- Mark Waller, executive vice-president, international and events at the NFL, hopes for a London-based franchise by 2022.
- International Series expected to expand into Canada and Germany, with Waller envisioning a global football league.
- Plan to get teams into more cities will help diversify broadcast schedules and grow league around the world.
In 2007, the first year the NFL played a fixture in London’s Wembley Stadium, 81,000 tickets were sold to watch the New York Giants defeat the Miami Dolphins.
That number was over a quarter of a million for three separate games in 2018, all played at the same venue. Demand for seats – according to NFL UK – exceeded that of all other sporting events in London this year except the Wimbledon men’s final.
In November, the third annual Mexico Game will take place; the fourth regular-season NFL game to take place outside the US this season. At least 75,000 fans are expected in the Estadio Azteca.
Mark Waller, the NFL’s executive vice-president, international and events, promises that this is just the beginning. The NFL’s quest for global domination means that the plans for the next few years are even more ambitious than what has come before: putting a full-time team in London and expanding the International Series to further cities around the globe are clear goals for the next decade.
The success in the UK so far has convinced Waller that, however challenging those targets may be, a significant amount of the hard work has already been done, with the choice of London a crucial strategic decision.
“London was always a very deliberate choice as our first international city,” he explains. “There are some obvious reasons for that – the lack of a language barrier, the UK-US relationship on a macro level being a very good one, lots of cultural similarities – but there are also some reasons that are less obvious from the outside.”
Primary among these reasons, Waller says, is that the UK presented a challenging marketplace in which to prove the concept of the International Series. “It’s an incredibly competitive market with four or five already really big, established sports,” he says. “It was an opportunity to be successful in a market that truly matters. It matters from a fan perspective – the size and scale of the fan base – and it matters from an economic opportunity perspective.
“Most importantly, though, we felt that if we could prove out the UK, we could prove out a number of other markets. We could almost certainly prove out Germany, because the fanbases are remarkably similar in size and scale.”
Does that mean we can expect to see NFL fixtures in Munich’s Allianz Arena, or Dortmund’s Signal Iduna Park, in the near future?
“Negotiations are not underway, but there is definitely an air of mutual acknowledgement,” says Waller. “We know we have a great fanbase in Germany – as in Mexico and Canada – and we know those fans would love to have their own games, in the same way fans in Los Angeles want their own games.
“We also know that there are various stadiums and various cities around the world that are interested. But it’s too soon to put a timeframe on when that might happen.”
What Waller is willing to put a timeframe on, however, is the discussion of a potential London-based team. The NFL’s Collective Bargaining Agreement, the labour agreement between the Players’ Association and the team-owners which specifies the terms of labour and sets out the league’s aims over the course of the next decade, is up for renewal in 2021. Waller says that the London franchise will be “an integral part” of the discussions.
“We won’t be able to do anything any sooner than that, but I would hope it won’t be too long afterwards,” he says. “By the time those discussions come around we’ll have been playing in London for almost 15 years, showing the appetite there is for the sport in this city. I think it’s a natural next step in the development of what we’ve been doing so far, and it opens up the European market in an even greater way than we’ve managed so far.”
That last point is crucial, and helps to explain why London, Germany and beyond are so key to the NFL’s strategy over the coming years.
International growth to prop up home decline
While there will remain stumbling blocks to placing a franchise in London – traditionalist stakeholders opposed to expanding the league outside of America, as well as more practical concerns with regards to scheduling, media rights and travel – the truth is that, amid a more challenging environment at home, with attendances and broadcast figures declining, the NFL sees internationalisation as its best shot at growth over the coming years.
2017’s regular-season average attendance of 67,000 was the league’s lowest since 2011. Television viewership, meanwhile, fell 18 per cent in the three seasons between 2015 and 2017. However, in the UK at least, both metrics are growing, with the BBC’s coverage of NFL fixtures on Sunday regularly drawing up to 500,000 people – double what its commercial rival Channel 4 was attracting on average before it lost the rights in 2013. And while the comparison between the International Series and regular-season home matches played in the US is imperfect, attendances in London and the demand for tickets has convinced Waller that there is a public desire to see a team in the city.
Only once in 20 games to date has Wembley failed to draw more than 80,000 fans to an NFL game, with an average of 84,000. Twickenham, with its slightly lower capacity of just under 75,000 for American football games, has sold out for all three of the fixtures it has hosted so far. Perhaps the most important figure, says Waller, is the 40,000 people this year who bought tickets for all three Wembley games.
“That is clear evidence that a sizeable and hardcore fanbase exists here,” he says. “It shows we have dedicated fans who are coming for the sport and to watch NFL, not just for the day out or to dip a toe into the water.”
Even more vital, he says, is that the NFL has data which shows these 40,000 have become NFL fans in the ten years since the first International Series game. “We do fan surveys which give us lots of insight into the demographic breakdown of the fans, but even anecdotally, we see who is coming,” Waller explains. “The best testament is the Seattle Seahawks game [against the Oakland Raiders on October 14]. We know that the Seahawks have really grown in popularity over the last ten years, particularly since their back-to-back Super Bowl appearances in 2013 and 2014, and yet Wembley was pretty much a Seahawks home game, there were so many fans in.
“We also know that a lot of the repeat buyers are in the 18 to 34 age bracket, which suggests two things: first, that these people probably weren’t coming at all ten years ago; and second, that they’re young fans who have grown up with the sport. It’s really promising to see that group coming through and coming to games, because that’s what we will need in order to support a franchise here.”
International Football League
The aggressive approach to international development, Waller says, is driven by a belief that “we are the only US league that can really play across the Atlantic”, and a desire to capitalise on the momentum evidenced in London.
“Every American sport can put a team in Mexico City or Toronto,” he goes on, “but I don’t think anyone else could put a team in London. The scheduling just doesn’t line up”.
The NBA has brought a regular-season fixture to London every year for the past seven years, but it has never expanded beyond a single game – in large part because schedules are so packed (with up to three games being played a week) that the travel can cause significant disruption to the teams involved. MLB, meanwhile, is set to dip its toe in the water next year with a game between the New York Yankees and the Boston Red Sox in London’s Olympic Stadium, but baseball lags significantly behind American football in terms of popularity in the UK, and scheduling is also an issue.
Waller’s ambitions are not limited to London, either. He puts forward a vision of “a league that plays in the USA, in the UK, in Germany, in Mexico, in Canada, potentially in another Latin American country”, and claims that the NFL is in a position to “create a framework that no other sport could replicate”.
As a model, Waller says he looks to the Uefa Champions League and the way it has grown to take full advantage of its status as an international competition.
“I grew up when the European Cup [the forerunner of the Champions League] was just starting,” says Waller. “And what the Champions League is today is fundamentally different to what the European Cup was then. And I don’t think it was apparent then what it could be, this commercial behemoth that the entire footballing world looks towards. I think that’s a fair comparison to where the NFL is at the moment internationally.
“I don’t think it’s possible to imagine how powerful a proposition that could be: to have a London team going to play a Berlin team, and then going to play a Washington team, and then a Mexico City team on a regular basis in a single season for single prize, which I think is the beauty of the Champions League.”
A global broadcast strategy
Playing in different cities around the world – whether that is in an International Series or, eventually, with new franchises placed in key locations – is not simply an end in itself. As well as the Champions League, Waller has also drawn inspiration from the other dominant soccer competition – the Premier League – in his vision for the NFL.
“I would argue very strongly that a huge part of the Premier League’s success is the time slots that they play in,” he says. “Diversifying from the 3pm kick-offs allowed them access to Asia, India and the US, all at fan-friendly times. That’s something we’ve attempted at different points this season – we’re going to have a 6pm game, a 1:30pm game and a 2:30pm game, for a sport that is generally anchored on time slots that are none of those windows – but it has been limited so far.”
Expansion into Europe would allow the NFL to create prime-time broadcast viewing slots all around the world. Waller says the league has attempted to adopt an “agile media strategy”, which has involved using innovative broadcast partners such as Twitter and developing its own OTT platform in Game Pass, as well as continuing to work with its traditional broadcast partners, but remains stymied by “a shortage of inventory”.
“The truth is that we only have a finite number of games per season,” Waller says. NFL teams are only guaranteed eight home games per season. Furthermore, with an average NFL game running for around three hours, it is more difficult to move them around in the schedule.
“We don’t necessarily want to change the structure of our season, but certainly playing in other cities allows us to move that inventory around more effectively and gives us a lot more to play with in the international marketplace. We certainly don’t want to take anything away from our US fans, but we think we can find more effective ways to get live football in front of our international fans.”
Playing in Europe, then, is intended to help the NFL not only grow there, but in Asia too. Waller cautions, however, that it will continue to take its development slowly, “because we need to build this over time, and we need to build it to last a long time. That’s why we’ve been so precise and tight in the UK and made sure we really knew what our strategy was and where it was going”.