Wednesday, January 17, 2007

London Calling – And for some reason it was the NFL on the other end

In what should have been an obvious decision (a city in Germany), the National Football League Tuesday announced the first regular season NFL game to be played outside of North America will be held in London, England next year. The NFL made London their first choice despite the success American football has enjoyed in Germany (the better selection). Germany is home to five of the six NFL Europa franchises, the other calling Denmark home. London was home to the London Monarchs and the England Monarchs between 1991 and 1998, but hasn’t been home to an American football based rules teams in nine years.

In 1991 and 1992 the Monarchs played their home games at Wembley Stadium. In the 1991 season the team won the first World Bowl at Wembley, beating the Barcelona Dragons, the only team to have beaten them in the entire season. In the first season of the World League, crowds at Wembley averaged 40,483 for the five games. However dwindling interest - even with the advent of a new local rivalry with the Scottish Claymores - forced the team to shift its home ground to White Hart Lane, home of Tottenham Hotspur F.C., when the league resumed play in 1995, and that year average attendance fell to 16,343.

Towards the end of the 1997 season, the WLAF (World League of American Football) was starting to re-evaluate the team's situation in its market, believing that the return to London had not been as big a success as hoped. In conjunction with general manager Alton Byrd, the team was rebranded the England Monarchs and traveled the country, playing home games at the Crystal Palace National Sports Centre, Ashton Gate (home of Bristol City F.C.) and Alexander Stadium, an athletics stadium in Birmingham - another step down in the size and quality of the stadia used.

The decision divided opinion dramatically amongst the Monarchs support and rather than increase interest in the team, attendances slumped to an average of 5,944. The announcement at the end of the 1998 season that the league would add a new team, the Berlin Thunder, led to weeks of speculation that either one of the existing teams would be shut down, or that the Monarchs and Claymores would be amalgamated into a single British team. Confirmation that the Monarchs were to close down came in July that year.

The lesson in the failed history of NFL Europe in England aside, if you listen to what NFL commissioner Roger Goodell had to say when he announced London would host an NFL regular season game Tuesday, Goodell won’t be getting an A on the history of NFL Europe in London and England.

“There were a variety of reasons. First of all, we have a great history of NFL football in London. The British fans have been great fans of NFL football for several years and London is a tremendous international city. We have a great relationship with the City of London and that was another important factor. But it was primarily because of the fan base and the fact we have such tremendous fans in London. We’re responding to that interest in our game.”

“We have tremendous television partners in London that have shown a great deal of interest in us and we have also had a great deal of support from public officials. The Mayor of London has shown a great deal of interest in hosting this game.” Goodell spun a tale to the media (that clearly wasn’t based on the facts).

The official venue for the game wasn’t announced Tuesday and the teams heading across the pond haven’t been chosen, but the game is expected to be played at Wembley Stadium (home to the failed NFL Europe franchise) and the teams are expected to be the New York Giants and the Miami Dolphins, with the Dolphins losing a home game.

“One of the most positive things out of this entire process has been the enthusiasm we have received from other cities and even within the cities, such as London with multiple sites. This is another indication of the potential of this series that these sites are so interested in hosting this game. They recognize the value this will bring to their cities and the people in their cities.”
”And we’ve also been very surprised, in one sense, by the interest from our own clubs in playing and participating in this series. We have had a tremendous amount of interest from them and they all want to participate and it has actually been an issue for us to decide which teams are going to be fortunate enough to play.”

NFL owners agreed that two regular season games (each year) could be played outside of the United States beginning with the 2007 season and ending with the 2011 season. Toronto (and only Canadian choice) were taken off the list with Toronto hosting the 2007 Grey Cup and Mexico City wasn’t considered as well. Where did that leave Germany – the one European country who has stood by the NFL and supported their junior varsity product – NFL Europe since 1991? On the outside looking in. Dusseldorf and Hamburg, are the very disappointed German NFL suitors who will have to wait until 2008 and apply again.

“I would like to reinforce the commitment the NFL ownership made last fall when they approved this resolution, which was to play a series of regular season games overseas. This was not considered a one-off strategy. This is a new strategy that the NFL feels will benefit the league overall in its international development and as a response to our continuing fan interest around the world.”

“The commitment of the ownership was for a series of games so we expect to be playing in a variety of cities over the next several years and we would hope the momentum will build as each of those games goes on and we have greater success every time we play. We think playing in London assures us of having a tremendous event for our first game outside of North America.”

Goodell didn’t confirm the Giants and the Dolphins would be the two teams, but did make it clear the NFL understands two teams playing a game outside of North America represents a lot more logistical issues than two teams getting on a plane for long plane ride.

“We did play a regular season game in Mexico a year ago (the 2005 season) and had a positive reaction from both the teams participating and the fan base. It’s an issue for us because we only play eight regular season games and two preseason games, not including any post-season games the team may qualify to host. But we want to make sure we are sensitive to our fan base because there are a limited number of NFL games.”

“On the other hand, that’s what makes it so unique and special for our fans in London. They’re getting to experience a regular season game which has never been done before and we think that will be received very well not only there, but we think that our fans here will like the idea and respond favorably to the idea they are playing in London. This is great not only for the fans but also for the city to showcase the fact that they have an NFL franchise and will be seen on a global basis as a world-class city themselves.”

In his first four months Goodell has made it clear he believes in the globalization of the National Football League, a plan he isn’t going to back away from.

“This is one of the early initiatives I took on when I became commissioner because I believe in the growth of our sport internationally. I believe we have a tremendous following from a fan perspective around the world and we thought this was a strategy that would help us develop our game internationally. This was an important initiative for me and the league. This is an indication of where I put it as a priority for the NFL going forward.”

Despite the abject failure of NFL Europe in London and in England, Goodell is confident the NFL’s first foray into London and Europe is the first of what will be a string of successfully managed NFL games in Europe.

“We are confident this game is going to be a great success in London and I think that success will be a foundation to encourage us to play more games in London going forward. From our perspective, success in London will spur even greater interest around the world in playing NFL regular season games. There is great competition and interest and as we have great fans in London I would presume we would be back there sometime. I don’t know what the time period would be. I presume that with the success we will have there this fall we will be back on some type of regular basis.”

The reaction to the announcement from the British media was non-existent. Wednesday’s British papers either ignored the story or offered wire copy versions of the story. The biggest English sports story Wednesday was football related, British football and the ‘football’ story that has dominated sports pages everywhere for the last week – David Beckham’s decision to finish his career playing in North America, an issue that didn’t go unnoticed at Tuesday’s NFL’s London announcement.

“We understand the popularity of soccer as a global game. We think we’re a very different game. We don’t look at it as competition. We look at it as people believing American football is a great entertainment product. It is clearly one of the greatest sports in the world and we’re excited about continuing our strategy to bring our game to more fans. We’re not focusing on other people’s strategies or moves.” Goodell commented.

So why then did the NFL select London and England over the strong interest from Dusseldorf, Hamburg and Germany? Despite Goodell’s assertion that London had a history of supporting American football that isn’t true. What would have made more sense, play two games in Europe in 2007, one in Germany and the other in England. Not only would that have been a much fairer choice, it would have been the right thing to do. Instead the NFL rewarded a city and a country that hasn’t supported their product. By all rights German sports fans should boycott NFL Europa (the league changed its name last year from NFL Europe), but that isn’t going to take place.

There have been suggestions with two NFL owners (Malcolm Glazer, Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Randy Lerner, Cleveland Browns) also owning two English Premier Football franchises played a part in London and England being awarded the game, but if that were true wouldn’t it be reasonable the Browns and the Buccaneers would be the two teams heading to London for the game, and not the Dolphins and Giants? No, London must have represented the safe choice to the Lords of the Pigskin, not necessarily the right choice but the safe choice. London was the safe choice, the sexier choice, but the wrong choice at least based on the criteria the NFL suggested helped to determine where the game would be played.

For Sports Business News this is Howard Bloom

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