Why has gridiron football never gained popularity outside North America?

Got it. Basically, the same as stickball in the US, but with cricket instead of baseball.

Yes, I think people in this thread are understating the similarities and common roots between both types of rugby and American/Canadian football. As a rugby fan it’s not difficult to pick up the basics of gridiron - the scoring system is much the same as rugby union’s, the quarterback’s throw is the equivalent of the halfback’s kick, and the system of downs is similar to the set of 6 in rugby league. The obvious differences are that rugby doesn’t allow any sort of blocking, and rugby’s offside rules are much much stricter.

Having said that, New Zealand is the only country in the world where rugby (union) is unequivocally the most popular type of football. France is the only non-English speaking country where rugby is a really popular support, and I believe that was an act of will by the government following defeat to Prussia in the war of 1870. So in the context of the OP, rugby has also failed to catch on in the world except as a secondary sport in some countries like Argentina or Japan.

As an adult (post college), I have been involved in a handful of touch football games. Every single one involved one of the following:
significant injury (requiring help to leave the field)
ambulance
fistfight, or near fistfight

It’s a game that demands strict rules and officiating, which isn’t easy to get outside of structured leagues.

Football supposedly only became more popular than baseball in the 1950s. A young George Carlin prefers its aggressive nature.

When I played intramural football in college, there was one time when vultures began circling overhead. Something in their brains told them there would be dead meat soon.

I think firstly there’s some argument to be made that the question should be inverted so to speak. In the mid-19th century, you had what we would recognize as modern “association Football” (or just football in most of the world, soccer in America) being played all over England but particularly in the English public schools. This just represented a codification of rules that brought things into a state we’d recognize as modern soccer, there was at least a documented history going back to the 16th century of predecessor foot and ball games that were “reasonably close” to soccer being played in English schools (and of course foot and ball games as a broad concept are as ancient as can be.)

From that English public school genesis point, a number of sports developed as off shoots. The two versions of Rugby, Australian rules football, gridiron football, gaelic football etc. The real question might more be “why did association Football become an international phenomenon, while many of the other versions have historically been very regional or have played second fiddle?” In that context gridiron football doesn’t seem that exceptional, it’s another one of the football offshoots that only caught on regionally, while association Football caught on internationally well outside of the Anglosphere.

I would also point out a few observations about sport in America being bandied about:

College/High School sport - These are big in America, but the reason isn’t that mistifying. America is a huge country, but in the 19th and first half of the 20th century the media landscape was massively dominated by the East Coast, with little thought or regard to basically any other part of the country. Top-tier pro teams were less common the further West you went from the East Coast, and were basically non-existent West of the Mississippi. They also were not prevalent in the Southeast, which was still a fairly economically depressed and (frankly viewed as) culturally backwards region. The Southeast is probably the Mecca of both High School sports being very popular, and frankly I’ve never really lived anywhere that people go to High School football games unless they have kids on the team or relatives on the team. In much of the United States those 10,000 and 20,000 seater High School stadiums are as foreign to me as a game of Cricket. I think big time College Sports is more spread around most of the country, albeit it’s definitely lesser in the Northeast corridor than about anywhere else. That’s, at least in my opinion, pretty obviously because the Northeast corridor has just long been saturated with tons of professional sports. If you live in New York or Boston you just never needed to follow amateur school sports to get a sporting fix.

How Gridiron Football became prominent in America - I actually disagree that it was all that organic or grassroots. If you want to see an organic/grassroots sport history, read the history of baseball. Baseball was basically developed by working class Americans and was overwhelmingly watched by working class Americans for something like 70 years before gridiron football started to push it aside as America’s top sport. Gridiron football actually has an elitist origin–football was imported by the kind of 19th century American toffs who emulated the British upper class and then the “gridiron” version developed from there, it had much of its earliest support in elite Eastern universities, much of it in the Ivy League itself although a few other prominent eastern schools were involved as well. It attracted outsized attention from Presidents and political leaders because it was being played at their alma maters, but a steelworker in Pittsburgh or an autoworker in Detroit in the late 19th / early 20th century had probably never so much as touched a pigskin, but he had probably played baseball all summer his entire life growing up.

There’s nothing that says the grassroots has to be poor people. That’s not what that word means.

Well, not necessarily poor, but not the elites either. See Entry 2, Def 2 at Grass Roots | Definition of Grass Roots by Merriam-Webster
2 : the basic level of society or of an organization especially as viewed in relation to higher or more centralized positions of power

By definition, the elite or upper class can’t be the basic level of a society.

Elites playing a not hugely popular game game primarily at elite schools can result in organic growth (and did, of course, in the case of gridiron football), but I would say it’s not grass roots.

Lacrosse is the same sort of thing today as football was back then. It’s association is with “upper class” schools and wealthier people.

Says who? This is sports not politics.

I say it.

Except that gridiron football, in the U.S. and Canada, was specifically developed by players at colleges, as an evolution from rugby, in the 1860s and 1870s. American football was created by players at schools like Princeton, Rutgers, Harvard, Yale, and Columbia. At that time, college students were largely members of the elite class, and particularly so at those old-line schools (four of the five are members of the Ivy League).

Certainly, the game eventually became played by others, but its roots are clearly at elite institutions of higher education.

Thereto speaks a cove who knows their onions.

What the heck does that have to do with anything? Both “elite” and “upper class” are comparative terms. There has to be an “ordinary” for there to be an “elite”. There has to be a “middle” and/or “lower class” for there to be an “upper class”. If everybody could run a 4.1 40, then the people who did wouldn’t be “elite” runners. They’d be “average” runners. The folks who ran a 4.0 or 3.9 would then be “elite”. If most everybody made $10M/year, then people who did wouldn’t be upper class, they’d be middle class and you’d have to make $100M/year to be considered as upper class.

Gridiron football was developed by the few* and then spread to the masses. Baseball went the other way and was played and developed by the masses.

* And they were, for the most part, upper class - you’re right that the fact that a limited number of people were involved doesn’t make them, by definition, upper class, but in this case, they were already upper class and just happened to develop gridiron football as we know it.

I see that we can’t even get away from class warfare and virtue signaling even when discussing football over a 100 year ago. Yes, football’s origins come from the wealthy in comparison to baseball which mostly came from the streets. I never contended otherwise.

What I said is that it, like most sports, was a grassroots evolution. In the context of political activism, we often conflate the ideas of grassroots activism with the poor rising up against the wealthy. But that’s not what that term means. In practice they usually coincide, but that’s not what it actually describes. What it means is that a movement grows organically from the populace as opposed to being orchestrated by some institution or interest group.

In the context of football, it was a grassroots origin. There was no “NFL” or equivalent body trying to grow the game or otherwise promote it. While it started among (elite) college kids they weren’t working in some organized structure. They were Ivy Leaguers but the universities themselves basically played no role in it. Football in it’s early days was essentially lawless, there were deaths and the powers that be were threatening to ban it. These kids being relatively wealthy college kids and club members doesn’t mean that some power from on high was invested it the game’s success. It simply meant that the people involved has disposable time and income, which is in fact an essential element to the game’s success, but that doesn’t make it not “grassroots”. It’s grassroots because it spread through word-of-mouth, it took the dedication of individuals, it took the love of the game with no expectation of financial upside and most importantly…it took a lot of people with the common interest. You can’t really play a “pickup” football game and you can’t effectively organize a approximation of a game with just a half-dozen people which makes it pretty unique among popular team sports. So if I I need to change my terminology away from the apparently loaded “grassroots” word, maybe I can can say it needs popular support first.

As an aside, lots of “grassroots” political organizations are populated by the haves. Many “green” activists are limousine liberals. You can hate them I suppose, but the size of their bank accounts doesn’t make them “the man” in this context. They are fighting against big oil, and corporatist politicians, and their poorer allies should be grateful for the fact that they have some weapons to bring to the fight.

Soccer scales better than gridiron. You can have a game of footy in the park between two friends using jackets as goalposts, adding players as more pals turn up. I imagine this is similar to basketball where you can play one-on-one anywhere you can find a hoop.

I agree with all of your post, in fact. Well said.

And, to build on it, if one looks at what grew into the NFL, it was started by a bunch of guys who loved football, many of whom had played it in college, and wanted to keep playing. In many cases in the late 1910s and early 1920s, those “professional” (or, at least, not college) teams were semi-organized teams of local players, and/or"company" teams that were composed of employees of those companies.

Two of the league’s “founding fathers” were just that – former college players who then went on to play on their employers’ company teams. George Halas (who had played in college at Illinois) became a sales rep at the A.E. Staley Company, and a player/coach for their team, the Decatur Staleys, which later became the Chicago Bears. And, Curly Lambeau (who had played at Notre Dame) came home to Green Bay, and worked with his employer, the Indian Packing Company, to put together a company team, which became the Green Bay Packers.

Football was popular in the US long before television and even radio. The Rose Bowl dates from 1902 (regularly from 1916). College football was a major sport even before then. TV made professional football successful; the NFL was just getting by before that and only had teams in the northeast and midwest until the Rams moved west in 1946. But college football was everywhere.

I suspect it caught on at the college level because it was filled with action and could be played in bad weather. Baseball was far more popular overall for years, but could not be played in the late fall. It also became an event, where the students and alumni could see a sporting event every Saturday in the 19th century. Soccer didn’t catch on probably because it was low scoring.

Soccer actually was pretty popular in the early years of the 20th Century. The US Open Cup dates from 1913-14. What killed soccer in the US was something called the Soccer Wars. The American Soccer League went to war with United States Football Association over the scheduling of the National Challenge Cup (which would go on to be the US Open Cup). The USFA ended up unsanctioning the ASL and by the time the parties made up, great harm was done, and the Great Depression hit.

The ASL folded in 1932 and it wasn’t until 1968 until the next top tier professional soccer league was formed in the US (the NASL).

American Soccer League (1921–1933) - Wikipedia

Maybe the rest of the world sees American football as an overly long contest with huge amounts of inactivity and such a need to get the rules enforced to the nth degree that officials’ decisions take on the complexity of a court case.

Or maybe that’s all dismissive conjecture coming from my own prejudices.

Golf is pretty popular worldwide though.