LONDON – Mark Waller remembers the questions. As one of the NFL executives tasked in 2007 with presenting the league’s plan to host a regular-season game in London, he faced a lot of them.
Later that year, NFL Europe would unceremoniously shutter operations, with its London Monarchs having skipped town almost a decade earlier. The prospect of sustaining a European fan base, particularly a U.K.-centered one, seemed iffy at best and dismal at worst.
Now, as thousands and thousands of fans clad in every NFL jersey variation under the cloud-covered English sun flood onto Regent Street, right next to Piccadilly Circus, for a giant daylong festival celebrating American football, there’s no doubt that the league’s bold experiment has paid off.
TV ratings have shot through the roof, with Sky offering hundreds of games and BBC broadcasting two popular weekly highlights shows. Of the 15 games played at Wembley Stadium, 14 have attracted attendances of over 80,000 fans have attended 14 of the 15 games played at Wembley Stadium since the run in England started in 2007, when the New York Giants took on the Miami Dolphins.
Internal polling places the number of total U.K. fans at 13 million, three or four times what it was a decade ago. The league recently announced a 10-year partnership to play a minimum of two games per year at EPL club Tottenham Hotspur’s new arena. Twickenham Stadium, home of English rugby, will host its first game on Sunday between the Giants and Los Angeles Rams.
“We feel incredibly pleased at the way the fans have responded,” Waller said, now the league’s executive vice president of international. “[It’s] the thing we’re probably most pleased with in a market as competitive as the U.K. with incredibly strong sports already established. I do believe we’ve already carved our niche in the sporting calendar and built real credibility for what we do.”
A large part of the U.K.’s fan group is partly made up of an older generation of fans who got their first exposure to the game when it aired on free-to-air TV back in the ’80s, but lost interest as it disappeared. That fervor was rekindled with arrival of the NFL’s International Series.
Keith Burton is one of them. He runs NY Giants UK, an online Giants fan community, and has been to several of the International Series games at Wembley, even though none of them have featured his favorite team. While the concept of attending a game as a neutral fan might sound odd, in the U.K., NFL fandom is much less tribal and can be based on something as simple as a favorite color.
“Those early games, it was almost like a Comic-Con in that it was a one time per year when we got to come out of the closet and be a proud NFL fan,” Burton said. “You could walk around surrounded by other NFL fans and you could talk football and you didn’t feel like you had to explain football and what it was all about.”
Over the years, the 43-year-old Burton has seen his group swell to 700 Facebook members and 1,600 Twitter followers, and on Sunday, for the first time in person, he’ll see his beloved Giants take the field.
“There’s been more conversation on the street,” said Alistair Kirkwood, managing director of NFL U.K. “I think we’ve got some ways to go before we can be considered mainstream. I think we’re still emerging and growing.”
This year, the league has sold 40,000 “season tickets” for fans, mainly of Burton’s generation, who want to catch all three of the season’s London-based games. That leaves nearly half of Wembley and Twickenham left to be filled with a newer generation of fans.
“Social media is probably the number one tool for fan growth for us,” said Sarah Swanson, NFL U.K.’s head of marketing. “We really aim to tell fans online the story of what’s happening this week. We need to be not just a game or three games. We need to be a story from kickoff to Super Bowl.”
According to internal polling, Swanson said the league’s U.K. fan base skews younger than the country’s soccer, rugby and cricket fans. That key demographic is important considering the potential next step of hosting an NFL franchise.
“We have great local partnerships with the stadiums we’ve got,” Waller said. “The city of London wants us. The government wants us. London is a great economic center. It certainly feels like everything is lined up.”
The only hurdles left to jump are the logistical ones with staging a franchise in a completely different country.
“Ultimately,” Waller said, “the beauty of our league, more than any other, is this idea that on any given Sunday every team can win. It would be inconceivable to have a team that it felt was not going to be able to be competitive. That’s the issue that we really have to solve.
Still, Waller remains confident that those issues can be tackled, and he has his eyes set wide, from Canada to Mexico to Germany and even China.
“Everything is really seamlessly connected,” Waller said. “It really feels like something that fits with the generation of fans that are coming through now.”
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