The culmination of the NFL’s 2019 International Series, now in its 12th year, at Wembley on Sunday matched the Jacksonville Jaguars against a dominant Houston Texans.
With two of the four regular season matches played on UK soil contested at a sparkling new purpose-built stadium, the question of whether the long-rumoured London franchise could now be on the cards, looks all but answered.
According to the latest league research, there are more than 15 million NFL fans in the UK – approximately a quarter of the population. In contrast, a 2016 Kantar report revealed there are only 7.7 million fans of women’s football in the country.
The NFL report adds that of those fans, four million are ‘avid’ supporters. What’s more, while the NFL doesn’t dominate the UK sports scene in quite the same manner as it does in the US, the Sky Sports weekly ratings for NFL output have doubled in the last 10 years. The viewing figures for those tuning in to the late night RedZone channel rose by nearly a third in 2018.
Meanwhile, attendance figures of the London games, which routinely sell out, continue to grow and, according to StubHub, demand for NFL tickets in 2019 increased by 34 per cent from 2018.
Wayne Grierson, EMEA general manager at StubHub, said: “The NFL London Games represent a significant economic and reputational opportunity for Britain as it continues to strengthen its position as a global hub for the world’s most iconic sporting events. The consumer demand for the sport is undeniable, and calls for a permanent UK franchise is testament to the hard work NFL has done to grow its international bases.”
A London franchise has long been rumoured and a 2014 Deloitte report suggested the economic impact could generate £102 million per season for the UK economy.
A future for American football in London is reasonably certain following the development of the new Tottenham Hotspur Stadium, in which the NFL invested £10 million and committed to “at least two games per year” to be held there.
Individual franchises are also keen to establish themselves in the UK and Europe, and while the Jacksonville Jaguars are committed to at least one game per season in London, the Minnesota Vikings are also making inroads this side of the pond, appointing an agency to handle the team’s bespoke social media channels serving the UK and Germany.
However, London’s greatest export to the NFL, two-time Super Bowl winner and now BAFTA-winning TV presenter, Osi Umenyiora still doesn’t feel the time is right. He was quoted in the LA Times as having said: “I’m not sure the fan base here is ready for one particular team. If that team decides to lose, then what happens? We need to grow a little bit more to say whether the fan base is strong enough for win, lose, whatever.”
Meanwhile, Umenyiora’s co-pundit on the BBC’s two weekly NFL programmes, Jason Bell, a former New York Giants and UCLA cornerback, pointed out that there are very few experiences in NFL like that of attending a London game: “The way fans are here, the way the stadium is, the way the week is before the game, that doesn’t exist anywhere unless you’re playing in a conference championship game or the Super Bowl.”
As exciting and exceptional as the London games are, there are critical logistical elements to the equation, including taxes and immigration, alongside competition considerations, such as the home field advantage for a London team in the playoffs, for example.
The next step for the ever-cautious NFL is to test teams playing more than one match in London at a time, as Chris Halpin, the NFL’s chief strategy and growth officer, explained to The Times: “As part of our long-term effort that is something we want to see to test out a team being in London for two games over a week. Whether that is in 2020 or another year we are not sure yet. That is a key element of exploration of a franchise in London.”
While the NFL continues its exploration into the logistical challenges, the commercial viability for a London franchise looks promising. The NFL presently counts 12 brands among its UK sponsors, including BOSE, Bud Light, FedEx, Microsoft, Pepsi MAX, Subway and VISA, while the closest franchise London has to a home team, the Jacksonville Jaguars, boasts four UK partners.
With a passionate, established and fast-growing fan base, and an experience equitable with that of the pinnacle of the sport, brands are understandably capitalising on the burgeoning opportunity in the UK and Europe, and would undoubtedly be fast to back a permanent London franchise.