I was one of more than 80,000 fans at Wembley Stadium on Sunday supporting the Detroit Lions as they took on the Atlanta Falcons. The match was the latest installment in the NFL’s “International Series”, which sees the league play a number of regular season games in the UK every year. The attendance was some way above the 55,000 recorded when England’s national football team (or “soccer” team to our American friends) took on San Marino at the beginning of October. That’s evidence of the US sport’s ever-increasing popularity in this country. And with ticket prices as high as £120, the NFL clearly has a lucrative venture on its hands.
I spend most of my evenings and weekends watching or reading about sport. It’s the competitiveness and the drama that grabs me – and the NFL is more than just a sport: it’s an entertainment brand. You only have to look as far as the Super Bowl. The annual showpiece game commands a national TV audience of 111.5 million, features a music concert at half-time showcasing the biggest artists in the world, and networks can charge upwards of $4 million for a 30-second ad slot during the game’s intermissions.
The popularity of American football has been rising in the UK since the NFL announced it would play a regular season game at Wembley seven years ago. The sport has returned each year since, generating sell-out crowds every time.
But with each game that passes, more and more people ask the question: will London get its own team?
The question we should really be asking is: why should it? For the NFL, the simple answer is money. The league is a global brand and a moneymaking machine. It’s constantly looking for ways of expanding and bringing in new revenue. Despite recent controversies, brands want to be associated with the NFL – it equals exposure. Just last month Microsoft signed a five-year $400 million deal for its Surface tablet to become “the official tablet of the NFL". And you can't miss Bose's large headphones being used throughout the game after they recently signed up as the league’s "official headset partner” for an estimated $40 million per season, replacing Motorola.
With two sold-out games at Wembley already this year and a third to follow in November, it’s not surprising that rumours of a permanent London franchise refuse to die down. And it’s not just the games themselves that bring the crowds. Wembley's free Tailgate Party before the match saw thousands turn up to enjoy entertainment, eat food from gourmet vans and descend on the merchandise stalls – snapping up everything from official jerseys and team caps to programmes and classic foam fingers. There’s also NFL Regent Street, which drew crowds of more than half a million people, and the long-running fan rally in Trafalgar Square. There’s a real sense of occasion when the NFL comes to town.
It’s the drama and the spectacle of these special events that’s a large part of the appeal of the NFL in the UK. To try and replicate that every week would dilute the impact. The NFL International Series is more of an entertainment event than a sporting one – and for me, that’s where there’s a disconnect. Convincing NFL fans to get behind a new, London-based team rather than the organisation as a whole is a huge challenge. Though fans enjoy the NFL, there’s just not the same diehard passion and attachment to American football here as there is to domestic games like English football and cricket.
Playing regular season games 4,000 miles from home works for the NFL because of the entertainment package – the public enjoy the whole experience, not just the games. Supporters of English football are more fanatical and tribal, born from a lifetime of being wed to a particular team. Many English fans have long bemoaned their national sport becoming more like a business. So it’s not surprising that plans mooted by Premier League chiefs to follow the NFL’s lead and play a regular season match abroad have been met with passionate objections.
Taking that a step further and ripping a Premier League team from the grasp of fans and taking it to a different country would be unthinkable. You just need to look at what happened when Wimbledon FC moved a mere 70 miles north to Milton Keynes. Yet when it comes to the NFL, few US fans would bat an eyelid – in fact, there’s an air of inevitability about it. The NFL is more of a corporate powerhouse, with teams treated as franchises that can be easily transferred from city to city.
There's an argument for "if it ain’t broke, don't fix it", when it comes to the NFL’s activities in the UK – and the International Series is clearly not broken. Fans seem to have no preference about what franchise they watch. Last month, the Miami Dolphins played the Oakland Raiders and 83,000 people bought tickets to cheer on a team that hasn't made the playoffs since 2008 against an outfit that hasn’t won a game in more than a year. There aren't many football teams in this country that could sell out Wembley.
Jerry Jones, owner of “America’s team” the Dallas Cowboys, insists that a London-based team will happen. But while that might be the next logical step in his view, a permanent franchise is a completely different prospect to the odd one-off game. The NFL will need a different kind of fan to those it has reeled in already – one that will commit week in, week out to follow a single team no matter what. Once the novelty of a London franchise dies down, will the team still draw crowds? It’s an intriguing question. History isn’t on the NFL’s side. The league’s last foray into international franchises, the World League of American Football (later NFL Europe), was scrapped in 2007 with an average attendance of less than 20,000 people per game across its 15 seasons.
As a fan of the sport for years, I think the growing coverage of American football in this country is a great thing. Sky Sports has just announced a new five-year deal with the league, which means it will now show five live games a week as well as all post-season games. The opportunity to see games live on television, as well as in person, is exciting – and it will grow the league’s fan base further.
In terms of brand exposure and interest in the game, the NFL International Series is probably performing above the league’s own high expectations. But I think a permanent London franchise will fail in the long run – something that could dent perceptions of the NFL brand outside the US. I for one would rather join 80,000 fans once a year for a spectacle of sport than sit with a couple of thousand people enduring the fireworks and pre-match cheerleaders for the sixth time in as many weeks. You can have too much of a good thing.