of the league. In Major League Baseball, several players from Japan have been successful over several decades now. What are the specific strategies and challenges for the NFL taking 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 strategy of the fans and engagement, the game is so important, because it is a very American sport. So at the top of that list, in terms of actual mature football structures, Canada, Japan, Mexico and Germany… I mean, there’s very few countries where it is played at a structured level.

Damani Leech | COURTESY OF THE NFL
Damani Leech | COURTESY OF THE NFL

While the X League and college football are played in Japan, there’s very few countries like that. So in a lot of countries, we have to educate fans on what the game of football is. 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 do things like trying to grow NFL Flag as a way for young kids to play the sport. We know that if you’ve played the sport, there is an incredibly large chance that you are going to be a fan of the sport.

That’s also why we’ve invested in the International Player Pathway Program the last four years and have had great success with athletes from different markets, and are starting to spend more of our energy on the Olympic pursuit of flag football.

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

And I think that’s what makes basketball so strong, right? It’s an Olympic sport. You had that great moment of the Dream Team in the ’90s. Baseball benefits from being a sport played around the world. We have the Little League World Series. So kids all over the world play the game. And they have professional athletes from many different countries, and that helps them as well. So a very important part of our overall strategy is growing the game.

The NFL previously made attempts to enter the Asian market including China, yet it does not seem to have turned out well. In Japan, the league was more popular in the 1980s and ’90s. So how do you see the Asian market right now?

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

And my point was, you know, finding rugby players and soccer players and teaching them football is really hard. This is just a saying, at least here in the U.S., you fish where the fish are. And right now there’s a lot of football in Japan, we need to fish in Japan. So we’ve spent more time and energy this year, connecting with the football organizers in Japan, just to get information. I mean, the first step is getting information on players, rosters, game films, so that our evaluators can review it and identify people who might have some promise.

Would you agree that in order for these international players to ultimately reach the NFL, the English language is as much of a must-have component as the physicality? After all, you can’t bring your interpreter into the huddle.

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, really important because of the way the game gets communicated.

Practice, in the huddles, on the field, making adjustments on the sidelines… you have to have a good grasp of the language.

The language is one of the major challenges for Japanese players if they want to play in North America, because it’s not really an English-speaking country.

A lot of countries aren’t. It’s definitely a challenge. I think that’s one of the benefits, looking at players who are already playing American football. Some of the terminology travels, some of the slang travels, and they may not have a full grasp of the entire language, but maybe they sort of understand football language. (The X League) has a limited number of American players on each team. So there’s some familiarity with the English language.

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