By Lance Rinker
The National Football League has played meaningful, regular-season games in London since 2007 and now the league appears to be on the trajectory of eventually placing an actual team there permanently.
Efforts by the NFL to go global date back to 1991 when the league and owners decided it was time to try their hand at having American football played overseas in Europe. The NFL Europe League, which had teams in the U.K., Germany, Spain and the Netherlands, was one of the very first experiments the NFL did with branching out around the world.
The league initially began with 10 teams competing in the United States and Europe but after a two-year hiatus from 1993-94, the league returned in 1995 as a six-team, all-European venture, and existed in that format through its final season in 2007.
An experiment that ultimately failed because the rosters in this developmental league were filled with fringe NFL players, practice squad quality prospects and undrafted rookies. During the 15-year run of this league, the average attendance per game was just 19,047. The average attendance per game topped out at 25,361 during its inaugural season and ranged anywhere from just over 14,000 fans to barely 20,000 per game since that 1991 season.
According to David Tossel, NFL head of public affairs in the U.K. and Europe, from 1995 onwards the focus of the international efforts was largely the NFL Europe League.
“In the end, despite some regional success stories in Germany, the league ceased operating because it was realized that the fans wanted the highest version of the game – the NFL itself,” he said. “So by the mid-2000s, as the NFL Europe League was entering its final couple of years, the focus began to turn more on playing real meaningful NFL games overseas.”
Since the NFL Europe League ended in 2007, fans abroad have been able to witness meaningful games played by actual NFL teams in Canada and the U.K. to great fanfare and success. The success experienced by the NFL regarding playing overseas has prompted owners and the commissioner to look at London as the next landing spot for an NFL franchise.
Tossel said there is no firm timetable for a team to relocate to London, or a city such as Toronto or Montreal. But because the NFL has been successful in growing its audience and fan base it’s something we could see happen within the next 10 years.
“The games we are playing have been successful in growing new fans and advancing all areas of our business – e.g. television ratings,” he said. “The commissioner himself has said that if our business continues to grow then the chance of a franchise in the U.K. becomes greater, but there is no timeline on when we will make that assessment.”
The NFL announced next year’s London games in November and the Miami Dolphins, New York Jets, Buffalo Bills, Jacksonville Jaguars, Kansas City Chiefs and Detroit Lions all will be making the trip across the pond.
Jerry Jones, owner and general manager of the Dallas Cowboys, is a supporter of the NFL’s efforts to place a permanent team in London and enjoys when his team plays there. He said he is not sure when the Cowboys would make a return trip, but in an interview with dallascowboys.com he was very blunt about his feelings on the matter and whether he wants the team to go back.
“Yes. And I wouldn’t dare elaborate under when, what, how, but again, this is attractive to our franchise,” Jones said. “This is attractive to me. I like the idea. I like for our players to have these experiences.”
Jones, speaking for the Cowboys, said the team would very much like to have a team in London. “It has an air about it of international competition,” he said. “I think that London is probably one of two or three cities outside of the United States that really does have all of the criteria that I would look at for having an NFL team.”
During the recent trip made by the Cowboys and Jaguars, there was a meeting between NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, Vice President of the International NFL Mark Waller and George Osborne, Britain’s chancellor of the Exchequer.
According to Waller, November’s meeting focused on the progress the NFL has made in the U.K., the growing fan base and the increasing interest of playing in London permanently and the fans there who want the NFL.
“We were talking through our growth plan and what we would like to see,” Waller said. “The government is interested and asking if there’s anything they can do. We’ve had great meetings with the chancellor and with Boris Johnson (London’s mayor) and Sajid Javid (secretary of state for culture, media and sport). We’ve got a sense of a lot of good support. We’re very happy with the relationship we’re building.”
Waller went on to say he thinks it’s great for London and that London is building itself as a world center of sport and the NFL wants to be a part of that.
Still, no one is sure of the logistics should an NFL team permanently plant roots in London. Any team there would be required to travel Trans-Atlantic; just as any visiting team from the United States would when going there.
That would not be so bad for the London team on the years they line-up the schedule to play NFC or AFC East teams. However, travel could become an issue on the years they are to play teams from the NFC or AFC West.
Flying from New York to London takes nearly eight hours. Making a trip from Dallas to London would take just over nine hours. Traveling from California to London would take at least 11 hours. Take into account the time difference of five, six, and eight hours from each of those three regions of the U.S. and it can be an even larger issue.
Then, of course, there is the question of whether the team would be based in London year round while the talent still lives in the United States, and would players want to sign to play there?
It is a reason John Madden, in an interview with USA Today, said, “I don’t think that London thing can ever work.”
Madden’s sentiment is not shared by the NFL, obviously, and according to Waller the NFL isn’t just considering putting a team in London anymore – the plan is already in motion to have a team permanently placed there by 2022.
“When we started (with the series in 2007), I reckoned it’d take 15 years to do it,” Waller said. “That was what I expected, and we’re still on course. We’re at the midpoint now.”
If things go according to Waller’s plan, the London team will likely be kicking off in Wembley Stadium in 2022. At the outset of that season, the next collective bargaining agreement will be in place, which would establish stability for the sport, and the television contracts will be expiring, which will provide an opportunity for additional revenue.
Waller also discussed the NFL’s new deal with Sky Sports, which televises the games in England, and has agreed as part of a new five year extension to promote the NFL as heavily as it promotes other premier sports properties. Per Waller, roughly 400,000 viewers per week watch the featured game of the week on Sky Sports. That’s not a huge number compared to the nearly two million Premier League game viewers, but it’s solid enough for the NFL to move forward.
As for the growth cited, the league’s data shows that, since 2007, the NFL has gone from the 18th-most-watched sport on Sky Sports to sixth. Amateur football participation also has grown by an average of 15 percent per year since the league took the Giants and Dolphins to Wembley seven years ago.
According to the British media who covered the Jaguars game against the Dallas Cowboys, however, what London wants, in their opinion, isn’t a permanent team, but an eight-game schedule featuring a variety of home teams.
“They would rather have eight games of different teams,” said Gur Samuel, managing director of American Football Development. “But they seem to be resigned that it will be a permanent team here. The Football Association has said they want to court a team here. The British government has pledged its support to put a team here. Financially, it makes sense to put a team here even if that’s not the best thing for the growth of the sport.”
Peter Carline, a sports writer for the Daily Mail Online, shared Samuel’s sentiment.
“Personally, I think that’s better than relocating over here,” Carline said. “No matter how the NFL tries to sugarcoat it, I don’t see how it’s going to work. Even with blocks of four games over here, then blocks of four games in the U.S. it would be difficult. If you have different teams every week, you have something exciting and a new energy for each team.”
As with most things major corporations do, especially one as ginormous and far-reaching as the NFL, money matters. So far, the economic impact on the NFL and in London has exceeded expectations year-over-year.
Independent research carried out by Deloitte in recent months showed that the two games held in 2013 were worth £32 million to the London economy. This could increase to £102 million in the event of a London-hosted franchise playing eight regular games a season in the capital. To put those figures into perspective, the two games in 2013 were worth $50.4 million in U.S. currency and could increase to $160.9 million in U.S. currency if a team were to play permanently in London.
Iain Edmondson, head of major events with London & Partners, estimates the total financial impact of all games between 2007 and 2014 to be approximately £200 million, or $315.5 million U.S.
The London economy also greatly benefits from these games through tourism. Based on calculations made by London & Partners, for the two 2013 games, 80 percent of the attendees came from outside London.
“I expect that proportion to drop with more games, but even so there would be a significant audience from outside London, hence the large economic benefit numbers,” Edmondson said. “We are proud of London’s world-leading reputation for hosting international sport and the NFL is another great example of world-class sport hosted in the city.”
According to Edmondson, based on the growing fan base of American football worldwide and the success of the NFL in London since 2007, he does not see the sport as just a novelty overseas.
“I would agree that the mix of spectators attending the game may change if a team was permanently in London, but the popularity of the three games this year, alongside the popularity of the TV coverage of the whole season, suggests the NFL is no longer just a novelty,” Edmonson said.
Edmondson says NFL management is responsible for taking the necessary steps towards a franchise, but Johnson welcomes the opportunity for a team to call London home.
“London is a very international city and a city that loves sport, so I am sure ‘the locals’ would embrace a team,” he said.
Even if the NFL does accomplish its goal of placing a team in London by 2022, there still are competitive factors to consider. London already has an incredible calendar of world-class sports and world-class sporting venues. European football (soccer) is a dominate force in Europe and the U.K., as is rugby, tennis and cycling.
“I doubt the NFL would ever take on the popularity of our home-grown football, but I am sure it will still have a significant audience,” Edmondson said.