Tuesday, November 02, 2010

The globalization of the National Football League

The NFL played its fourth straight “London Calling Bowl” Sunday afternoon. As has been suggested before, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell raised the possibility of the National Football League placing a franchise in the British capital, a silly premise, nothing more than rhetoric from Goodell, one of the smartest men in sports today. Read carefully between the lines of what Goodell said Friday and what he said makes perfect sense.

“I think the first thing we wanted to do was make sure we could play a regular-season game here successfully. When I say that, I mean not just make the event here successful, but also for our clubs. Bringing a regular season game over here has tremendous impact. First, the competition – can the teams feel that they can do it and continue to field a competitive team throughout the remainder of the season? I think we’ve been able to achieve that successfully.

“The second is you have to take a game away from those fans back in that marketplace, which is difficult. The 49ers are the home team this week, but they had to take a game away from the 49ers fans, and that’s painful. That’s one of the reasons we’re looking at the restructured season that would allow us to add two more regular season games, which would be beneficial in expanding our regular season International Series.

“In addition, once we’ve gotten over what I would call the logistics, which I think we have, then it’s just a question of the growth in the marketplace, and that’s why we believe playing multiple games will demonstrate that there is a strong foundation here for American football. Fans want to see it. Partners that will support it – including our media partners and sponsors and licensees – when you can get to that point, I think you’ve given yourself a great deal of confidence that a franchise here would be successful. We’re moving right on down that paradigm.

“Again, I think the next step will be multiple games and if that’s successful then I think the idea of a franchise here is realistic. As far as a timetable, I’ll just say one thing. I’m not as concerned about doing it with any sort of a time frame other than as fast as is practical, but you want to be successful. That’s more important to me than making it fit within any sort of time frame.”

A closer look at the British market offers an understanding of how American football, not what those living ‘over the pond’ call football, what Americas call soccer.

In more than 200 countries world-wide when the word football is linked to sports billions of people associate how the sport is played with what Americans commonly refer to as soccer. American football is played professionally in two counties: the United States of America, where it remains the center of the known sports universe and Canada, where the Canadian Football League has been passed by ‘soccer’ in terms of popularity, participation and as an economic entity. But give the National Football League credit – despite every indication American football is failing in its attempts to move forward with their global business plan, the NFL (the gang who gets it right seemingly all of the time) should consider waving the flag and giving up what is clearly a far to ambitious business and marketing plan outside of the fifty states.

Fact – after 16 years the National Football League decided to abandon a sports property it created and invested hundreds of millions of dollars in.

On July 16, 2007 the NFL jumped ship on NFL Europa (ten points if you can name all the different incarnations of this league – answer at the end of this Insider). NFL vice president Mark Waller spoke glowingly of the NFL’s big plans for games being played over the pond.

Waller suggested one of the biggest reasons the NFL shut down NFL Europa for a much grander vision: NFL franchises playing a 17th game each year in the not too distant future with that extra game being played outside of the United States. NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, the real power behind the NFL, talked about a similar plan a few months ago – in the midst of what ended up being NFL Europa’s final season.

NFL Europe, the World League of American Football, once called London 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, attendance 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.

Hosting an annual game in London is one thing, but a franchise in London, England? Don’t kid anyone, it’s not going to happen- EVER!!

At the same time, the NFL can and should consider globalization as Goodell suggested over the weekend.

“We’re playing regular season games in Canada. We actually started our regular season series in Mexico. I think whenever you take a strategic step, it has to be successful. You have to build off of success and we’re building off of that foundation. I think if we’re successful here with our strategy, which we believe we can be, I think that will create greater success on a global basis. That doesn’t mean you ignore the rest of the world. We’re continuing to focus on how we bring our game to those markets. Technology is our friend in that case. We’ve used technology to reach more of our fans and we will continue to pursue the same types of strategies in other markets.”

The Buffalo Bills and Rogers Communications are in the third year of a five year agreement where the Bills play one pre-season and one regular season at Toronto’s Rogers Centre. The Rogers Centre sits a shade over 52,000 for football. If the Rogers Centre or Toronto had a football stadium that could sit at least 65,000 the Bills might have moved to Toronto already.

The Arizona Cardinals met the San Francisco 49ers at Mexico City's Azteca Stadium during the 2005 season, attracting the largest attendance for a regular-season game in NFL history - 103,467. The NFL hasn’t played a regular season game in Mexico City since despite their one game success and the league’s commitment to building an audience in the Hispanic community. And what about the NFL and Latin America; how does Goodell see American football and that region?

“The challenge that we still have is American football is not played on a broad, global basis, and that’s still one of our fundamental challenges. How do we promote a sport that is not played by the youth in each of those markets? But I think that’s where media and bringing our games to those markets meets those challenges. We’ve seen it here in this marketplace, we’ve seen it in Japan, and we’ve seen it in Mexico and Canada. We have to continue to bring our game into those marketplaces. There’s tremendous interest in our sport. We have to meet that challenge and get it to them.”

After three consecutive sell-outs at London’s Wembley Stadium, Goodell has suggested he is happy with how things are going in London and notes what appears to be progress.

“The way we evaluate it is the progress we make as a sport, and I think it’s clear from the experience we’ve had here in the UK that each year the different barometers indicate that our popularity continues to rise. Bringing over a regular season game here and letting our fans experience a real NFL game has had a significant effect, not just with building fan affinity, but also with our partners. We’ve seen increasing media coverage, our fans are more avid – moving from casual to avid – and it doesn’t happen without great partnerships. I think it’s a relentless focus on the quality of what you do and allowing our partners to be able to help us build our sport. I think it’s been incredibly successful for us.”

While the NFL hasn’t announced if there will be a 2011 London Bowl with London set to host the 2012 Olympic Games, it makes sense for the NFL to at least head to London in the year leading up to the London Games. American football’s greatest success was in Germany where at one time Germany was home to six NFL Europe franchises. Still the NFL, despite the lack of success for American football in England when American style football was offered on a regular basis, London is calling and the NFL is listening right now when it comes to NFL football in Europe.

“Each market in Europe is different and you have to approach each with a unique strategy. We had a European league that was across the continent and by the time we moved down the road we were essentially all in Germany, and it wasn’t serving the purpose of building the game across the continent. We focus in on the strategy of each of those specific markets, create success, and build off of that success. “Goodell said.

The NFL will expand or move franchises in the not too distant future. Los Angeles and San Antonio are two of the potential markets that could be home to NFL franchises in the not too distant future. Add in Toronto (an American city located in Canada), and Goodell may talk about ‘international franchises’ but how much sense does he make?

“We started with our American Bowl series which was a series of preseason games, and the more educated fans become the more they realize that’s not high quality. They’re not seeing the real players that they want to see. The games don’t have any significance in the standings. Then we had the NFL Europe experience, and fans realized the players weren’t as good as they are in the NFL. So I give credit to Mark Waller and his team. They shifted our strategy towards saying, market with your best quality product, and that’s regular season games. That has been successful in the short term, and we think it will be successful long term. That’s the second part of it.

“You have to think long term here. You can’t make short term decisions. You can’t be forced into a timetable. You have to think by marketplace. Make decisions that are going to improve your product or your brand for the long term. Look at those partners that are going to help you look at it the same way. I think that’s the only way you’re going to achieve success – if you measure yourself over the long term rather than the short term.”

Friday NBA commissioner David Stern suggested the National Basketball Association would one day in the not too distant future consider European expansion. The National Hockey League could move as many as six franchises to European cities, create a European division and become a stronger league overnight.

The NFL has become a master at creating events from each game they play. Any Given Sunday has evolved into Every Sunday. The league is even better at making magical moments from one-off events (like the London Bowl). However, to imagine an NFL franchise, an American football style football franchise being played where football (soccer) is king, queen and country makes little if any business sense. If you’re wondering why Goodell “suggested” the NFL might one day expand to Europe, take his thoughts for what they are worth – not very much in this case. Sports commissioners have to be good politicians, they have to make the right statements at the right times. Speaking in London on the eve of the London Bowl, what else would anyone expect Roger Goodell to say? But at the end of the day take it with a grain of salt and nothing more.

For SportsBusinessNews.com this is Howard Bloom

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