NFL Europe: London’s Calling
Toward the end of the National Football League season, there was a bit of speculation on the league locating a franchise in London, England as well as on the international future of the NFL. English Packers’ fan Stephen Kilbey wrote a treatise on the prospects of the NFL’s future in Europe, which I am reprinting here with his permission. I think it provides an interesting perspective from the point of view of exactly the type of individual who would be the target audience for NFL expansion/relocation. Ironically, in my opinion, some of the pitfalls he details in such an undertaking could also apply to the NFL’s efforts to base a franchise in Los Angeles.-BSM
THE NFL’S POPULARITY IN THE U.K. HAS GROWN SINCE THE 2007 GAME AT WEMBLEY STADIUM, BUT THAT DOESN’T MEAN WE NEED A TEAM.
STEPHEN KILBEY EXPLAINS……
In the light of the St Louis Rams agreeing to host three home games in the UK from 2012 onwards, I feel it is important to discuss the future of the National Football League in the UK and why it has become a mess of rumours and forum discussions that could leave fans ultimately disconnected from the NFL in the fast approaching future.
Way back in 2006, when Alistair Kirkwood and Roger Goodell came to an agreement to bring the NFL to our shores to play a regular season game for the first time in the league’s long history, UK fans would never have dreamt what would follow. Since that announcement, the NFL’s popularity has risen at an incredible pace. Just last year, the viewing figures of regular season games on Sky Sports rose by 18%! What does this mean? It means that maybe, just maybe, the UK is finally embracing the world’s most popular sport.
Every year since the first game in 2007, we have seen one game about midway through the season; we have seen all types of bouts between selections of diverse teams like the pass-heavy Patriots and the defense-centred Bears.
However, as successful as the International Series project has been in the NFL front office’s eyes, the possibilities that are being planned for the future are far less appetising. There are plans to bring more than one game across the pond and maybe even franchise a team over here, which in my opinion has the potential to destroy all the momentum that the games over here have provided, and create a black hole where the NFL’s international image used to be.
You see, the NFL games in London are not the only international American Football projects that are currently being worked on. The Buffalo Bills presently play one home game a year in Toronto; the famous college team Notre Dame are set to play in Ireland later this year and the NFL once upon a time tried to organise a pre-season NFL game in China, only for it to be cancelled. This tells us that London is not the only area of expansion for the NFL around the world.
History tells us though that the UK is no stranger to the NFL. There have been brief spurts of popularity over the years, notably the 80’s and 90’s, and this is evident today. During the 80’s the NFL brought over pre-season games to the old Wembley Stadium, in the hay day of teams like the Miami Dolphins with Dan Marino and the Chicago Bears with Walter Payton, not to mention the dynasty that was the 1980’s San Francisco 49ers with Joe Montana, and “The Greatest Of All Time” Jerry Rice. The legacy is that these teams still top the charts in terms of support from British fans.
Then in the 90’s we had our own team in the NFL Europe league, London Monarchs, which sadly folded along with the entire European league after only seven years of competition. The core audience has always been there but it’s the “prisoners of the moment” who come and go.
Ultimately I think bringing games over here was one of the best decisions in terms of global image that the NFL has ever made. Then again the rumours that keep circulating suggest that a team may end up being re-located to London could be the worst decision they ever make.
Last year’s International Series game (the first non-sell out) proved that filling seats is already becoming a problem; we are in a financial crisis, the ticket prices are high, the event itself is not a new thing anymore and by looking at the message boards on NFLUK.com, it would seem that unless the two top teams are coming over each year, some people just won’t go.
I think that we could just about manage two games, but don’t expect two sell-outs if the one-win Buffalo Bills are facing the undefeated Dallas Cowboys because there are not enough people who want to watch a game with a score board reading 38 – 3! Having a team play eight games over here then surely wouldn’t go down well.
One of the main selling points of the International Series games it that it’s a big annual event. It’s “Our Superbowl”. Most fans over here already have a team that they support, many very passionately. If the same team keeps playing over here, not only will people not change allegiance because they have already decided who to cheer on, but they will get fed up of seeing the same players who they don’t have a rooting interest in again and again. What does this mean? The away team will get most of the support, but even that will be pathetic. All signs point to EMPTY SEATS, and lots of them, pretty much the main catalyst for all US teams relocating. There are simply not enough fans over here to fill the mid-sized O2 Arena in Greenwich eight times a year let alone the 82,000 seat Wembley Stadium!
If it did happen though, take this into account. Which players will want to move to Europe, thousands of miles away from family and friends? You won’t get a full roster of 53 top class players playing in front of a bunch of British fans who won’t even cheer them on. They just won’t want it. Sure there will be some support from a few who embrace it, but I know for sure that I would never abandon my beloved Green Bay Packers.
The NFL would then have to consider the battle they would be having with the Premier League. Top line British football is so important to sports fans over here, that many fans wouldn’t give the NFL a chance. Even with only one team here, it would still face competition for viewership and fandom, which I doubt the NFL would win. I would think that eventually only a few years into a team playing here it would collapse. The League would realise what experts here already know, that it won’t generate enough revenue. The franchise would return with its damaged pride, and all the momentum from the rising popularity of the Wembley games would be lost. The likely result would be any games coming over here being snubbed for the foreseeable future, leaving fans that backed the current format disappointed and fans that jumped on the bandwagon with no reason to continue their support. The result would be a return to pre-2007; a group of a few core fans living in the underground universe that once was, the NFL in the UK.
I suppose what I am saying is, get behind the event. Go and experience live football with other like-minded people, go to the fan rally in central London, go introduce friends to the spectacle that is the NFL. Just don’t pray for a franchise, because it just won’t work.
You can follow Stephen Kilbey on Twitter at @stephenk22.