November 11, 2012
by Sara Hoffman
(AP Photo/Alastair Grant)
Week 8 proved to be another successful NFL International Series game as New England took on St. Louis at London’s Wembley Stadium in front of a sell-out crowd of just over 84,000. Tom Brady’s Patriots lit up the field with perhaps the most dominating offensive performance London has seen since the NFL began hosting an annual regular-season game at Wembley in 2007. Thousands of fans immersed themselves in the NFL experience at pre-game tailgate parties and rallies. Although the NFL’s sixth International Series game in London was a resounding success, the road to NFL expansion in Europe has not been without its setbacks, and there is a long way to go.
NFL expansion outside of the U.S. can be seen as early as 1950, when the New York Giants played a preseason exhibition game against the Canadian Football League’s Rough Riders in Ottawa. CFL v. NFL preseason games continued throughout the 1950’s and 1960’s. The NFL took another step toward establishing an international presence in 1976 when it held a preseason game between the St. Louis Cardinals and San Diego Chargers in Tokyo, Japan. After holding subsequent preseason games in Mexico City and London, the NFL kicked off the American Bowl Series, hosting 40 pre-season games from 1986-2005 across the world in London, Barcelona, Berlin, Dublin, Sydney, Japan, Canada and Mexico.
While promoting the NFL brand and growing American football fan bases internationally through the American Bowl Series, the NFL also leapt into a business venture first known as the World League of American Football. Beginning in 1991, the league featured ten teams based throughout the U.S., Canada and Europe. After two seasons, the league took a break before reemerging in 1995 with a six-team exclusive European format. The NFL renamed the league “NFL Europe” in 1998 and later “NFL Europa” in 2007, and adjusted its strategy several times by relocating teams to different cities and tweaking field goal point values. Despite these changes, the NFL ultimately announced the discontinuation of NFL Europa in June 2007.
NFL Europa had maintained viable attendance levels and arguably provided the NFL with opportunities to tweak game rules and allow players and staff to gain experience. However, the operating losses and the failure to develop European-born NFL players made it impossible to sustain.
A New Global Strategy in London
Shortly after announcing the closure of NFL Europa, the NFL published a statement citing a decision to “focus the league’s international business strategy to presenting the NFL to the widest possible global audience, including broader media visibility and the staging of international regular-season games.” The league committed itself to establishing an international fan base built on the foundation of fandom created by NFL Europa’s tenure and pointed to the launch of the new International Series later in the year as the first step in this venture. Looking forward, the NFL announced preparations for future regular-season games in Germany, Mexico, and Canada; Germany was named as a “strong candidate” for a 2008 game.
On October 28, 2007, the Miami Dolphins hosted the New York Giants at London’s Wembley Stadium in the first NFL International Series game, which represented the first NFL regular-season game held outside of North America. The venue was a rational choice. London had hosted eight American Bowl preseason games and the city made sense from a logistical and language standpoint. The Giants defeated the Dolphins 13-10 in front of a crowd of 81,176. This success led the NFL to institute an annual regular-season game at Wembley, which has been held every year since the initial game in 2007. The matchup featured new teams each year based on club owners’ desire to participate in the International Series game. Since 2007, the Patriots are the only team to win two International Series games; Tampa Bay is the only other team to participate in two International Series games, and also the only franchise to act as home team twice. Historically, International Series host teams have been franchises with lower ticket sales and home game day revenues. The London game provides these teams with the opportunity to host a home game abroad, reducing season ticket package prices domestically and providing increased opportunity for international exposure.
A Home Team for London? Continued Global Expansion
Seeking to capitalize on this opportunity, the St. Louis Rams initially agreed to be the “resident” home team for one game in London during each of the 2012, 2013, and 2014 seasons; however, the franchise withdrew from the agreement earlier this year and agreed only to compete in the 2012 game due to a need to focus on its domestic fan base and ongoing lease negotiations for their stadium in St. Louis, the Edward Jones Dome. After the Rams backed out of the London arrangement, the struggling Jacksonville Jaguars agreed to play one home game in London each year from 2013-2016. Owner Shad Khan and his Jags were a willing team for the deal; it is no secret that Jacksonville has had trouble selling out tickets, reaching the playoffs, and attracting fans in general. Arguably one of the least popular teams in the league, the Jaguars will now have annual exposure to the large London market, and can reduce season ticket prices in Jacksonville for 2013-2016. The Jaguars’ agreement coincides with the NFL’s deal with Wembley Stadium as the exclusive location of International Series games through 2016.
Notably, the NFL announced in October that two regular-season games will be held in London in 2013. The Jaguars will host the San Francisco 49ers October 27, 2013 and the Minnesota Vikings will host the Pittsburgh Steelers on September 29, 2013. This marks an important step in the NFL’s global expansion as the Jaguars begin their agreement as the only team to host multiple home games in London in simultaneous years, and the NFL expands to two International Series regular-season games in one season. Many have begun to speculate that the Jaguars’ attempt to become “London’s team” foreshadows a possible relocation of the franchise to London in the near future, as Goodell and NFL executives have indicated a desire to have a team in London at some point. The timing may be right based on the success of International Series games and the club’s current financial struggles in Jacksonville. Moving the Jags to London could be a distinct possibility and a better alternative than an expansion team, because the move would allow the league to keep the basic scheduling and playoff format in place by maintaining the same number of teams. Further, London’s Olympic Stadium has emerged as a potential option for future games, and London mayor Boris Johnson has reportedly begun talks with the NFL over this possibility.
The addition of a second game to next season’s International Series lineup in London also marks an important expansion in the NFL’s global presence. The NFL can use this opportunity to further gauge European interest in the sport as more than just an annual event. As NFL VP of International Business Chris Parsons stated, the NFL’s approach has two prongs: first, to increase the fan base and create exposure for the brand and teams, and second, to create future opportunities for teams in international locations. Success in those business goals of course leads to greater revenues from television and media contracts, merchandising, and more. Further, if the NFL is successful at implementing its expansion strategy in London, perhaps the league can look to other countries, such as Germany (where 5 out of 6 NFL Europa teams were located from 2005-2007). These possibilities give way to more logistical considerations and the constant series of questions that arise with any business decision and require careful assessment and scrutiny. For instance, the NFL puts on a great amount of entertainment prior to and during International Series games, but what happens when the novelty of an annual extravaganza wears off? Will European fans ever appreciate unique rules and strategies of the game, such as the quarterback kneel (after fans have booed quarterbacks for doing so at both the first and most recent games in London)? The NFL’s 2-game International Series set-up in 2013 will enable the league to test the waters a bit more by further assessing interest in American football and the viability of an international franchise. With almost nine years left on the current CBA and the referee agreement locked up for eight years, it seems to be the perfect time for the NFL to focus on international expansion.