Monthly Archives: October 2009

The NFL goes to the UK

It’s been far too long. Six weeks ago I was struck by a car while riding my bicycle in Venice, CA. Shoulder surgery has kept me from being able to extend my arm to type. It’s been quite a stretch to miss, as a writer with my interests. I’ll try to keep it topical and reasonably short.

A few thoughts on the NFL in England.
I like the regular season games overseas. It’s fascinating to watch international fans cheer for American football. This year, one of my favorite aspects of the crowd seemed to dissipate. In the past, every time an official was speaking the crowd would boo and hiss him, even if it was just an explanation of a procedural penalty with little game impact. This time around it wasn’t as obvious. Fans actually seemed to follow the game action too, not just randomly getting loud and quiet. Still not as in tune as an American crowd, but starting to appear, (at least through the TV) like they are into the game situations.

To dig into the PR guts of the whole operation, I have to wonder if the NFL sent in publicity coaches to speak with players and coaches to help avoid any embarrassing gaffes. Watching 4 post game pressers and reading a dozen or so articles on the game gave me the message to the English fans, We love the experience, the fans here have been great, we love England, God save the queen, the NFL and it’s players are proud to play in Wembley Stadium, etc. The more polished the source, the more on message the answers seemed to be. Belichick and Brady nailed it, Welker a little less corporate of an answer, and Brandon Meriweather even less. It’s not that they didn’t stick to the message, it’s more that their responses were less focused. I can’t see why the NFL wouldn’t send in specific PR types to help these guys. When you’re running what is essentially a sovereign nation, you have to take these things into account. A slip of the lip by a player or coach that offends the sensibilities of the common Englishman could be devastating to the NFL’s obvious desire to expand their brand internationally.

The NFL and the media really wanted this to play like all of London was transfixed, even for a day, about this amazing sport of American Football and the National Football League in particular. A quick check of the most read, emailed and discussed topics on Sunday night revealed that the masses were far from focused on the NFL. The excitement generated from the game in London was largely relegated to the small but legitimate group of NFL fans who live there and the media machine. In a way, if it’s in the paper or on the web, it is a big deal, even if the citizens didn’t think of it on their own. It’s self fulfilling, do something out of the ordinary and people will talk about it. I do believe though, that the fact that stories about Manchester United , Morrissey’s on stage collapse and Leona Lewis (who?) rank among the top ten viewed and the NFL’s annual trip to London does not appear on any of the top ten lists, speaks volumes about the masses interest in the game.

I do think that the NFL would work in London. It may be far from ideal for the players and teams on the schedule, but it would work on a business level, easily. First of all, if the NFL had a team in London, it would gain access to the British and European airwaves. People would be able to / be forced to watch NFL football at home and in pubs. They would be inclined to root for the team, even if just casually at first because of intense national pride and curiosity. The beauty of the NFL is the supreme product on the field. There are aspects of the league that irritate consumers but when it comes down to it, the product delivers. Years like this where the competitive balance of the league is drastically off are the exception not the rule. Even in this season, when there are more horrible teams than I can remember in recent memory, prime time games have been excellent, with few blowouts and several close finishes. The strength of the NFL has historically been it’s conduciveness to television. A heavy television presence in the 80’s spawned a lost generation of British fans. A local rooting interest would only serve to fuel the fire. Sports shows, web sites, blogs, newspapers would have no choice but to cover the rest of the league, at least to provide fans of the local club the basic info required to root for a team. The built in fanbase and novelty alone would keep Wembley packed to the rafters. The NFL may never approach soccer’s appeal, but it doesn’t have to. We’re not talking about the WNBA here. We’re talking about a supreme athletic event that directly appeals to a sports fan’s general desire for strategy, strength and athleticism. People will watch. The entire United Kingdom would have one team to root for.

Logistically, kind of a nightmare. The way the NFL builds their schedule, a team plays a home and away with each divisional opponent, (6 games) the league and TV interests cherry pick some interesting matchups and each division rotates games against a division in the other conference. This means that every 4 years, London would have to play teams like Seattle, Arizona, Oakland, San Diego, Denver… Now we’re talking about a 6,000 mile flight, twice in a week. It’s not exactly Australia but at that level jet lag still becomes a serious factor. Then you have the competitive hangover on the next week’s game. This season, the Patriots and the Bucs get a bye week immediately following the international flight. A 16 game schedule with a one bye week per team would be incredibly difficult to assemble in a way that didn’t make teams resent each away game with the London team. An 18 game schedule with two bye weeks would simplify things but a sea change and schedule expansion is already something the NFLPA has opposed.

The NFL needs to expand internationally in part because it’s a greedy corporation. (redundant, I know) It also needs to expand because it may be peaking or even reaching a plateau for the first time in it’s history. American companies in general are no longer enamored or satisfied with the 300 plus million citizens of the United States. Small fries when you start glancing at our planets population of over 6 billion people. More zero’s equal more zero’s in the profits column and America just ain’t as big as it used to be. Globalization is upon us, and it’s not just manufacturing.

I wonder if the magic pull of the NFL may be decreasing a tick in our near future anyway. An expansion of the league will upset it’s perfect 32 team symmetry and incredibly balanced scheduling. An expansion of the schedule could lead to more injuries and missed games by the leagues best players. It could continue to erode that feeling that every game really really matters. In a way, they need to expand for the hearts and mind as much as for the wallet. Anything can become over saturated, America and the NFL are no exception.

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Filed under England, NFL, Sports, Tom Brady, United Kingdom