American football may be the most popular sport in the US, but it is all the way down in tenth place in global chart, dwarfed by the worldwide popularity of sports like soccer, cricket and tennis.
Competitions like the Premiership and La Liga are extremely lucrative due to the sheer number of fans they have in several different continents, not just in terms of TV revenue, sponsorship and advertising, but also through industries like gambling as bookmakers make a large chunk of their revenue on these popular sports, regularly attempting to entice fans with competitive betting odds.
The NFL has sought to address that and make the league less US-centric by expanding into Europe, with mixed results, but signs are that it is starting to work thanks to a newer strategy that sees regular season NFL games being played in London, which has caused the sport’s popularity to swell on this side of the channel.
In 1991 the NFL launched an ambitious project called the World League of American Football, featuring seven American teams and three based in Europe. It was a spring league featuring mainly young American players that needed game time, culminating in a World Bowl. It lasted for two seasons but failed to take off.
The World League of American Football was overhauled and returned in 1995 after a two-year absence, this time featuring six teams, all based in Europe but mainly featuring young Americans that needed game time, with the NFL teams covering the expense of the players living in Europe.
The London Monarchs were one of the teams, and lasted from 1991 to 1998, when they were replaced by the Berlin Thunder. The league was rebranded NFL Europe in 1998 and then changed to NFL Europa for the 2007 season, by which time five of the six teams were based in Germany. The league was not working and on June 29, 2007, the NFL axed it.
A new strategy was needed to spread the fanbase of the NFL out, so the league took the bold step of hosting regular season games outside the US. That way fans outside the US could see the real superstars of the sport up close and personal instead of having to watch developmental players learning their trade or travel halfway across the world to go to an American stadium.
On October 28, 2007, the Miami Dolphins ‘hosted’ the New York Giants at London’s Wembley Stadium. We say hosted because it counted as a regular season home game for Miami, who were defeated 13-10 by the Giants. It made history as the first regular season NFL game ever held outside the US. Soccer teams from top leagues have never resorted to such tactics – they simply go on lucrative preseason tours in foreign markets – but the strategy seems to be paying off for the NFL. Every year until 2011 a game was played at Wembley and they all sold out.
These events became so popular that one game per season was not enough to satisfy the British public, pockets of whom were becoming evangelical about the sport and causing betting odds to be well publicised across the UK for NFL games. From 2012 onwards there have been multiyear agreements for NFL teams to play in London, and there has been speculation that a team will move from the US to London and ensure the UK has a permanent member in the NFL.
An NFL team gets $1 million for forfeiting their home game and playing it in London, so there is a clear incentive. First up were the St Louis Rams, but that did not work out and they played just once, in 2012, when they lost to the Patriots. The Jacksonville Jaguars did sign a multi-season deal, however, and played home games in 2013, 2014 and 2015 at Wembley.
There were two regular season NFL games in 2013, three in 2014 and three in 2015, all at Wembley, and many of the league’s top sides have now played there. In 2016 the league has spread out even further, with two games at Wembley and another at Twickenham, another stadium in London typically used for rugby matches, where 74,000 fans saw the Giants beat the recently-rebranded LA Rams 17-10.
Then in November 2016 the first ever regular season game took place in America, when the Oakland Raiders beat the Houston Texans in Mexico City, taking the total played outside the US to a record four games.
Further matches are planned in London for 2017, pending confirmation. Twickenham is scheduled to host games until 2018, Wembley until 2020 and there is a deal in place for a stadium in London’s Northumberland Park, which is under construction, to host regular season NFL games until 2027.
Seattle Seahawks, Kansas City Chiefs, Jacksonville Jaguars and Tampa Bay Buccaneers are among the teams rumoured to have been moving to London at some stage or another. Nothing has materialised, but that has not dented the sport’s growing popularity. The NFL claims that an extra 1.9 million Brits are now interested in American football, while Germany, Russia and China are also emerging markets.
According to the NFL, only 3% of fans attending the London games are American expats, while 30% are Londoners and 60% come from the rest of the UK. As its popularity continues to soar, the bookmakers are taking notice and it is now one of their top sports as they offer more and more betting odds on more markets within the NFL all the time, which perpetuates its popularity by giving more Brits a stake in games. But it really spikes when matches take place in the UK. Ladbrokes heavily promoted its betting odds on the Rams v Giants game in London, and saw the amount of bets it took increase 10-fold compared to a typical NFL game.