NFL in London? Asking the NFL (in London)
NinerNoise’s series on the NFL in Europe was interrupted by the fast start to free agency. Here we finish up the series with the last of the five articles.
In Parts 1-4 we explored some background of the NFL abroad, particularly in Europe and the UK. In this last section David Tossell, NFL Director of Public Affairs for the UK and Europe, was kind enough to answer some questions on further expansion, concussions, relocation, San Francisco 49er Lawrence Okoye, and more.
Wembley Stadium, January 2014, Home of all NFL Games Played in London since 2007. It is extremely similar to American Football stadiums. Credit: Doug Totten
Questions are in bold.
David’s answers follow in normal type.
Could the NFL expand to host games elsewhere in Europe?
The UK has free-to-air TV, something not found much throughout the rest of Europe, thus it is harder to grow the sport long-term elsewhere at the moment. England also offers much more in terms of TV revenue than other European nations. Contrary to popular belief, the Wembley games actually lose a lot of money, but it is a marketing investment for the future.
What is the biggest challenge facing the NFL in international growth?
The two biggest challenges are exposure and understanding.
All of the NFL’s free-to-air TV is now on Channel 4 instead of the BBC, as Channel 4 offered the NFL a platform for the Super Bowl, all Wembley games, and a weekly highlights show, something NFL UK has been looking for to replicate the 1980s show for quite some time. The best plays, players, stories, and teams are a great way to build excitement and a great stepping stone to watching full games.
There is no quick way to learn American Football. Someone could come down from Mars and quickly figure out that, in soccer, there are two teams trying to kick a ball into a goal. In 30 seconds of American Football, however, no one may move. Thus, the NFL faces the challenge of giving people an incentive to learn the game by themselves. Highlights shows are a great way to do that. The internet has made this easier as well, with NFL360.com being a website dedicated to this purpose. Understanding is still a big hurdle, however.
The Jacksonville Jaguars are in the midst of a deal to play one home game in London for four years. Their owner, Shahid Khan, recently bought Fulham FC as well. Could the Jaguars be the NFL team to move?
Every owner has their reasons for wanting to host a game in London, public or private. Shahid Khan’s current stated desire is to play four games in London across four seasons. Our current focus is promoting the NFL, the sport, the Wembley games, and dealing with ticket sales, media, and so forth. We are not recruiting franchises for relocation.
(Note: Shahid Khan and the Jaguars filled a void left when Stan Kroenke, owner of the St. Louis Rams and majority shareholder of Arsenal, backed out of a deal to play multiple years in London in an effort to focus on upgrades for their home stadium. Owners other than Khan could easily be looking at London.)
Is the NFL looking at growing American Football from the grassroots level with schoolchildren?
That is an effective, but slow way to grow the game. It takes too long and TV is a much faster way for the game to grow and gain millions of viewers. Furthermore, NFL UK is not responsible for American Football at the grassroots level. The British American Football Association (BAFA) is the governing body of the sport in the UK. NFL UK works closely with them, doing some events in schools and elsewhere, but NFL UK currently does not have the budget or resources to build effectively from the grassroots level itself. One example of its current work is an officials’ clinic that preceded one of the Wembley games this past year. Coaching seminars are also currently done by NFL UK. These are quite effective in spreading the game, as many coaches can reach more athletes than NFL UK can by itself.
Generating players in the UK is important. A UK team would definitely benefit by having UK players. UK players are a strong media hook here, as evidenced by the Oakland Raiders’ second-round draft pick in 2013, Brit Menelik Watson, and the interest in former Olympian Lawrence Okoye of the San Francisco 49ers.
Have the negative health effects so often discussed in American media had an impact on NFL marketing in the UK?
American Football is still a popular game, and there is no evidence to suggest that the media attention on potential negative health impacts has stopped people from playing the sport.
The NFL, in contrast to what has been occurring in the United States, has actually been presented quite positively by British media. Rugby is dealing with many of the same problems, especially concussions, and the media here often uses the NFL’s actions as examples of what rugby can do to become safer. Events like Junior Seau’s suicide do gain attention over here, but by and large, the NFL is viewed positively from a safety standpoint.
What impact do structural differences between sport in the UK and sport in the US, like the draft, have on marketing the NFL in the UK?
Note: in the UK and Europe, prospects are signed extremely young by professional clubs, which have “academies” and developmental teams from the Under 11 squad up to Under 21s and finally the first team. The big professional sports do not go through universities.
The UK has no equivalent to the draft utilized by professional American sports. This is viewed as a tool, however, not a hurdle. It is a great way to generate conversation, allowing us to discuss why and how the NFL is so competitive. The draft has also become an event here, with live television and radio coverage. When I first began to work for the NFL my boss was Oliver Luck and his son, Andrew, was just a ginger-headed kid throwing footballs around the NFL UK’s offices. His status as number one draft pick helped boost the event’s popularity, along with Watson and others. The draft also helps maintain excitement with NFL’s long offseason.
Two other structural differences that lead to the competitive nature, and are great for discussion over here, are the salary cap and revenue sharing. A salary cap for soccer is often discussed in the media, and NFL UK is happy answer questions from the media about it. No equivalent of Manchester City, which was bought by a rich owner who has spent enough to make them great, can happen in the NFL. Revenue sharing plays an extremely small role here as clubs keep virtually all profits from merchandise they sell. The competitive balance maintained by the NFL’s structure proves a great conversation starter with sports fans in the UK.
How do you go about marketing UK players such as former Olympian and current San Francisco 49er Lawrence Okoye?
Okoye is a great story, especially as he was already a name over here. He competed in the 2012 London Olympics in the Discus Throw. Players with previous profiles, such as Okoye, really help bring attention to the game. When Okoye had success in the regional combine he brought attention to an event many British people had no idea existed. Even though he went undrafted, his training camp battle with the San Francisco 49ers garnered a lot of attention before he sustained an injury and was placed on Injured Reserve for the remainder of the season.
There is definitely a lot of interest in UK players such as Okoye and Watson over here. We do regular conference calls with them and use their popularity to promote the game as well. A real boost would be a true UK individual make the NFL as a skills position player.
A big barrier to this happening is that there is no real shortcut to the NFL. You almost have to go through the American system.
A crossover athlete would also be extremely helpful in promoting the NFL. We have seen the value of high profile athletes going to American sports in Indycar. Dan Weldon, who sadly is no longer with us, and Dario Franchitti were both fairly successful British IndyCar drivers, but only when former Formula 1 champ Nigel Mansell moved to IndyCar did the circuit really gain popularity in Britain. Some rugby players could make excellent kickers for NFL squads, but to this point no one has made the switch.
I hope you have enjoyed this series on the NFL’s international reach. I learned a lot through my discussion with Mr. Tossell and I hope you have gleaned something from this as well.