Why has gridiron football never gained popularity outside North America?

The other two ongoing football threads got me thinking about this topic. Baseball, hockey, and basketball, the other three major North American team sports, have had success in other parts of the world. This includes domestic leagues in multiple other countries and continents, Olympic gold medals won by teams other than the US and Canada, players from other nations that play in the top North American leagues, and so on. Football, for whatever reason, has been unable to pull off that feat. What are some of the reasons for this?

Is it because the game requires a large number of competitors per team? Maybe it’s the higher risk of injury due to it being a collision sport? The set piece nature of the game as discussed in the other thread? Something else?

It’s way too complicated. American football is arguably the most complex sport in the world to learn and understand. All that stuff about downs, pass interference, yardage, line of scrimmage, fair catches, onside kicks, false starts, eligible receivers is super difficult to comprehend for someone with no prior exposure to it. On top of that, it also requires a great deal of special gear (alongside of hockey, but at least hockey’s not as hard to follow). Those two factors - complexity and gear - are usually what makes a sport widespread or not. And the fact that you can break your neck or concuss your brain while playing it, as you mention, doesn’t help its popularity either.

Finally, American football requires a variety of bodies to play. You need huge linemen. You need speedy backs and receivers. You need middle-sized linebackers. It’s hard to fill a roster that way.

Conversely, as a counter-example, soccer is the most popular sport in the world, played with gusto by virtually every nation, because it’s one of the simplest to understand and requires almost no special gear. And soccer players all only need more or less the same physique - reasonably thin and with stamina. You don’t need 300-pound muscular men, nor 4.5-second forty-dash speedsters.

One of the complaints I’ve heard from non-Americans is that they enjoy the pace of rugby and FIFA football much more than that of American football, with its stopping and starting. Someone is always in motion. That might explain why basketball is probably our most popular export when it comes to team sports.

To be entirely fair, it’s not that gridiron football isn’t popular (or played) at all outside of North America – the NFL’s developmental leagues that played in Europe (WLAF, NFL Europe), as well as satellite broadcasts of NFL games, has helped to build a fan base for the sport in several European countries (particularly England and Germany). And, there are various club leagues, and even a couple of professional leagues, playing the sport in Europe (and in Australia, as well).

But, it’s certainly fair to say that it hasn’t caught on in those countries as a major participation or spectator sport, the way it has in North America, likely largely for the reasons already noted.

Football is kind of a state sponsored sport in the US; depending on the largess of public school systems and state universities for most of the infrastructure and training required of the athletes recruited into its professional ranks. I wonder if any government-funded schools outside of the US put that many resources toward training soccer or rugby players.

I hear it’s quite popular in Brazil, of all places.

Baseball is much worse. In football, you’re trying to get one of your guys with the ball into that area of the field, and your opponents are trying to do the same in that other area of the field. There are more details, of course, but that’s the core of it. It’s about taking territory, and like many sports, is a simplified model of warfare. There’s no explanation of even the core of baseball that’s anywhere close to as simple as that.

Sure there is. I think it was Yogi Berra who said the goal of baseball was really simple. Hit it where they ain’t.

ETA. I assume it was Yogi who said that, but I could be remembering that incorrectly.

“I really didn’t say everything I said.”

Well there’s cricket, which is pretty popular

But difficult to understand :sweat_smile:

School funded sports drawing crowds outside of the players’ friends and family is a lot less of a thing outside of the US.

In Norway youth sports is run by sports associations outside of school and practice is an after school activity. There are sports associations associated with the major universities, and some of them have athletes and teams that compete at the national level, but they’re independent organizations following the Norwegian laws of sports associations, they’re not a part of the university. My alma mater does have an American Football team, but they also have about 50 other sub-groups of various sizes, ranging in size and prestige from soccer and European handball at one end to quidditch at the other.

It’s all in the perception though; if you’re involved in American football, you realize that each play is sort of its own “mini game” in that there are a set of circumstances (down, distance, field position, clock, score) and that both sides are trying to anticipate what the other team might do, and set up for it.
Then once the ball is snapped, the players do their thing, and you see the athleticism and intelligence.

Other more freeform sports seem to have more in-game downtime where they’re just passing the ball at mid-field, or dribbling the ball at half-court, or whatever, even though the clock isn’t stopped and neither is play. It’s not all that different- football has just formalized it.

I like both types; they’re interesting for different reasons. For whatever reason, the more free-form games like soccer, hockey and basketball have less in the way of strategy, or what there is, tends to be less… directed? I mean, if you’re behind in a basketball game and time is getting short, you need to score more points. There are limited ways to accomplish that- you can try to play to mismatches between players, or you can try to run set-piece plays like pick-and-rolls, or you can do a full-court press. But you’re somewhat limited in that for the most part, the game is much the same. You can do intentional fouling, etc… as well. Football has more options- more plays, more formations, more potential mismatches, more ways to get down the field, etc…

The rest of the world does play football.

All of the organised/regulated brands of football were organised/regulated at around the same time. Gridiron football wasn’t much different from any of the other native/unorganized/unregulated local games. It was all the same game, just selected/developed differently.

Gridiron football is unique in that it has changed so much since it was first formalized. It now looks different than its origin, and different than it’s common shared origin. But soccer and rugby also look different from each other, in spite of being two branches from the common pool. Gridiron ‘has changed so much’ but hasn’t changed so much that it has evolved it into a new game with a new niche.

Baseball was an enormously successful selection/formalization, but hasn’t replaced Cricket where that is played. Ice hockey is stickball played on ice, and the Canadian form has become popular due to it’s formalization at the time sports were being formalized, and then the development of artificial rinks.

Basketball and volleyball filled missing niches and went international. (European Handball would have cut in, but unfortunately, on further practice, turned out to be not random enough: you already know who is going to win.)

The USA is fighting above it’s weight with success of Basketball and Volleyball. Football rules are just local and historical.

“Cricket? Nobody understands cricket! You gotta know what a crumpet is to understand cricket!”

Wee Willie Keeler.

William H. “Wee Willie” Keeler was one of the smallest players ever in major league baseball at 5-foot-4, 140 pounds. But he had one of the biggest bats in the game, both figuratively and literally, weighing up to 46 ounces.

His motto was, “Keep your eye on the ball and hit ‘em where they ain’t,” and it certainly worked for the third baseman-turned-outfielder.

Everywhere else already had its own football, and probably inserting someone else’s culture was way harder 100 years ago. And now, the funereal pace has got to be the biggest barrier.

My immediate thought was “college football”. Elsewhere in the world sport is not given the emphasis that football and other sports are given in the US.

Even at Oxford and Cambridge, while getting a blue is a high honour, it is achieved mostly in the student’s free time and at their own expense.

The passion in the US for college football is frankly astounding. Most of us other-worlders attend university for the education. But then Oxford and Cambridge aren’t colleges. Just like students don’t go to Harvard or Yale for their football program. An Oxbridge sporting blue is typically given for a student who has earned international selection. If you have “merely” played for Oxford against Cambridge (or vice versa) then you have earnt a half-blue.

A note to the OP, which I’m sure would not be ground breaking news:
If you want to know “Why has gridiron football never gained popularity outside North America” you aren’t going to get the answer from North Americans.

Explicit case in point:

Which is indolent and utter frog shit.
In pre-COVID times 1 in 8 people in Melbourne either played or attended an Australian Rules game every weekend. We spread our sporting interests a fair bit thinner. In Sydney we aren’t so sportingly fanatic. But in the year pre COVID I played, umpired or attended games of AFL, Rugby League, Rugby Union, soccer, hockey, cricket and tennis. In season I watch a game of baseball and ice hockey on streaming service most weeks, bit less for basketball. Watching Olympics/Paralympics in lockdown was simply soothing for the soul. I enjoy the occasional NFL documentary etc but I don’t warm to the sport. Mind you, I don’t warm to ten-pin bowling either.

NFL is a game you watch. Revel in all those “high value commercials” as a US sporting patriot once expressed it on the Dope. “NFL is best viewed through the froth of a Budweiser”, as a less reverent American colleague put it. It’s not a game for the players. The spectators want to be the coach. Move the living chess pieces. Be the guy who calls the play and have all the guys on the pitch follow their instructions. Do precisely as you are told or you are off the team. Make a mistake, you are off the team. If it’s not going to plan you can just kill off the play and start again. It’s a video game in real life.

I can only speak myself but generally the non-NFL side of the world want to play the game. They want to be on the pitch. They want to have a role in the game . I want to play on both sides of the field. Play attack and defense. Score goals. Save goals. React to changing circumstances of the game. Be challenged. NFL doesn’t tick any box for me.

Soccer players are signed to youth academies at very young ages in Europe and developed there. They dont have college sports as they are played here.