If you’ve ever planned to get up early and park yourself in front of a television on Sunday for a game in London, you may ask yourself why the NFL puts its American fans through that rigamarole. In Week 9, we got our fourth and final London game of the season. The Texans beat the Jaguars in Wembley Stadium. The first two games were played at the new Tottenham Hotspur Stadium, while the Rams and Bengals also played at Wembley in Week 8.
There are a handful of reasons the NFL plays games in the United Kingdom each year, but they all come back to one thing: establishing a permanent presence there.
How long has London played host? The London games in the International Series started in 2007 with a low-scoring affair between the Giants and Dolphins at Wembley Stadium. The Giants won, 13-10. Since 2007, the NFL has played 30 different international games — all but two in London — in an effort to win over new fans and potentially expand beyond the United States.
The series has grown over the years, going to two London games in 2013 and then four games for the 2017 season. The NFL dialed back the series to three games in 2018, but it’s jumped to four UK matchups and one Mexico City contest in 2019.
London is a popular destination. There’s a ready-made audience there for American football and the turnout across the pond is always stellar.
Why London? Primarily because the league hopes to have a permanent presence there someday, according to Albert Breer of The MMQB. And the NFL has been strategic about the process.
It’s tested the viability of bringing West Coast teams over to London to play games. It’s also created a four-year series of “home” Jaguars games in London to help figure out if that will make international fans more likely to support a particular team.
And it’s working, even if the NFL is losing money on the games in London, according to Bloomberg. The NFL has started to develop fans in the UK thanks to London playing host to games, which are also free to watch on BBC. That’s different than in the U.S., where advertising dollars are a huge factor in the NFL’s revenue. And you can expect it to change in England, as well. But the exposure has created a large number of loyal fans.
The games in London have been popular despite often featuring less competitive teams — it has yet to host a matchup between winning teams. The Jaguars had nine consecutive losing seasons, but they’ve gained fans in London after playing there once a season since 2013. The Jaguars recently extended their agreement with the NFL to host a game in London through 2020.
What about other countries? The league’s efforts to expand its brand aren’t limited to London. In 2005, Mexico City hosted the first regular season NFL game outside the U.S. The Cardinals beat the 49ers in a lopsided 31-14 matchup. The Patriots faced the Raiders in Mexico City in 2017, though a marquee matchup in 2018 between the Chiefs and Rams was moved to LA due to poor field conditions. The Mexico City series will resume in Week 11 of the 2019 season, when the Chiefs and Chargers will play at Estadio Azteca.
The NFL has had its eye on China and Germany, as well. There was a plan to host a game in China in 2018, but that has been pushed back.