The future of NFL in the UK: Our predictions

After watching the Jacksonville Jaguars narrowly defeat the Buffalo Bills in a packed-out Wembley on Sunday we began to discuss the future of NFL in the UK.

The clash was the 13th of the NFL International Series, a regular fixture in the Wembley calendar since 2007.

There’s no doubt there is a dedicated NFL fanbase in this country. The league have carried out significant market research themselves and claim the number of Britons saying they’re “very interested” in American Football has doubled to more than three million since 2010.

Whether these figures are precise or not, to sell out Wembley in the middle of the Rugby World Cup with two “lesser” NFL sides is no mean feat.

The BBC clearly thinks there’s a future to the sport in the UK – their Match of the Day-style highlights show is scheduled to launch next month.

So, what should we expect for the future of NFL in the UK?

Wembley stadium: The future of NFL in the UK

The NFL are pushing for expansion – expect to see it

It was announced last week that Wembley will play host to at least two games per season until 2020 with an option to extend the deal until 2025.

International expansion is high on the agenda of the bigwigs at NFL HQ. Mark Waller, an executive vice-president, recently described his desire for “a league that is not constrained by geographic boundaries”.

Plans for games in Mexico and Germany in the near future are underway but it’s clear the NFL regards the UK as its most feasible future venture.

Last season’s Super Bowl was watched by 114 million viewers in the States. Officials fear the sport is close to reaching saturation point – particularly given the sharp rise in interest in both men’s and women’s “soccer”.

Breaking into the UK market would be a significant step for maintaining growth of the league (and its revenue).

And they’re not afraid to spend big to win a new audience. A takeover of Regent Street, flying in the 225-piece Ohio State University marching band among other pyrotechnics, were just some of the costs that resulted in a £650,000 overall loss for the NFL on Sunday.

It was a loss-leading exercise, and an effective one at that, gaining American football plenty of UK column inches.

Waller claims that increasing the number of games played in London to eight per season would be “an easily identifiable next step” should Wembley’s complex scheduling allow it.

Indeed, scheduling might play a major role in the future of NFL in the UK.

A London-based team isn’t necessarily a reality

Scheduling would clearly be a major factor in the creation of any UK-based team.

There is a definite feeling that it would be better to have no UK-based team rather than a team that underperforms as a result of regular transatlantic travel.

Shahid Khan, owner of Fulham FC and the Jacksonville Jaguars, has seen his side become the NFL’s “international team”.

Turning Wembley into their home away from home has benefited the Jags.

The fixture now accounts for 15% of their ticket revenue for a season, while their website has gone from the least visited in the league to top ten, with the lion’s share of these hits coming from outside the US.

However, Khan was swift to warn against hoping for more than one Jags’ appearance per season at Wembley, leading many to wonder how long it might be before we witness a UK team competing in the NFL.

Scheduling issues aside, there’s still a concern about the sport’s popularity.

It’s felt that six million serious fans are required to make any UK NFL team a success, and despite growing numbers of those interested, we’re still a long way off any NFL player being a household name in the UK.

Logistically, the lack of a permanent stadium might hurt the launch of any new team, even with Tottenham Hotspur’s new ground cited as a possible option alongside Wembley for NFL fixtures.

Even the head of NFL UK, Alistair Kirkwood appeared coy on the subject, stating “I think a London team could happen soon if all the stars aligned and it made absolute sense”.

Money is the biggest motivating factor for the NFL in the UK

The NFL is a business, and a massive one at that with annual revenues of about eight billion pounds.

A London-based NFL team is thought to be worth over £100 million a year to the city.

The figures are big. It’s reported that last year’s two-match International Series contributed £32 million to the London economy, while, just within Wembley, spends on merchandise and snacks were described by one executive as “epic”.

Having seen the numbers, it’s unsurprising that Chancellor George Osborne and London Mayor Boris Johnson have weighed into the debate.

Osborne has expressed his determination to support an NFL franchise moving to, or being launched in, the UK – and that tax breaks might be applied as an incentive.

Back in the USA, 45 of the 50 most popular TV programmes last year were NFL games, with advertising space highly competitive and highly priced.

According to the NFL, Sky’s viewership for its American Football shows have doubled since 2007 and it’s likely revenue from TV (and the size of TV-rights packages) is only going to grow in line with the increasing interest in the sport.

Clearly, the future of NFL in the UK is very closely tied to its financial impact.

Touchdown: The future of NFL in the UK

The future of NFL in the UK – our conclusions

It’s possible to take a cynical view of Sunday’s encounter at Wembley.

Given the relatively low standing of the sides, some have questioned whether Wembley was full of fans looking to watch quality American Football or if the majority were there for an iconic American experience, like visiting Disneyland.

However, having been there, watched how the fans were reacting and seen the sheer number of NFL shirts on display, it was quite evident that a large proportion of those in the stadium were serious fans.

In any case, the ability to appeal to a broad market and offer something that juxtaposes with the current national favourite, football – certainly in terms of spectacle and intensity – can be seen as a strength of the NFL not a weakness.

The future of NFL in the UK looks set to develop steadily, certainly for the next few years. After that, it’s likely the time will come when a decision on a London-based franchise has to be made.

If you’re keen to attend any NFL games in London, or take part in the travel experience of a lifetime to San Francisco to attend the Super Bowl, don’t hesitate to get in touch.

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