For the third year in a row, the NFL has successfully sold out three games in the UK. In this time, they’ve tested the continuing viability of the market with timing changes, games on consecutive weeks, and the addition of a new stadium. The European market has passed each new test with flying colours and in January of this year, on the back of the continuing success, Mark Waller, the league’s vice president of international, stated that the league ‘fundamentally believes’ that a franchise will be permanently based here by 2022.
“The fan base is big enough and passionate enough that it can support a franchise,” said Waller, adding, “I felt in 2007 it was always a 15-year journey. I think we’re on track to deliver that.”
With that optimism and the league’s growth model of continually adding new concepts, it wouldn’t be unreasonable to assume that the logical next step would be to add further London games in 2017. That is exactly what Mayor of London Sadiq Khan is hoping for. The Mayor met with Commissioner Goodell following the Giants / Rams game at Twickenham and spoke with him about the future of UK games. Khan said: “I want London to be the business capital of the world, the cultural capital of the world and the sporting capital of the world. I hope that the Commissioner — no pressure — will have good news in the next 45 days. Just imagine if we went from three to four.”
His meeting with the commissioner clearly left him optimistic about such growth. Goodell said the success of the Giants / Rams clash at Twickhenam made it more likely the NFL would be able to award more games to London stating that “the growth has been phenomenal.”
However, it would seem that Sadiq Khan’s optimism that London might see a further game in 2017 is misplaced, despite the Commissioner’s positivity about future growth. Following the Mayor’s comments, the NFL’s Mark Waller told the Sporting News website that four games next year is unlikely; “We’re not there yet and, to be honest, we’re not there from an inventory standpoint, we’re working on it.”
Logistical concerns seem to be the main barrier for further expansion in the very near future. At least that is what Waller is saying. “There were long lines at many of the stations and getting into the stadium” he stated. He added that they could not add more games until they can be sure that the right resources are in place. He also suggested that travel issues for teams and fans and wider issues with scheduling were further problems to overcome. Waller stated that fan experience was at the forefront of the league’s mind when making decisions. They clearly feel there is more work to do from that point of view.
The league may also be having problems persuading more NFL teams to give up one of their precious eight home games. It could be be a hard sell for some teams, especially those with good home support. It certainly felt like the Giants, not the Rams, were the home team at Twickenham, given the fan noise and sea of bright blue jerseys.
The NFL’s key focus is to expand their business and the overseas market continues to be ripe for the picking. However, that doesn’t just mean the UK. There are a number of issues relating to the growth of the game here which are starting to come to light, particularly that there is likely a ceiling to the game’s popularity which may be fast approaching. You can read more on the NFL’s popularity in the UK here.
It may be that the NFL genuinely feel that the infrastructure is simply not in place for a 2017 game, but this is the first time we’ve seen a more negative response from the league towards continued expansion in the UK. For the last few years it’s been continual forward movement, so now that London is actively asking, it does raise questions. Mark Waller did state that the relationship with London and Sadiq Khan is positive, but the addition of a game in Mexico City as well as attempts to raise the profile of the game in the Far East both suggest that London isn’t the league’s only international testing ground.
A further dimension is the stadium agreements. The deals are currently two games as Wembley through 2020, three games at Twickenham between 2016-18 and two games at Tottenham from 2018. This would mean that if there are three games once again in 2017, would five be needed in 2018 to meet these agreements? This isn’t a u-turn on Mark Waller’s January comments about the future of the NFL in the UK, but we’ll certainly be awaiting the 2017 schedule announcement with interest.
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