How the NFL Can Best Establish Itself in Europe
Roger Goodell wants an NFL team in London, and when the commissioner of the most rich and powerful sports league in America wants something, he's probably going to get it. At least, eventually.
And so goes the NFL's likely expansion into Europe, a mostly untapped market Goodell sees as a financial gold mine of opportunity and revenue. Money in front of the NFL continues to be like blood in the water for a marine predator.
According to Jason La Canfora of CBS Sports, the overwhelming impression he's received of the NFL's expansion into the London market is more a matter of "when" the league plants a franchise in the heart of England, not "if."
La Canfora mentioned a number of factors driving the idea of expansion into Europe, from the success of regular-season games at Wembley Stadium to the saturation of the domestic product and the worldwide success of soccer powerhouses like the English Premier League. He even mentions a franchise—the Jacksonville Jaguars—as the most likely team to relocate across the pond, in an effort from the NFL's side to expand the wealth pie without having to cut more pieces to share.
But is this plan—relocating an already existing club in the United States to London to become the first fully operational NFL franchise in Europe—really the best way to globalize America's most popular sport?
There are strong arguments on both sides.
The NFL will hold many of the selling points that La Canfora already addressed. Opportunity. Mega markets. Money. International interest.
Factors against the expansion continue to be hurdles in travel, competitive advantages and disadvantages and the law and tax structures outside the U.S.
But considering how likely it remains that the NFL will eventually put a franchise in London—a commitment to which Goodell remains "unwavering," according to La Canfora—it's now worth addressing what really is the best way to expand the NFL's presence into Europe.
While not without its own hurdles and challenges, the following process may be the only true way for the NFL to succeed in globalizing its brand.
Expand the Number of Games Played in London
The NFL has already been vastly successful with its "International Series" in London, having played one game at Wembley Stadium each season since 2007. Attendance figures have been fantastic across the board, which could be partially perceived as the influence of demand by supply.
Only one game every season keeps the supply of these events very low, thereby driving up demand for European NFL fans to attend.
Goodell says both of next year's London games are sold out.— Albert Breer (@AlbertBreer) February 1, 2013
Now seven years into the experiment, it's clear the NFL hasn't taken full advantage of the opportunity to play regular-season games in London. Two games will be played in 2013 (San Francisco 49ers vs. Jacksonville Jaguars, Minnesota Vikings vs. Pittsburgh Steelers), and considering the sellouts of previous years, there's no doubt attendance will remain high for both contests despite the addition of supply.
The question in the immediate future should not address which NFL team should relocate to London. Instead, what is the appropriate number of regular-season games that the NFL should play in England every year?
Two still seems low, but continually expanding the number of games played at Wembley will functionally serve to extract money from the market while also establishing the brand in the United Kingdom.
On so many levels, the idea of eventually playing eight to 10 regular-season games in London every season makes much more sense than establishing a permanent franchise in England. If the NFL still can't provide the right supply for the European demand (which we don't know really exists in London), only then should the idea of relocating an existing franchise there become a possibility.
Play Regular-Season Games Elsewhere in Europe
If the NFL is serious about infiltrating European culture, other regular-season games will have to be played outside of London.
While there are various attractive locations, the now-defunct NFL Europe enjoyed its longest and most fruitful life in Germany, where a number of the final clubs finished out the league's short life span. The Germans clearly have a taste for American football, and it certainly helps that Bjoern Werner—one of its native sons—was recently drafted in the first round of the 2013 NFL draft.
The NFL doesn't need to beat its head against a wall to grow interest; instead, the league should use Germany as another launching point to help grow interest across the continent.
The Germans obviously want the game. Even if the rest of Europe is hesitant to embrace the sport now, the NFL can certainly use Germany to help expand the brand.
Build the Brand Organically
The NFL has slowly eased its way onto the European stage, which is probably the smartest way of introducing the sport abroad. But possibly the most important step of the process in globalizing the American football brand is from the ground up—something the NFL has mostly disregarded.
Not only does the NFL need to provide high-quality and meaningful competitions to the current European fans via regular-season games, but it also needs to cultivate the next generation of NFL fans across the pond by investing in the promotion of the game in Europe.
The NFL is such a popular sport in America because a majority of young boys (and even girls) grow up learning and playing the sport. From Pop Warner to college, the American system is spitting out football fans at a rate that keeps their demand at an all-time high.
Europe has such a system for soccer, but not for American football.
To help start such a system, the NFL needs to sponsor and run youth camps, practices and leagues. At some point in this expansion, the NFL has to promote and teach the game to the younger generation. Doing so can have far-reaching effects.
Not only does opening up the football world to the European youth ensure long-term demand on the continent, but it also presents the possibility of Europe producing an eventual NFL star, which we've seen in the NBA and MLB help explode the popularity of the sport on a worldwide scale.
In the NBA, Yao Ming opened up an entirely new market for basketball in one of the most population-dense countries in the world. The same goes for Pau Gasol in Spain or Tony Parker in France. The success stories of Japanese baseball players in MLB have also had the same effect on that sport.
While not absolutely necessary, the finding of just one European football star could set the stage for the rise in popularity of the sport. But that reality is hard to envision without the support available at the youth level.
Keep the Jaguars in Jacksonville
Even La Canfora admits that the NFL is not ready to relocate a franchise to Europe, citing a timetable of at least five to seven years, and probably more like 10.
If and when that time comes, the Jaguars should stay in Jacksonville.
While the economic idea of moving a small-market franchise like the Jaguars to a mega market like London might be appealing, there's little evidence to point to such a team gaining acceptance in Europe.
As was the problem for NFL Europe, even relatively new fans to the game were aware they were seeing a below-level product. The same problems exist for Major League Soccer in the U.S., where Americans understand enough about the world's game to know that what MLS offers isn't anywhere close to the biggest European leagues.
And there's a second, possibly more pressing problem: European fans, and English fans in particular, have been watching the NFL for some time now. There are already ingrained allegiances to established NFL teams for a large portion of the population.
This coming season, look at the fans watching the two games at Wembley. You won't see just 49ers or Steelers jerseys; colors of all 32 teams will be represented.
Introducing a hand-me-down team like the Jaguars and slapping the London name in front might not make many of those fans suddenly drop their fandom and start spending money on the new English franchise.
Would an NFL franchise survive in London?
Sure, the "London Jaguars" might be financially viable for a period of time—a shiny new toy always gets usage. But what happens when free agents don't want to sign outside of the U.S.? What happens when draft picks force trades away from London every year and the 2-14 seasons we see from Jacksonville become commonplace?
NFL fans in London will stop paying to see that franchise, and it will become nothing more than another failed NFL Europe venture.
The NFL can successfully tap into the London market without having to relocate a franchise, at least in the short term.
Goodell may want to ship off one of his 32 teams to the mega market in London, but his most efficient way of ensuring continued demand of his product on the worldwide stage doesn't (and probably shouldn't) include the dramatic re-shuffling of his current league structure.
Continually increasing the number of regular-season games played in London, when combined with the hosting of other quality games elsewhere in Europe and the introduction of the game to the continent's youth, can create a highly profitable, relatively risk-free way of expanding the NFL's brand into Europe.
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