NFL International Series: The Past, Present, and Future
The final international game of the 2013 NFL season approaches with the Jacksonville Jaguars set to host the San Francisco 49ers on October 27. This game is the second of the season to take place in London’s Wembley Stadium, coming after the Minnesota Vikings’ Week 4 win over the Pittsburg Steelers. 2013 was the seventh straight year with a game played at Wembley and the first year that more than one game way played overseas.
International games have come a long way in their roughly forty year history. Following several CFL-NFL games in Canada, the first NFL game outside of North America took place in Tokyo, Japan on August 16, 1973. In 1983, the NFL played a preseason game at Wembley Stadium. This was their first game in Europe and was met with sellout crowds. This interest later transitioned into a series of annual games known as the American Bowls. Acting as a fifth preseason game, one to four American Bowls were held every season between 1986 and 2003. The final American bowl was played in 2005. The NFL cited a change in international strategy as their reason for shutting the program down. Through the series, the NFL touched down in Australia, Canada, Germany, Ireland, Japan, Mexico, Spain and the United Kingdom. International games returned in 2007 as the Miami Dolphins hosted the New York Giants at Wembley Stadium in the first regular season game held outside of North America. From there, the NFL International series has enjoyed continued success and growing support, specifically in London.
London has proven to be highly receptive to the NFL. In addition to routinely selling out games at Wembley, an estimated 520,000 fans attended a football festival on London’s Regent Street before the Week 4 game. The NFL has already announced its plan to add a third London game in 2014. London appears to a great jumping-off point for the NFL International Series. The question is: Where does the NFL go from here?
Recently, the NFL owners have considered London as a future destination for the Super Bowl. Though most agree a Super Bowl overseas would do wonders to spread the NFL brand, the idea has led to issues both logistically and from a fan-relations standpoint. Owners and fans have serious concerns about bringing one of America’s premier events to foreign soil.
Another possibility would be to add an NFL Franchise in London. Officials at Wembley Stadium have voiced their interest in hosting their own team. The NFL has expressed desire to expand the core fanbase in London, but does not rule out the possibility. There are questions from a competitive standpoint regarding travel to and from London. Many feel the London team would gain an additional “home field advantage” due to longer travel times for opponents. Similarly, the London team would be at a greater disadvantage in their away games.
Football guru Pat Kirwan offers a third possibility in his book, Take Your Eye Off The Ball. He recommends a 17-game in which each team plays the traditional eight home games and eight away games, as well as a single international game. Kirwan recommends games rotate around European hubs, though the NFL could also focus on a specific area with weekly games. The system address concerns by the franchises that one of the teams “loses” a home game by going overseas. It also scores points with American fans because the same number of games are played within the U.S. and fans get one more opportunity to watch their team play. On the other hand, the NFL Players Association has consistently opposed adding another game for risk of player injury.
In any event, the NFL International Series has some important decisions to make and it seems that London will be at the center of them. The logical move for the NFL is to continue their expansion as a global brand; however, they must be careful to do so in a way that does not alienate current fans or disrupt the competitive balance of the game.