Originally posted on Sport Witness.
This weekend, we see the pomp and circumstance that is the NFL return to London to play another game at Wembley, this time between the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the Chicago Bears. And with it comes the hope from the NFL franchise owners that a big pay day in Europe will become an even more regular thing.
The NFL began to bring one regular-season game to the UK back in 2007, and has done for the last five years. This Sunday’s game is the first time the match has not sold out – the NFL citing the poor ticket sales being down to the fact the match was only confirmed last month, after the player lock-out during the summer.
In reality, all 32 of the NFL franchises are scrambling for the golden ticket to Wembley each year. They know it’s an opportunity to gain more fans, and thus more money, from a trip to Europe. The Buccaneers were here in 2007, and have come back this year, this time bringing their own home game, showing quite how big a game this can be.
But it’s very reminiscent of the MLS – a sport that attempted to move elsewhere to a massive potential market, failed miserably, and had to start again, leading to what the MLS looks like today. A big dip in popularity in 2002 led to the league facing imminent closure, but a sudden growth and interest in football after the 2002 World Cup led to bigger crowds, new teams, and David Beckham, obviously. A change in rules, allowing for bigger international stars to play for the teams, more media output, and the agreements between the US and Mexico introducing the likes of the SuperLiga gave a bigger audience an opportunity to watch football, and get interested. The imminent expansion to the 20th team looks to take football to a bigger area within the States, and interest from another 10 different cities to take an MLS license could even lead to a second division being created.
So why am I giving you a history lesson in Major League Soccer? Well, as many of you may remember, the NFL did used to have an arm here in Europe – called, very imaginatively, NFL Europe. Originally known as the World League, it included 10 teams from the US, Canada, the UK, Germany and Spain, and over the 50 games during the season, pulled in over a million people in attendance. Relatively expensive tickets and a lack of big TV coverage scuppered that plan, but the NFL launched NFL Europe in 1995.
A steady decline led to the league being cancelled in 2007, however, since then, another resurgence in the sport here in the UK has started again, bringing viewing figures back to the 1980’s heyday. A re-launch on Sky, and the BBC picking up some rights, and showing the SuperBowl, has brought American Football back to the homes of millions, reigniting the passion of many, and inspiring many younger and new fans of the sport – myself included.
So would a relaunch of NFL Europe now succeed, and become part of everyday life? My view is yes – it’ll work. Sell franchise licenses at small prices to increase interest, and limit the licenses to two or three per country. Allow it to start small, with small stadia to ensure sell-outs, and get a big TV deal across the continent to ensure maximum fan bases. Sow the seeds and allow it to grow – very similar to the MLS.
The world’s biggest sport comes to London this weekend. Possibly, soon enough, the world’s biggest sport will come to London every weekend.