In Parts 1-3 we have explored the NFL’s introduction to Europe and the ill-fated WLAF and NFL Europe. Here we will take a look at the NFL International Series, its conception, and how it got to where it is today.
The Arizona Cardinals thought it would be a good idea to play a game outside of the United States when they were building University of Phoenix Stadium. Though, David Tossell made clear, there was no doubt this game would be going to Mexico City, London was given a chance to bid, allowing it to work out logistics such as practice locations, accommodation, travel, etc. (As 49er fans should remember, the Cardinals defeated San Francisco in that game, 31-14, after the 49ers held a 14-0 first quarter lead.)
London’s bid process helped pave the way for the International Series’ long-term visit to London, however. When the NFL owners ended NFL Europa, they quickly decided that at least one NFL regular season game would be held outside of the country from 2007 onwards. London, with a just-opened new Wembley Stadium, a good potential market, and much of the planning already out of the way, became the natural choice.
Tossell described the process for selling tickets to that first Wembley game. Prior to the Super Bowl, NFL UK allowed fans to register if they were interested in receiving more information on tickets. Half a million people registered in 72 hours. Selling tickets was not and has not been a problem since, as is evident by the increase to two games this past year and three next season—all of which are already sold out.
Tossell and NFL UK next had to “make sure the teams were OK with everything.” Though the first game was objectively ugly and was played in poor conditions after a week’s worth of rain, a Giant positive came from it. The New York Giants, who beat the “host” Miami Dolphins 13-10 in the inaugural game, went on a tear to win the Super Bowl. This was a tremendous boost to NFL UK, as teams could no longer claim that a trip across the pond ruined their season.
The NFL has never asked a team to give up a home game to host one in London. Owners have always volunteered. Different owners have different reasons—speculate on them all you like—but they continue to be great marketing investments for the league. (Yes, the Yorks have received a new stadium since they “hosted” the Broncos a few years back, but I do not think the 49ers were ever in danger of a serious move.) They make great publicity for Commissioner Roger Goodell and the NFL and help build the brand of the league and the brands of individual teams in England and the rest of Europe. Despite popular belief, Tossell remarked, the Wembley games actually cost the NFL quite a bit of money. They are viewed as an investment, however, and the owners one day hope to recoup their costs.
Where will the NFL go in the UK? Well, there has been a tremendous rise in NFL.co.uk registered users (the British website). UK TV figures for the NFL have also doubled since that first London game between the Giants and Dolphins. In addition, approximately ninety British universities now have American Football teams. All this leads David Tossell to believe that the NFL is moving forward nicely. Before I could ask about an NFL team in Europe, Tossell answered the perennial question: “The honest answer is: ‘We don’t know.’” Ten years ago, however, he would never have believed that three games a year would be held in London by 2014. The NFL will likely continue its focus on the UK, as opposed to other parts of Europe, mostly due to the nature of TV markets. The UK stations offer more money than those in other nations, and most other nations lack the free-to-air infrastructure that both the U.S. and UK share, making the game harder to grow elsewhere. Perhaps someday the NFL will get to that point, but for now it seeks to integrate into British culture.
I hope you have enjoyed learning some of the NFL’s background in Europe. Fortunately, we are not done yet! In our last section, Part 5, we will conclude with a question and answer session with none other than David Tossell himself.