Wednesday, October 24, 2007
Updated: October 25, 10:35 AM ET
Foreign objective: London game critical for NFL's global aspirations
By Jeffri Chadiha
Of all the things Mark Waller remembers about his first NFL game, it's the atmosphere that stands out most. It was 1996 and Waller stood in a crowded parking lot at Green Bay's Lambeau Field, patiently awaiting a game between the Packers and Vikings.
Waller really didn't know much about the sport -- he was an executive in the liquor industry at the time, a native of Wales who had grown up on soccer and cricket -- and he was skeptical of all the hype surrounding pro football. But he slowly changed his mind as that day played out.
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It was the way NFL fans arrived three hours before the game that amazed him. It was the camaraderie in the stands and the unbridled passion that fans displayed for the home team. It was the sheer wealth of talent on the field as well as the way fans savored every last aspect of the day, right down to the home-cooked chili that Waller ate at a tailgating party.
"There really was a strong sense of community there," Waller said. "I was just taken aback by the emotional intensity of it all."
Eleven years later, Waller is convinced the rest of the world is ready for a similar experience. As the NFL's senior vice president of sales and marketing, he's the point man for the league's current strategy to sell the game internationally, and his next big project comes Sunday when the New York Giants meet the Miami Dolphins in London. This will be the first NFL regular-season game played outside of North America -- two years ago the San Francisco 49ers and Arizona Cardinals played before an NFL-record crowd of 103,467 at Mexico City's Azteca Stadium -- and the league is excited about the buildup to Sunday's contest.
Approximately 86,000 people are expected to attend, with 40,000 of those seats sold within the first 90 minutes of tickets becoming available last spring.
It's those kinds of numbers that make Waller believe the league is on to something smart, that the best way to sell the league overseas is by actually giving international fans a taste of a meaningful NFL game.
"We realize there's a huge awareness of our game and there's been a big audience that has followed this sport for a long time," Waller said. "But there's also been a growing demand for the very best that this league can offer. We hear people saying that if being at an NFL regular-season game is such a great experience, then they'd like the chance to see it."
The crucial aspect of this strategy is the NFL's understanding that it can't win over a global market with an inferior product. Although most people point to the Super Bowl as evidence of how wildly popular pro football is internationally, the reality is that most foreign fans watch that event just as American fans do -- on television.
When it comes to live game action, what the NFL has been willing to give other countries so far is exhibition football (the league has played international preseason games intermittently going back to 1976) and a developmental league that started as the World League of American Football in 1991 and finally folded in the spring as NFL Europa.
During those 15 years of overseas minor league football, the NFL lost millions of dollars and eventually realized that even current teams weren't enamored with the talent being cultivated through that system.
"As we listened to people at NFL Europa, it became clear that [international] fans wanted to get beyond watching an introductory product," Waller said.
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So last fall the league's 32 owners voted to play up to two regular-season games outside the United States for the next five years. Those contests will be held in the areas where interest in pro football is currently highest -- namely the United Kingdom, Germany, Mexico and Canada -- and the hope is that the league will see enough progress to expand its operations.
The NFL obviously isn't shy about setting the bar high for its global aspirations. Waller can envision the league growing to the point where an NFL team might one day be based in another country and the Super Bowl, as commissioner Roger Goodell recently suggested, is played abroad.
"From an ownership standpoint, we all realize that as popular as the NFL is, the globe really is shrinking," Dolphins team president and chief operating officer Brian Wiedmeier said. "Just look at a franchise like Manchester United in soccer. They're big all over the world. The technology is there to do this and the corporate sponsorship community is looking at things more globally."
To support Wiedmeier's point, the NFL is a business that generates approximately $7 billion in annual income. Just 1 percent of those revenues comes from its overseas operations, according to an Associated Press report in 2005.
What's also apparent is that the NFL has lagged far behind all the other professional sports leagues on global expansion. The NBA has a strong presence in both Europe and Asia. Major League Baseball has grown so much that the United States couldn't even reach the championship game of the first-ever World Baseball Classic held last year. The NHL also has played in Japan and it opened this season with two games in London between the Anaheim Ducks and Los Angeles Kings.
Of course, the main advantage those sports have over the NFL is accessibility. Pro football is a uniquely American game while the other three major sports leagues have a strong representation of players who learned the game while growing up in other countries. Major League Baseball, for example, had a record 246 foreign-born players on opening day rosters this year. And, of course, basketball, baseball and hockey are all Olympic sports (although baseball was voted out for the 2012 games).
Meanwhile, football, as Wiedmeier said, "remains more of a novelty or a curiosity to the vast majority of people outside the U.S."
"When we were in Mexico City, the people cheered like crazy but they clearly didn't know when to cheer," 49ers vice president of player personnel Scot McCloughan said. "We had people going nuts when [49ers kicker] Joe Nedney was kicking 60-yard field goals in pregame because they thought he had scored. Our players loved the energy, but you could tell the fans didn't know what they were watching."
Waller said the NFL has considered using the Internet and even video games as ways of educating international fans about the nuances of a game that isn't played in their native lands. He also admits that another hurdle to globalization is walking the fine line between growing a sport and not compromising American fan support.
This is where the London game will be a critical litmus test of how the NFL can handle this potential dilemma. The Dolphins, for example, will be losing a home game and will have only 3,500-4,500 fans in London for this contest. As for the season-ticket holders who can't attend the game, they will have the option of going to an open house at Dolphin Stadium on Sunday to watch the game.
The real test for us will be how people respond once the league has held its third or fourth regular-season game over there. Will the fans stay passionate? Or will they lose interest?
--New York Giants president John Mara
The Giants clearly benefited from not having to explain to their fans why they lost a home game -- "Giving up a home game was a big concern for me," said New York Giants president John Mara -- and the Dolphins have willingly taken a positive outlook on the loss to their faithful.
"In a perfect world nobody would have to give up a home game," Wiedmeier said. "But the league has made the commitment to this and we feel like it's an honor to be part of it. Plus, the league has done a good job of trying to keep the schedule as normal as possible for the players and the coaches."
Waller maintained that a big factor in the success of this game will be how the teams feel after it is over. The NFL knows there will be a palpable buzz surrounding the Wembley Stadium experience, but there are legitimate challenges to playing such games.
Though the 49ers enjoyed playing in Mexico City, they also had to be wary of drinking local water and were prohibited from leaving their hotel rooms for security reasons. As for this year's teams, both will be dealing with significant time zone changes after leaving Thursday night and arriving Friday morning.
"We will just get over there and try to get back on schedule that first day," Giants quarterback Eli Manning said. "It will be a little difficult getting there early in the morning and there will be time to have some walk-throughs and some meetings. After you make it through those, I will probably get my rest and try to get back on schedule."
Added McCloughan: "What people in the league have to be conscious of is how [playing overseas] can impact the teams involved. If you go to Mexico City and you lose four or five players to food poisoning, that is going to affect your whole team. The reality is that there is no normalcy when you do this. You have more travel, more media responsibilities and more change. And football coaches don't like change."
The bottom line, however, is that change is coming for the NFL. There is no shortage of owners who want to get involved in globally marketing the sport -- Kansas City Chiefs president Carl Peterson already has volunteered his team for a future game -- and they all understand it will take plenty of patience.
"Just seeing our best product [overseas] gives me confidence that this is a viable strategy," Mara said. "But the real test for us will be how people respond once the league has held its third or fourth regular-season game over there. Will the fans stay passionate? Or will they lose interest?"
Waller is confident that it will be the former.
"I'm a positive person," he said. "And I think people will someday look back at this game and see it as the start of something different."
Jeffri Chadiha is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
The NFL's American Bowl of international preseason games began in 1986. Since then, 39 games have been played in 12 cities. The breakdown by city: