The first National Football League (NFL) regular season fixture played outside of the US was at Maple Leaf Stadium in Toronto, Canada, in 1926 when the New York Yankees beat the Los Angeles Wildcats. Since then, the NFL has hosted matches in Mexico, the UK, and Germany.
The league’s expansion has reached a new level over the past year, with 18 teams having been granted access to 26 International Home Marketing Areas (IHMAs) across eight different countries. It has recently also been reported that the NFL is eyeing the expansion of its International Series into Spain and France, nations identified as promising growth markets for the NFL.
Spain’s potential has been recognized due to the NFL having a substantial Spanish-speaking fanbase, in fact, nine NFL teams have marketing rights in Mexico. Furthermore, the Chicago Bears and Miami Dolphins have also won IHMA rights in Spain as part of the league’s international expansion drive, making the country one of the frontrunners to host future NFL international matches.
Of all these nations, the NFL has most strived to establish the league in the UK by playing yearly regular season fixtures in London. The first game hosted in London was at Wembley Stadium in 2007 when the Miami Dolphins played the New York Giants. Since that inaugural game, London has hosted 32 matches (making 33 in total) across three stadiums (Wembley, Twickenham, and Tottenham Hotspur). With the regular matches played in the UK, the NFL has placed a priority on expanding American football’s permanent presence in the country.
The organization has signed multiple deals in an attempt to grow the sport and the NFL brand in London, which include having the Jacksonville Jaguars play one of their home games each season there, making the UK capital the Jaguars’ second home.
Another standout transatlantic deal that the NFL has signed is the ten-year stadium partnership with Tottenham Hotspur that involves the soccer team’s stadium hosting a minimum of two games per year. Announcing that deal, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell emphasized the brand’s eagerness to further establish the NFL in the UK, stating: “With growing enthusiasm for the NFL in the UK, we are committed to hosting NFL games in world-class venues and are excited to partner with Tottenham Hotspur to play games at their future stadium.”
On October 9 this year, the NFL International Series achieved record-breaking television viewing figures, when the New York Giants defeated the Green Bay Packers at Tottenham Hotspur Stadium. The game attracted a total of 5.5 million viewers across TV and digital platforms, a 55% year-on-year viewership increase over the New York Jets and Atlanta Falcons game in London in 2021. These figures made the contest between two of the biggest teams in the NFL the most-watched international game ever on NFL Network.
Since 2011, NFL UK has agreed various sponsorship deals with many globally recognized brands which include Just For Men, Virgin Atlantic, and Budweiser. GlobalData research shows that NFL UK has generated an estimated $258.55 million in total from 18 individual deals. The most lucrative was Budweiser’s three-year deal agreed in 2014, worth a staggering $200 million to allow the US beer brand to serve as official beer partner of the NFL International Series in the UK and Mexico.
So far in 2022, NFL UK has agreed four deals – with the online trading provider IG Markets, the tourism brand Experience Kissimmee, the furniture company La-Z-Boy, and the gambling company 888sport. Combined, the deals are worth $10.10 million. The NFL’s deal with 888sport is the most lucrative, valued by GlobalData at $ 2.2 million annually across a three-year period. 888sport is serving as the NFL’s sports betting partner in the UK and Ireland.
2022 has been an exciting year for the NFL Internationally as it is the first time a regular season NFL game has been played in Germany, where the Seattle Seahawks were defeated by Tom Brady’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers at the Allianz Arena in Munich. As well as future games in Munich, the NFL has publicized that fixtures will take place at the Deutsche Bank Park Stadium in Frankfurt. In the lead-up to the Munich game, the NFL announced a two-year deal with German bank Deutsche Kreditbank (DKB) worth $3 million annually to serve as an official partner of the league in Germany and the presenting partner of the NFL games in Munich and Frankfurt.
With all the commercial and media progress the NFL has made in expanding the league into Europe, especially the UK, and the popularity of the sport growing year on year, it comes as no surprise that the league commissioner has suggested a possible new European division could be formed – allegedly with two London based franchises and two continental European ones. For European NFL fans, the idea of a new European division brings huge excitement. However, in reality, the NFL would face various issues in developing and implementing a new international division into the NFL schedule.
One of the main challenges is whether a London or any other European franchise would have the fanbase to support a potential new team and sell out every home fixture. Specifically, in the UK, many NFL fans already have a favorite team, so it is not guaranteed that these fans would automatically switch to a London franchise and watch every live game.
The NFL would also have the huge obstacle of travel and logistics to solve. Teams would have to make several trips across the Atlantic every season, with European teams forced to accumulate more travel miles than other NFL teams.
There are also issues regarding the competitive balance of a European division. European-based franchises would have a superior home-field advantage compared to other NFL teams due to the distance any visiting team would travel to play in Europe. It would also be easier for teams in Europe especially a London-based franchise to adjust to the time difference when traveling west to the US to play games as they would be gaining hours via the time change.
In addition, there is a real issue regarding the fairness of the NFL’s free agency process, as it would be surprising if players would happily relocate across the globe when they could likely earn the same in the US. This would heavily affect whether European teams could remain consistently competitive as they would be unable to attract some of the league’s best talent each year. Results on the field would likely be negative, relatively, due to a lack of quality in the teams’ rosters hampering the ability of European franchises to develop a loyal fanbase.
To conclude, the possibility of taking the huge step to develop a European division with the introduction of four new teams into the NFL is incredibly ambitious and would show the league’s commitment to growing the sport internationally. However, overall, the formation of a new European division appears unviable, at least without major accommodations being made, due to the major logistical and travel issues for both North American and European NFL franchises and the strain this would put on players. Players would feel under major pressure if forced to move to Europe to play for a European franchise. There is likely to be huge pushback for Roger Goodell to think twice about this expansion as college players being drafted by a European franchise would lose their dream of playing in the NFL for a US team.
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