With the opening of the NFL’s first purpose built stadium outside of the United States; here we take an in depth look at how we got here, and what this represents for American Football moving forward.
NFL expansion. Back in the United States these are words that are traditionally welcomed by owners and fanbases alike. Traditionally believed to assist the growth of the game, the most recent wave came between 1995-2002 when 5 additional teams were created (if you count the revived Cleveland Browns of course). The teams? Carolina, Jacksonville, Baltimore and Houston. Outside of the latter, one may believe these to be relatively small markets, yet they were all strategic, calculated moves, made by a relatively conservative ownership group. So why expand and add competition to a successful product they all have equal share of? As always the answer is related to dollars. After all, it’s the sole reason why the Rams and Chargers were moved to Los Angeles, and why the Oakland Raiders received permission to move to Las Vegas despite being a market long feared by the NFL due to the potential pitfalls of legalised sports betting. Nevertheless, the world of professional sports rarely stands still, and with all of the above, just what is the NFL’s next ‘big’ move?
For those old enough to remember, the NFL’s first attempt at testing the popularity of the sport on an international stage was with the introduction of the World League of American Football, later rebranded NFL Europe. From its inaugural season in 1991, to its end in 2008, NFL teams used the league to supplement their rosters with young, unproven talent, whilst giving them an opportunity to gain experience through additional playing time and coaching. Audiences on the other hand got to see emerging talent such as Jake Delhomme, Adam Vinatieri, James Harrison and one Hall of Fame QB Kurt Warner. However, the overall benefit to European audiences was unclear, and the stop start nature of the sport was believed to be too contrived amongst the fans of more free flowing sports without seeing the very best stars the sport had to offer. Thus, with dwindling attendances and the league operating at an annual loss, NFL Europe ceased to exist, with the NFL seeking to replace it with a more focused approach, dedicated to bringing the real thing to audiences around the world. Subsequently, in 2007 the league launched the International Series, and by doing so the NFL set out a 10 year plan to right the wrongs of their annual European ‘spring league’.
As previously alluded to, the first phase was to bring regular season games to audiences outside of the US, with said games almost exclusively being held in London at Wembley Stadium, England’s historic national Football (Soccer) home. To the NFL’s surprise, each year the game sold out within hours, due in part because the NFL ensured each game had one, or a combination of, either a genuine Super Bowl contender, or a historic franchise that had an existing fan base outside of the US. With record attendances each year, and some incredibly encouraging broadcasting figures, the NFL doubled down in 2013 and announced a second game was to be held each year, with the Jacksonville Jaguars (more on this later) announcing a partnership with the NFL to bring one home game to London until the 2020 season. Later, Mexico’s Estadio Azteca, and England’s national Rugby stadium, Twickenham, were added as additional venues in 2016 and 2017 respectively, with both the Rams, Chargers and Raiders all joining the Jaguars as part of their respective deals for relocation.
So this brings us to 2019, where there will be FIVE regular season games played outside of the US, which in 2007 was scarcely believable to the average American Football fan. Yet here we are. Speaking from personal experience and as someone who has attended games each year since 2007, you can sense a shift in both knowledge and energy each year. Not only do we no longer have to endure mid game explanations of some very basic Football concepts (hallelujah), due in part to the exceptional domestic coverage the game receives from British American football personalities such as Neil Reynolds and former New York Giant and Super Bowl winner Osi Umenyiora, but a number of unofficial tailgates are springing up as well, both sure signs of the sport’s growth and ability to mobilise fans.
In truth, said growth should not be underestimated. In late 2018 NFL research reported there being in excess of 13 million fans in the UK, with 5.7 million describing themselves to be ‘avid’ followers of the league. Consequently, with a population of just 66 million, 19.7% have some form of affinity towards the sport. Globally, this figure is even higher, with globalwebindex’s 2015 ‘GWI audience report’ finding 38% of adults to be fans. Naturally these figures are higher in the US, with 65% of adults saying they follow a combination of the NFL and CFB. Yet in a world that is so in love with the other ‘beautiful game’, these figures show just how far the sport has come. Indeed participation at grass roots levels in the UK is also at an unprecedented high, due in part to several NFL funded programme’s, with 81 universities now competing against one another under the British Universities and College Sport umbrella. Consequently, with said International Series and a significant commitment to grass roots participation, the next step in the NFL’s grand plan has now come to fruition, partnering with the EPL’s Tottenham Hotspur to fund the first purpose built professional American football stadium outside of North America.
So just what does the NFL want heading into this unofficial ‘second phase’ of international expansion? The simple answer to that question is a potential franchise in London. However, one suspects the move to not be as easy a sell as was the previous expansions of the mid to late 90’s. For example, does the NFL intend to create a new franchise, creating potential havoc with current scheduling, or do they intend to relocate an existing team, which would of course still create a number of issues? Reading between the lines the most likely team to make the move would be the Jacksonville Jaguars, who as previously mentioned, play one home game per year in London. Additionally, Shahid Khan, Jacksonville’s owner, came within a whisker of purchasing Wembley in 2018, only for the deal to fall through due to the English Football Association (the current owner), succumbing to public pressure not to sell. For all of Mr. Khan’s denials of moving the team from Florida, and read of that what you will, in reality the move by the NFL to invest in Tottenham stadium likely showed his hand far earlier than he would have initially wanted.
Yet, for all of the hyperbole surrounding a potential move, one would imagine the NFL would likely want more time, and games, to see how the UK continues to respond to the sport, before moving an existing franchise away from the US. One reason for this is the inevitable domestic backlash that such a groundbreaking move would undoubtedly have. Yes Jacksonville rarely sells out when playing in Florida, but the image of the league will likely suffer in the short term, at least in the States. We could also see games in Brazil, South Korea and Germany before any franchise is moved to London, with said markets perceived to be even stronger than that of the UK with regards to game day viewership, as well as the sale of team merchandise. Nevertheless, in one of our previous articles, the ‘Robert Kraft’ dilemma, we outlined several issues both the league and sport currently face. Yet one thing is clear — the game outside of North America has never been stronger, and a team being based outside of the US is now almost inevitable. Subsequently, with all things being considered, not only do we believe the Jaguars will move to London by 2024, but each team will play one game outside of the US each season by 2030 as well. J