Roger Goodell wants to see NFL revenue hit $25 billion by 2027. For that to happen, the league has to explore ideas for new sources of income. Raking in an estimated $10 billion in 2012, the NFL is far and away the most popular and lucrative sport in America. The league considers international expansion to be one of its best sources of untapped wealth and an important part of hitting that lofty target.
The NFL has slowly tried to make its game a familiarity overseas, so when the time came, a team in Europe wouldn't seem so foreign (every pun intended). This started with the American Bowl, a series of preseason exhibition games held across Europe, as well as Japan, Canada and Mexico, where in 1994, the largest crowd in NFL history (112,376) attended a game between the Dallas Cowboys and Houston Oilers. There was also the unsuccessful attempt to implement a league abroad, NFL Europe, which operated from 1991 until 2007 when the NFL announced a shift in international strategy to focus on presenting regular-season games at international locations. But just as important as the NFL teaching Europe about their game, was the NFL learning more about Europe -- the culture, economy, demographics of their potential new stomping grounds.
Enter Mark Waller.
I recently had the opportunity to participate in the Sports Events Marketing Experience at Nationals Park, in D.C., as a member of the social media team from Georgetown University. My role was to interview the numerous executives from varying leagues, companies and teams, but the man I really wanted to talk to was Waller.
Like myself, Mr. Waller is a Brit, so I was excited to speak with someone who had become so successful and achieved such a prominent position in the American sports industry. One could be forgiven, as I was, to be shocked to hear that an Englishman was the chief marketing officer of America's most popular sport. But when you consider what the NFL is trying to do overseas, coupled with Waller's background, the reasoning becomes apparent.
A crucial aspect of Waller's career progression to the NFL is his extensive international experience, something that was surely not overlooked by the NFL. Graduating from Durham University in England, one of the top schools after Oxford and Cambridge, Waller started a 25-year international career that took him from the U.K. to Greece, Spain, the Canary Islands and eventually the United States. Some of his duties with the NFL include overseeing the league's international activities, as well as developing the league's long-term fan development and brand strategy.
If a team were to move overseas, the most obvious destination would be London. With Waller's business experience and upbringing in the U.K, his role and input would surely be vital. Perhaps he even had an idea which team the NFL was looking to move? Unfortunately for the sports junkie within me, Waller did not provide anything close to resembling a hint as to which team that might be.
Waller was quick to point out that every preseason and regular season game that has been hosted at Wembley Stadium in London has sold out, including the two scheduled for the 2013-14 season, the Steelers and Vikings playing on Sept. 29, followed by the 49ers and Jaguars on Oct. 27. Taking these sellouts as a clear indication of the popularity of the NFL in Europe, Waller said that the impetus for having a team based overseas was clearly there. His comments closely followed Goodell's, who addressed the topic at his pre-Super Bowl press conference in New Orleans earlier this year:
"I think the message is very clear. We've got passionate fans that love the NFL in the UK. We're always asking what is the next step after two games," said Goodell. "Do we move to three, do we try something else? How do we continue to celebrate the growth of the game in the UK? But I think from the positive reaction from the fans, that our ownership understands that this is a market in which we need to be more active."
How could the NFL compete with the Premier League? The iconic and most recognized soccer league in the world has a cult following in England, television rights worth $4.5 billion, and is home to the world's richest sports team, Manchester United. In London alone there are currently five Premier League teams, each having games on either a Saturday, Sunday, or once during the week (more if they are involved in European competition). How could a new team break into this market, sell tickets, and generate fan loyalty?
There is no doubt that to compete with the Premier League would be a monumental task, one that I believe could never be achieved. The NFL still has no reliable external estimates for potential revenue overseas. However, as Waller pointed out, the popularity for the NFL in England and Europe has clearly grown.
Having a new team in London would certainly be a commodity and provide a new experience for sports fans across Europe. In this sense, I do believe that the NFL is on to something, but the basic questions of which team would move and when are still very much up in the air. For now, Europe isn't going anywhere. The NFL may very well be.
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