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The NFL plans to expand its international players program

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Efe Obada #94 of the Carolina Panthers after their game against the New Orleans Saints at Bank of America Stadium on December 29, 2019 in Charlotte, North Carolina.

Jacob Kupferman | Getty Images

In an effort to continue growing its reach globally, the National Football League wants to expand its International Player Pathway Program to include more teams, two people familiar with the league’s planning for the 2020 season told CNBC.

Members of the NFL competition committee discussed measures to expand the program to include two divisions (eight teams) in addition to adding kickers to the list of eligible positions. The program currently has one division with four teams. According to one of the sources, the committee will introduce a written proposal for final approval at this month’s annual league meetings in Palm Beach, Florida. 

The NFL did not respond to a request for comment.

Established in 2017, the player pathway program is a global initiative for the NFL as it continues to grow its game. By attracting and developing non-traditional football players, the NFL is investing in the program and hoping foreign players can attain success which would grow the league’s international fanbase. The program is open to non-U.S. and Canadian athletes with no high school football experience.

Positional players are trained throughout the year and eventually placed with selected NFL teams. Players can be added to a practice squad but not count against the unit’s roster total (10) and are ineligible to be activated to the 53-man roster during the season. 

According to the league’s collective bargaining agreement, practice squad players are were paid $8,000 per week for the 2019 season. As part of a new proposed CBA, owners voted to increase practice squad rosters to 14, and wage increases to $10,500 per week. If the NFL and its player’s union can’t agree on a new CBA, 2020 pay will increase to $8,400 per week.

NFL players are currently voting on the new proposal. On Monday, the NFL players union announced it extended the voting deadline to March 14.

The player pathway program’s strategy is identical to the one used by the National Basketball Association. The NBA took steps to grow its game internationally over the last two decades, which helped the league produce global superstars. Players like former Houston Rockets center Yao Ming (China), Dallas Mavericks forward Dirk Nowitzki (Germany), and San Antonio Spurs’ Tony Parker (France) and Manu Ginobili (Argentina) are among those to assist the NBA’s growth internationally, which helped the league secure long-term media rights deals like the $1.5 billion streaming agreement with China-based Tencent

The NFL is hoping for similar success, which is why it will propose adding kickers to the program. Kicking positions will open the program up to soccer players around, according to the people familiar with the program.

Damani Leech, the chief operating officer of NFL International, told ESPN last year the program is performing “incredibly well,” as the NFL looks to recruit international players “that are going to grow fans in the markets they’re from.”

Though not apart the player pathway program, long-time kicker Gary Anderson, from Parys, South Africa, played 23 seasons in the NFL and sits third on the all-time total field goals made with 538.

Last season there were 23 international players in the league, which the NFL counts as those who attended high school outside the U.S. and played at least one regular-season snap. In 2018, Carolina Panthers defensive lineman and United Kingdom native Efe Obada became the first player from the program to make a final NFL roster. 

Obada, 27, recently signed a one-year deal to return to the Panthers. According to Spotrac, his 2020 salary will be roughly $660,000.

Last season, four players were added rosters, including Australia native Valentine Holmes who joined the New York Jets.

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