In case you’ve been sleeping under a rock for the past few years, we should probably inform you that the NFL has been playing a few games each year at Wembley Stadium. Crazy, I know. This series of games is known as the International Series, and since 2007 has been a part of the regular season schedule, with one team giving up a home game to “host” the game. In 2013, this expanded to 2 games, and the next year it expanded to 3. There’s also been talk of a London-based franchise, and the news that Tottenham Hotspur would play host to games for 10 years from 2018 – which we have touched on in previous podcasts – and expanding into new countries.
On Wednesday, the NFL announced that owners had approved an additional expansion to the International Series through 2025, allowing games to be played in stadiums other than Wembley and the new White Hart Lane. The current big players will be Canada, Germany (one of the largest international markets outside of the UK) and Mexico, where the NFL record attendance was set in 2007 at 103,467.
This is obviously great news for fans worldwide who now have additional locations to visit that may be more convenient for them. As much of a major transport hub London is, it can be pretty expensive to get to for fans further afield, and it’s definitely not cheap to stay there for a weekend. It remains to be seen how many games abroad the league is willing to put on – as for the foreseeable future there will be multiple games at Wembley until the location changes to Tottenham. As any great business knows, expansion is key to keeping alive – and the NFL is definitely a well-run business.
Why the International Series, and not a global tournament?
When you look at other sports around the world, it seems strange that the NFL only operates a league with franchises in one country. Soccer has a number of international tournaments. Rugby has the 6 Nations and Rugby World Cup. Even baseball has the World Classic every few years. So why not the most popular sport in America?
Well, the major reason is something the league likes to tout on a regular basis – player safety. Owners continually challenge if it’s worth having 4 preseason games before the 16-game regular season. Discussions are regularly taking place to reduce the preseason to 2 games. So it’s highly unlikely that anyone will be in favour of adding an extra international tournament after the Super Bowl. And since NFL Europe folded, there’s really no other city that can be remotely competitive with an NFL team. Short of a major culture change to have a similar college sports system, it’s hard to see that changing. And a non-competitive game is bad for ratings. Green Bay Packers @ London Warriors? 75% of the viewers would have tuned out by half time. All the talk of having a franchise in London revolves around relocating an existing team and its talent, still relying on drafting players from the American college system.
Expand, but don’t dilute the product. The NFL knows this well, and by focusing on their core 32 team league and not expanding past this, the league is making sure the product stays competitive, and in high demand. The league will continue to grow in international locations, and perhaps one day there’ll be enough culture around the sport in other countries to warrant further investigation – but for now, we’ll have to be content with the International Series as it is.
Better get saving those air miles…