LONDON – By all accounts, the NFL’s British presence has proved enough of a success for it to no longer be called an experiment but rather the completion of a major phase of the league’s global expansion.
No one can say for certain if or when a team will be located here on a full-time basis, but the commitment to make this a site for more regular-season games – such as the one Sunday between the Buffalo Bills and Jacksonville Jaguars at Wembley Stadium – is stronger than ever. So is the push to grow the model from the current three games per year to a full, 16-game slate.
“I think we’d say it’s marginally exceeding the expectations,” Mark Waller, the league’s executive vice president of international, said of the NFL International Series in London. “I think we feel really good about the fan momentum that we’ve made.”
Waller, who is from the United Kingdom, joined the NFL in 2007, when it staged its first regular-season game here between the New York Giants and Miami Dolphins.
For the first six years, the league staged one game per season at Wembley. In 2013, it added a second, and last year and this year, it went to three games. The fact all of this season’s games are sold out (with tickets being snatched up quickly earlier this year) is particularly impressive considering that they’re happening in the middle of the Rugby World Cup, which is many rungs higher on the UK’s sports food chain.
The growing enthusiasm for American football is a large part of what is fueling the NFL to ramp up its London initiative. On Thursday, the league announced that it extended its agreement to play regular-season games at Wembley for another five years, which means the stadium will host at least two games per year through 2020 and has the option of extending the agreement an additional five years. The Jaguars also agreed to play at least one game per year in London through 2020. Earlier this year, the NFL and the Tottenham Hotspur franchise announced a 10-year agreement for the English Premier League club to host a minimum of two NFL games per season at its new stadium due to open in the summer of 2018.
In the meantime, the NFL will continue working toward growing its appeal to justify a 16-game London slate.
“My goal is to make sure we have a fan base in the UK that can support a full season of games,” Waller said. “Obviously, we would have the ability to make that full season of games all the games of one team or multiple games for several teams. The biggest demonstration of fandom is if you have your own team. So, for me, the ultimate goal would be that at some point we have a team here, because I think that’s the best way the fans can express their passion.”
Whether London is ready to support its own team is anyone’s guess. So far, however, there is every indication UK fans have become increasingly passionate about the NFL. Consider:
• Attendance for NFL International Series games has averaged 82,000 over the last seven years. A sellout at Wembley is 84,000.
Data provided by the league shows there are more than 13 million NFL fans in the UK. According to Waller, the idea is less about competing with long-standing sports traditions here than joining them. “All of the research that we have suggests that the fans that we’ve got are not giving up being fans of rugby or soccer or cricket or the other sports that they love,” he said. “They’re adding American football and the NFL to the sports that they love.”
• Eighty-eight percent of the fans attending NFL International Series games are from the UK, 6 percent are from elsewhere in Europe, 6 percent are American expatriates or travel from the United States to attend the games. “Actually, if you just looked at the jerseys, you would find it difficult to know which teams are playing,” Waller said. “There’s no overwhelming presence of any one team.”
The lone exception so far was the Oct. 4 game between the Dolphins and New York Jets, where there was a heavy concentration of fans wearing jerseys of those teams because they recognized it as a divisional rivalry. “Generally speaking, these are very knowledgeable fans,” Waller said. “They know when to cheer, they know when to be quiet. They know what the rules are. The only difference that really is meaningful is that you don’t have home and away fan groups. You don’t get the quiet in the stadium when the home team is on the offense. You don’t get that huge amount of noise when the home team is on defense, because the fans aren’t all committed to any one particular team.”
• A record 13.8 million UK viewers watched NFL programming during the 2014 season, more than double the amount of the previous year. Sky Sports, a UK-based television network, is airing 103 live games this season, compared to 118 Premier League soccer matches, which take place over a much longer season. Ratings for NFL games in the UK have doubled since 2007. Waller says the core fan groups fall into two age categories: 50-somethings who became hooked on the NFL when preseason games were played here in the 1980s and ’90s (including a Bills-Eagles game in 1991), and 18- to 25-year-olds “who basically picked up the game through their global connectivity. That’s where the most accelerated growth is coming from because that group is much more visible, it’s readily accessible, and they share the most.”
• Participation in amateur American football in the UK has averaged 15 percent growth each year since 2007. According to the latest figures, about 40,000 people, aged 16 or older, play regularly.
The cost of staging the games here (which includes transportation, lodging, and practice facilities for the teams) far exceeds profits from ticket sales. For instance, the NFL covered the Bills’ weeklong stay at the Grove, a sprawling, ultra-plush resort north of London. However, the league more than makes up for those expenses with its TV-rights deal with Sky Sports and overall growth of its digital business in the UK.
The primary challenges it faces in reaching the point where 16 regular-season games in London, with or without a dedicated team, are logistics.
“The real focus now is on the operational side,” Waller said. “Where we can, we’re testing the operational pieces. For the first time this year we’re playing back-to-back games,” with the Detroit Lions facing the Kansas City Chiefs here next Sunday, “so there’s testing like that from a logistics standpoint from a stadium, field-operations standpoint.
“When the teams come over, we track their reaction to jet lag. Should they come on a Monday or Sunday or Thursday? The big thing I’m not sure we yet have a solution to is how you test – week-in, week-out, season-in, season-out – the stresses and strains of the travel and time changes. We’re working our way through that, piece by piece.”
Don’t be surprised if …
… The Dolphins stick with the more simplified defensive approach they took in last Sunday’s victory against the Titans when they face the Texans on Sunday. Lou Anarumo, who became the Dolphins’ new defensive coordinator in place of Kevin Coyle as part of a shakeup that also included Dan Campbell replacing Joe Philbin as head coach, used only 10 base calls, far fewer than the team had previously run. The strategy was credited with having plenty to do with the Dolphins sacking quarterback Marcus Mariota six times, forcing four turnovers, and holding the Titans to 299 yards.
… Matt Cassel is a more aggressive passer in his first start with the Dallas Cowboys on Sunday against the New York Giants than his predecessor, Brandon Weeden. Aggressive? Cassel? The guy who threw all of those short, safe passes that had Bills fans clamoring for Tyrod Taylor to beat him out for the starting job in the summer? Yes, that guy. With two full weeks to prepare for this shot, Cassel fully understands the only way he can make a difference is to do what Weeden didn’t do: throw outside more, throw down the field more, and hang in the pocket longer.
… The Jets give the New England Patriots’ run defense its strongest test of the season. The Pats rank 22nd in the league in total yards allowed against the run and 29th in average yards per carry (4.8). The Jets are a run-first offense and are expected to continue to pound away with Chris Ivory. “He’s a great running back, has been good the whole time he’s been in the league, but it just seems like everything is coming together for him right now,” Patriots defensive tackle Alan Branch told reporters covering New England.