By Barry Janoff
October 9, 2013: The NFL, which tried and failed to gain a foothold in Europe with the World League of American Football, NFL Europe and NFL Europa, is gaining much more traction by focusing on one city: London.
Under its International Series, the league plans to play for the first time three games during one season in London in 2014, encouraged by the positive response that fans and marketers gave the NFL's decision to play two games in London in 2013.
The NFL played one regular-season game per year from 2007-2012. All the games are in Wembley Stadium.
“Our fans in the U.K. have continued to demonstrate that they love football and want more,” Commissioner Roger Goodell said in a statement.
A major catalyst is the growth in marketing support the league receives from its London visits. Included among those on board for the games are Anheuser-Busch (Budweiser), Pepsi, Bridgestone, Visa, Jeep Chrysler, Microsoft's Surface, Papa John's, AON, IT from EMC, Marriott, Discover America and NYC Go.
Among other activations, Virgin Airlines, which flies NFL teams to the U.K., is supporting with a multi-media campaign; Castrol Oil ran a sweepstakes offering travel, hotel and tickets to the London Games; and Discovery Channel is working on a two-part behind-the-scenes special, NFL in Season, that tracks the league and its players in London.
More than 520,000 people attended a football festival loaded with marketing activation on London’s Regent Street on Sept. 29, the day before this year's first International Series game (in which the Minnesota Vikings defeated the Pittsburgh Steelers, 34-27, with 83,518 people in Wembley).
No small part of this is NFL International Series TV coverage in the U.K. (Channel 4) and the U.S. Television ratings have shown "substantial growth in the U.K. since 2006, with Sunday viewership of NFL games almost doubling and the Super Bowl audience having increased 75%," according to the league.
The International Series of regular-season games "has increased NFL fan interest in the U.K., with a current fan base of more than 12 million, including 2.5 million "avid" fans, a 30% increase in avid fans in the past two years," said the NFL.
Since 2007, only one of the seven games played in Wembley Stadium has drawn fewer than 81,000 fans (just under 77,000 attended the 2011 game between the Chicago Bears and Tampa Bay Buccaneers). Three of the games topped 83,000 and two drew in excess of 84,000.
The second game of this year's International Series is scheduled for Oct. 27 when the Jaguars play the San Francisco 49ers.
"Both of this year's games in London sold out quickly," said Goodell. "The fan enthusiasm for our sport continues to grow. By playing two games in the U.K. this year, we are creating more fans. We hope that with three games in London next year we will attract even more people to our game."
The NBA is also growing its presence in London, thanks in part to the local exposure that basketball received during the 2012 Summer Olympics. In 2011, the NBA had two regular-season games in The O2 arena between the Toronto Raptors and the then New Jersey Nets, put the New York Knicks and Detroit Pistons there in 2013 and will have the now Brooklyn Nets face the Atlanta Hawks on Jan. 16, 2014.
The international exposure also translates to increased awareness back home. The three games in 2014 will feature as the "home" teams the Jacksonville Jaguars, Atlanta Falcons and Oakland Raiders. Dates and opponents twill be unveiled later this year.
"The Falcons playing in London creates significant international exposure for the city of Atlanta at a time when we are looking to increase overseas visitation to our city," William Pate, CEO and president for the Atlanta Convention & Visitors Bureau, said in a statement.
In addition to 2013 and 2014, the Jaguars have committed to playing a game in the U.K. in 2015 and 2016. Jaguars owner Shad Khan is also the owner of Fulham FC in the English Premier League.
“The experience the Jaguars have had already in London has been every bit what we anticipated and more, and this is all before we've even played our first game in Wembley Stadium,” said Khan in a statement. “We made the right decision to commit to playing a home game in London each season through 2016."
According to Khan, the Jaguars "have a broader worldwide fan base today and the anticipation for our London game later this month is shared by our loyal fans in Jacksonville, so it’s a perfect scenario for everyone. The energy and appetite for the NFL in the U.K. is incredible."
That was echoed by Mark Davis, owner of the Raiders. “We are excited and embrace this great opportunity to assist in building NFL popularity worldwide,” said Davis. “The Raiders are truly a global brand and we are looking forward to our home-field advantage at the new Wembley Stadium.”
"The Falcons playing in London creates significant international exposure for Atlanta at a time when we are looking to increase overseas visitation to our city."
The Raiders are back in London for the first time since 1990 when they played a pre-season game against the New Orleans Saints in the old Wembley Stadium. The Falcons will be playing in London for the first time.
“We are excited and honored to serve as ambassadors for our city, our state, and the National Football League,” Arthur Blank, Falcons owner and chairman, said in a statement. “Playing in London will provide tremendous exposure to our team, as well as provide the opportunity to showcase the great international city of Atlanta.”
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