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The NFL's Game Plan for International Expansion

What's intriguing is that, unlike other leagues like the NBA, Premier League, and F1, the NFL's global fan base has remained somewhat limited. Notably, the NFL hasn't been passive in its pursuit of international expansion.

The NFL recently concluded its third consecutive game in London, reigniting discussions about the league's potential expansion into the UK. NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell has expressed a longstanding desire to establish a full-time team in London, even mulling over the possibility of hosting a Super Bowl in the British capital. Goodell remarked during a recent fan forum in London that this idea has been under consideration.

This article delves into the NFL's prospective expansion into Europe, evaluating the viability of various options and its implications for the league's ambitious goal of reaching $25 billion in annual revenue by 2025. It's common knowledge that the NFL is the world's most lucrative sports league, surpassing the combined annual earnings of renowned soccer leagues such as the Premier League, La Liga, Serie A, Bundesliga, and Ligue 1. Additionally, some NFL regular-season games draw two to three times more viewers than the NBA Finals.

What's intriguing is that, unlike other leagues like the NBA, Premier League, and F1, the NFL's global fan base has remained somewhat limited. Notably, the NFL hasn't been passive in its pursuit of international expansion. From 1926 to 2005, the league organized over 50 exhibition games at various international locations, including Japan, the United Kingdom, Germany, Spain, Mexico, Ireland, Australia, and Sweden.

Between 1991 and 2007, the NFL invested in NFL Europe, a professional football league with teams in European countries, aimed at growing the sport. However, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell's tenure from 2006 onwards marked a significant shift. He discontinued NFL Europe after 16 seasons, citing substantial annual losses of $30 million, and introduced the International Series instead.

The International Series has proven far more successful, hosting over 40 regular-season games in countries like the United Kingdom, Mexico, and Germany. Last year's game in Germany had a ticket queue of 1.4 million people within just two minutes of sales opening—a testament to its popularity. The NFL recently announced an extension ensuring at least four International Series games each season, with every NFL franchise hosting one such game over the next eight years. These games have consistently sold out, generating substantial revenue for the NFL, making a full-time London team a real possibility.

Former NFL EVP/Chief Strategy & Growth Officer Chris Halpin outlined five key criteria for establishing an international expansion franchise: a dedicated fan base, a suitable stadium, local government support, efficient logistics, and a willing owner.

Realistically, two options exist: placing a single team in London (either via expansion or relocation), or creating a new four-team division based in London. The first option is straightforward, potentially generating over $2 billion in revenue from an expansion franchise in London or convincing an existing team to relocate.

For instance, the Jacksonville Jaguars, which have a history of playing in London and an owner with ties to the city through Fulham FC, might be inclined to move. However, the competitiveness of a single London team, the challenges of uprooting players' lives, and the implications in a salary-cap league pose significant hurdles.

The second option involves establishing a European division to reduce travel, but persuading four teams to relocate to London or adding four expansion teams seems unlikely, as it would dilute the league's talent pool.

One intriguing factor to consider is hypersonic travel, with companies like Hermeus developing planes that could travel at remarkable speeds. While these planes aren't currently equipped for commercial use, they could revolutionize the logistics of transatlantic travel for NFL teams in the future.

An alternative approach could mirror the European soccer model, with NFL teams playing matches in international locations. These games, akin to exhibitions, attract large crowds and generate substantial revenue, allowing the NFL to expand its global fan base without compromising the product's quality. As the NFL strives to achieve its goal of $1 billion in annual international revenue in the next decade, expect more games in countries like Spain and Brazil to be added to the international schedule.

Austyn McFadden


October 16, 2023 at 2:00:00 PM

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