The NFL’ s plans to have a franchise based in London remain “on track” as league targets further global expansion, according to Executive Vice President of International Growth, Mark Waller.
While LA remains in the spotlight to receive an NFL franchise, or two, in coming years the NFL reaffirmed its commitment to international growth at this years league meeting, according to Mark Waller, Executive Vice President for International growth.
When asked if plans for a franchise in London for the 2022 season remained on track, Waller affirmed “Absolutely”. According to Waller, plans had actually been in place to increase the number of games for the 2015 season to four, but the league was limited to three due to the Rugby World Cup, which will take place in the UK during September and October, with multiple group games already scheduled to take place at Wembley.
According to Waller, the NFL currently estimate that around 40,000 people have attended all of the games in London for 2015, with a significant proportion of those living in or around the nations capital. The NFL consider this to be approaching critical mass for a dedicated fan base. They believe that enough of those people who attend all three games would also become season-ticket holders for a permanent franchise based in the city to aggressively continue to push for this in the short-to-mid term.
The NFL has also passed resolutions to ensure that teams continue to travel to London, as well as other international venues, until permanent franchises can be established.
During this years meetings, the league passed two resolutions which will facilitate this. The first stipulates that any team which relocates—there are expected to be multiple teams doing so in 2016—will lose one home game per season during “transitional” years, that is, the years between their initial move being announced, and the opening of their new permanent stadium. The second is every team which wins a Super Bowl will also have to play one home game away from home at some point during the following five years, apparently in order to ensure that International Series games remain high profile.
Neither of these resolutions specifically mentions London specifically, or even the International Series generally—the league could conceivably also instruct these teams to play anywhere, including to “test the waters” in new markets in the US itself—but the implication is that these measures are primarily in place to ensure that there will always be some candidates for International Series games, should they ever end up short of teams willing to give up a lucrative home game.
Additionally, with back-to-back games, a key divisional matchup and even the possibility of December games in London, clearly the league is no longer viewing London games as just an occasional occurrence, and are obviously preparing to overcome the logistical problems an international franchise presents.
One final hurdle left to overcome is that teams playing in London have always received an automatic bye the following week, but the League know that this will not be practical over the course of a full season. In 2016, when the league are expecting to play at least 4 games in the UK, owners have also provisionally agreed to remove this, in the hope of determining if teams, especially those located on the west coast, can deal with the travel.
The league is also hoping to ramp up the schedule still further in coming years, to ensure that, for example, the turf at Wembley can stand up to the punishment of back-to-back games. There is also internal speculation about the possibility of a team playing multiple games in London—likely one as the home team, one as visitors, so as to not alienate their current fan base entirely by losing multiple games in a season—to see if UK fans will begin to actively support an individual team, rather than the current status, where fans appear to be supporting the sport as a whole, rather than attending games to watch their own team.
In addition to the UK, the league also confirmed that other possible locations for International Series games are being considered. Chief among these are Canada, which has hosted several international games, as part of the Buffalo Bills “Toronto Series” in recent seasons, and Mexico, which hosted the very first international regular season game between the Arizona Cardinals and San Francisco 49ers in 2005.
Mexico is considered a key growth market for the league, which has a huge built in fan base in the country—the 2005 game still holds an NFL regular season attendance record—however major logistical concerns have prevented serious expansion in the territory, including finding suitably maintained stadiums, and the significantly lower GDP per capita of residents, compared to the USA, which would impact profitability.
Issues in Canada on the other hand, are somewhat different. While the country has the infrastructure to host games—there are at least four football stadiums nationwide which would have capacity to host NFL games—and a similar GDP to the US, they have struggled to find a fan base.
American football is popular in Canada, which even has its own league, the CFL, albeit with slightly different rules, and in numerous US border cities, including Seattle, Buffalo, Green Bay and Minnesota, Canadian fans regularly make up double-digit percentages of the home team fans. However, during the lifetime of the Bills Toronto Series, attendance dropped from around 52,000 fans for early games—capacity for the Rodgers Centre, as configured—to less than 40,000 by the final season.
The league is exploring ways to overcome this, but has yet to find an answer which would allow them to regularly and consistently host games north of the border. That said, during the purchase of the Buffalo Bills by the Pegula family, commissioner Roger Goodell reportedly asked them outright if a team being located in Toronto would be a problem for them, with the clear implication being that the league hoped that one day soon there will be one.
The league have also targeted Brazil, Germany, and China as “frontier markets”, developing markets where they can significantly, and quickly, grow their brand, similar to how they looked the UK prior to the start of the International series there.
Brazil is being considered as a potential location for the Pro Bowl, as the league continue to struggle to make the all-star game relevant, while Germany could be the next country to host regular season International Series games, possibly as early as 2017. China is primarily seen as a growth market digitally, as a potential boom location for services like NFL GamePass, however, if successful online, could also potentially play host to NFL Games.
Germany is significant, however, as the former home of five of the more successful NFL Europe franchises. Germany has a large, and dedicated fan base, and is beginning to produce NFL players who are making a real impact—German Born Björn Werner was drafted in the first round in 2013, a feat no British born player has achieved, and Sebastian Vollmer of the New England Patriots is a Super Bowl ring holder. However, in spite of this, German broadcasters have been hesitant to commit to scheduling regular season games.
While the NFL’s digital platforms, like Game Pass appear to have a very strong level of support in Germany, the NFL are apparently very hesitant to trust those figures too heavily, as so many fans from the USA, Canada, and the UK routinely use VPN services, many of which (like CyberGhost VPN, reviewed here) host their fastest servers in Germany to bypass NFL GamePass restrictions in their countries. To league officials, therefore, there is a level of hesitance about jumping in too quickly, and the league will likely start small, as they did in London, before going “all out” to bring regular games, and even eventually a team, to Germany.