March 26, 2008 / 1:13 AM / 11 years ago

NFL Executive outlines plans for expansion in Europe

LONDON (Reuters) - British fans of American football may one day be able to buy a season ticket for four NFL games in as many different venues across the United Kingdom if ambitious expansion plans come to fruition.

Miami Dolphins runningback Jesse Chatman (L) carries the ball past teammate Marty Brooker (C) and New York Giants Sam Madison (R) during the third quarter in their NFL game at Wembley Stadium in London, October 28, 2007. REUTERS/Toby Melville

Last October the NFL staged its first regular-season game outside the United States, a rain-drenched encounter between the New York Giants and the Miami Dolphins before a capacity crowd of around 90,000 people at Wembley Stadium.

The Giants slipped and slid to a 13-10 win which convinced NFL executives the experiment had been a success.

“The numbers were extraordinarily positive. We made the subsequent decision not just to return for this year but to return for the next three years,” NFL international operations manager Mark Waller said in a telephone interview with Reuters.

“As you know we sold out the stadium. We could probably realistically sell out Wembley four or five times.

“The goal was to drive awareness to turn that into regular and frequent engagement and we’ve definitely been successful.

“We got exceptionally good feedback on everything but the U.K. weather.

“This is me speaking at the moment but I can see no reason why one day you wouldn’t be able to buy, say, a game season ticket for four games that come into the U.K., say once a month.

“There is no reason you couldn’t have a game in the U.K. at a venue every month and that would enable you to have a mini-season.”

NFL exhibition games were staged in Canada in 1950 and pre-season matches have been played abroad sporadically since 1976. A professional minor NFL league was launched in Europe in 1991 but the experiment ended last year.

NEW FANS

One issue with global expansion has been the quintessentially American nature of a game which has only superficial resemblances to other running and kicking football codes.

In the age of 24-hour television sports channels and the internet, Waller believes this problem has largely disappeared with a new generation of global sports fans exposed from birth to all manner of formerly exotic sports.

“Ours is the best sporting product in the world,” he said.

“The reason why it’s so successful in the U.S. is because it’s so good. We might do a good job of managing it and marketing it and staging it but at the end of the day the game itself and the competition is better than any other game or competition that you can compare it to.

“There are fans around the world who know a lot about sports including our sport. Our own U.S fans are going to expect us to play as part of a global community. It will be relevant and give added value back to U.S. fans.”

Waller acknowledges there are hurdles to overcome with a game that due to its unique physical demands must be played over a limited season. There is also the question of trans-Atlantic travel.

“The biggest and, I think, the only resistance that we have to deal with is we play very few games. Therefore at the moment without extending the season the only way we can play games internationally is if we don’t play them in the U.S,” he said.

“The big question for us, and what we are currently working on, is could we create an extra week in the season?”

For this October’s Wembley game between the New Orleans Saints and the San Diego Chargers, the teams will fly to London a week early. Last year they arrived two days ahead of the game.

“Both teams felt that was not enough time to get really acclimatized. So this time teams will fly much earlier,” Waller said.

The NFL’s ambitions extend beyond Britain.

“Germany would clearly be an obvious place to go. We have a good and growing interest in France. Down in Mexico is obviously a huge opportunity for us. We have just agreed the Buffalo Bills game in Toronto so that’s an obvious step for us,” Waller said.

“The fans want to see the best sporting entertainment available in the world and they want to see it live and they know that it’s out there and they feel they have a right to enjoy it.”

Editing by Clare Fallon

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