As the NFL prepares to kick off its 2016 International Series at London’s Wembley Stadium, executives are already exploring how – and where – to expand the league’s slate of games outside the United States.
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This Sunday’s contest between the Jacksonville Jaguars and the Indianapolis Colts is the first of three games set to occur in two London venues this season – Wembley Stadium, which has hosted every United Kingdom-based NFL contest, and Twickenham Stadium, home to England’s national rugby team. In November, the NFL will return to Mexico for the first time since 2005 with a primetime clash between the Oakland Raiders and the Houston Texans.
League officials, including Commissioner Roger Goodell, see global expansion as a key driver in the NFL’s push to reach $25 billion in annual revenue by the year 2027. Marc Waller, the NFL’s executive vice president of international, says the league will “very comfortably” sell out all three of its London contests this season, adding that a timetable for expanding the UK series is already in place.
“We’ll definitely move to four games [per season] by 2018, so that’s a firm commitment. We’re not sure about 2017 yet, we’re literally doing the work on 2017 now. But definitely by 2018, we’ll be at four games,” Waller told FOXBusiness.com.
Alongside the Jaguars, a London mainstay, the Colts, Cincinnati Bengals and Washington Redskins will all make their UK debuts this season, as the NFL looks to bring new franchises to the international stage. The Jaguars-Colts game will air on the BBC, giving the league access to a “free-to-air” television audience that could translate into new fans.
Waller says the deal the NFL reached this summer to play two annual games at English Premier League club Tottenham Hotspur’s new multisport stadium was crucial to the league’s planned expansion of the London series. Set to open in time for the 2018 season, the facility will give the NFL three venues in London, making it easier to navigate the scheduling hurdles that made expansion difficult in the past.
The NFL’s long-term goal is to establish a slate of eight annual games in London per season – the equivalent of a full season of home games in the city. While there’s no timetable for when that will occur, Waller said a full slate would be a litmus test for whether a full-time NFL franchise in London could succeed.
“I’ve always felt strongly that if you can show that there was demand for a full season of games, you can show that you have a fan base that truly is passionate and big enough to sustain a team if ever got to a point where we wanted to put a team there,” Waller said, adding that while placing an NFL team in London remains a personal goal, the decision ultimately rests with the league’s 32 owners.
The United Kingdom’s decision last June to exit the European Union roiled global economic markets and led some to question whether unfavorable exchange rates would cause the NFL to table its plans for London. But Waller says “Brexit” won’t impact the NFL’s international goals.
“Exchange rates will go up and exchange rates will go down. Our job is to be able to manage those issues in the same way corporations around the world do,” Waller said.
The NFL has begun to evaluate which country could next play host to a regular-season contest. The league starts by analyzing the strength of a country’s fan base and the availability of viable stadiums in its major cities.
China, Germany and Canada are all on the short list of potential options, Waller said, though there’s no “clear indicator” of which will be first to host an International Series contest. The league is also considering additional games in Mexico, depending on the success of this year’s game.
“We were [in Mexico] in 2005 and hugely successful then, so it’s always been the right choice,” Waller said, regarding on the league’s decision to host a game in Mexico City this season. “The first issue for us is always the availability of games to play – that teams are willing to give up home games.”